‘The problem of Indian administration,’ then and now

Posted on October 17, 2013 in Education Policy Context

NationalPost.com – Full Comment
17/10/13.   Thomas King, Special to National Post

In a new book, author Thomas King explains how American and Canadian leaders have systematically misunderstood the needs of the continent’s aboriginal people since first contact

In Canada, residential schools began popping up in the 1840s, and by 1932, there were more than 80 schools in operation. In 1850, attendance at residential schools became compulsory for all children from the ages of six to 15. There was no opting out. Non-compliance by parents was punishable by prison terms. Children were forcibly removed from their homes and kept at the schools. As with their U.S. counterparts, schools insisted that the children not have any extensive contact with their families or home communities. Students were forbidden to speak their languages or practice any part of their culture.

The schools in both countries were, for the most part, overcrowded. Diseases flourished. Sexual and physical abuse was common. The children received neither proper nutrition nor proper clothing. In 1907, Dr. Peter Bryce submitted a report to Duncan Campbell Scott, the Superintendent of the Department of Indian Affairs, which set the mortality rate for Native students at residential schools in British Columbia at around 30%. The rate for Alberta was 50%. I’m not sure exactly how Scott reacted to the report, but, in 1910, he dismissed the high death rate at the schools, insisting that “this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Final solution. An unfortunate choice of words. Of course, no one is suggesting that Adolph Hitler was quoting Scott when Hitler talked about the final solution of the “Jewish problem” in 1942. That would be tactless and unseemly. And just so we’re perfectly clear. Scott was advocating assimilation, not extermination. Sometimes people get the two mixed up.

In 1926, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, commissioned a survey that looked at the general condition of Indians in the United States. Lewis Meriam, a Harvard graduate with a law degree from George Washington University and a doctorate from the Brookings Institution, led the investigation.

In the 847-page report, “The Problem of Indian Administration,” (1928), Meriam declares candidly: “The survey staff finds itself obliged to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of Indian children in boarding school are grossly inadequate.” The report went on to describe the diet at the schools as “deficient in quantity, quality, and variety,” and insisted that the “per capita of 11 cents a day” per student was insufficient.

CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Library and Archives Canada

CANADIAN PRESS/ho-Library and Archives CanadaA nurse takes a blood sample from a boy at the Indian School, Port Alberni, B.C., in 1948.

Diseases such as tuberculosis and trachoma were rampant. Dormitories were overcrowded “beyond their capacities.” Medical services were not up to a “reasonable standard.” Nor were the children getting much of an education. “The boarding schools are frankly supported in part by the labor of the students,” noted the report. “Those above the fourth grade ordinarily work for half a day and go to school for half a day. A distinction in theory is drawn between industrial work undertaken primarily for the education of the child and production work done primarily for the support of the institution.” The question, says the report, “may very properly be raised as to whether much of the work of Indian children in boarding school would not be prohibited in many states by the child labor laws.”

Of the residential school system in general, the report was succinct and to the point: “The first and foremost need in Indian education is a change in point of view. Whatever may have been the official governmental attitude, education for the Indian in the past has proceeded largely on the theory that it is necessary to remove the Indian child as far as possible from his home environment, whereas the modern point of view in education and social work lays stress on upbringing in the natural setting of home and family life. The Indian educational enterprise is peculiarly in need of the kind of approach that recognizes this principle, that is less concerned with a conventional school system and more with the understanding of human beings.”

Overall, the Meriam Report was extremely critical of the federal government and its failure to protect the rights of Natives as well as tribal land and tribal resources. Perhaps that is why, in the years since the report was filed, the U.S. has never commissioned another study of its kind. Why would the government spend money, one could argue, to ask questions for which it already knows the answers?

Algoma University Archives

Algoma University ArchivesPhotograph of a group of altar boys at St. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont.

Canada waited until the 1960s to ask the same question of Indian policy that their American cousins had asked thirty-eight years earlier. The Hawthorne Report, which was published in 1966 and 1967, looked at “the contemporary situation of the Indians of Canada with a view to understanding the difficulties they faced in overcoming some pressing problems and their many ramifications.” The “problems,” according to the report, were the “inadequate fulfillment of the proper and just aspirations of the Indians of Canada to material well being, to health, and to the knowledge that they live in equality and in dignity with the greater Canadian society.”

The report was a well-researched, conscientiously written document, whose preamble was careful to stress that the researchers did not believe that “Indians should be required to assimilate, neither in order to receive what he now needs nor at any future time.” Indeed, the framers of the report were explicit in pointing out that “it is our opinion that the retention of these identities is up to the Indians. No official and perhaps no outside agency at all can do that task for them. Whether or not, and to what extent, Indians remain culturally separate depends on what it is worth to them.”

I have no quarrel with this basic premise, that the retention of our identities is up to us. Still, it is a strikingly disingenuous argument in that the report makes little mention of the myriad of ways in which Canadian Indian policy has discouraged Indians from pursuing traditional goals and aspirations and continues to push us up the cattle chute of capitalism.

But let’s put the philosophical sophistries to one side for the moment. While the report was awash in generous language and fine recommendations, it was also narrowly focused on the economics of being Indian and the problems that bands and individuals have in measuring up to the expectations of Canadian capitalism. The per capita income of Indians in the 1960s, for example, was only $300, less than a quarter of the per capita income of non-Indians, while the average duration of employment for Native people was 4.8 months. Of the Sarcee and the Blood in Alberta, the report notes that while these bands have “ownership and access to a wealth of resources, as well as to metropolitan centre which offers manifold job opportunities,” they fail “to utilize these assets fully.” For “northern Indians … any substantial improvement in the employment and income prospects … will be possible only with a large-scale migration to, and relocation in, areas offering opportunities for remunerative wage employment.” Indians, the report laments, are not accustomed to employment, “which require regular hours, punctuality, and a highly mechanized routine of work.” At every turn, the report posited White goals and standards as the measure against which Native people were to be measured and in each instance, Indians were found wanting.

The Hawthorne report revealed the logical fallacy that always has haunted Indian policy: that all people yearn for the individual freedom to pursue economic goals

There were a host of recommendations that the Hawthorne Report put forth to try to close the gap between Native people and non-Natives. Many of them were reasonable, but what the report highlighted was that, in terms of economic development and economic sustainability, Canadian Indian policy had been a failure.

More to the point, the report revealed the logical fallacy that has haunted Indian history and policy in North America since contact — to wit, that all people yearn for the individual freedom to pursue economic goals. Indians are people, ergo, they want to make money and create wealth for themselves and their families.

Here’s the irony: Native people have never been resistant to education. We had been educating our children long before Europeans showed up. Nor have we been against our children learning about White culture. By the beginning of the 19th century, Natives and Whites had been living together in the same neighbourhood for almost 300 years. Like it or not. It made sense for Native people to know English and/or French. It made sense to understand how the European mind worked.

Education is generally described in terms of “benefits.” But why, in the name of education, should we have been required to give up everything we had, to give up who we were in order to become something we did not choose to be. Where was the benefit in that?

Instead, North America decided that Native education had to be narrowly focused on White values, decided that Native values, ceremonies, and languages were inferior and had no value or place in a contemporary curriculum. This was the first abuse of the residential school system.

The second abuse was the unwillingness and inability of the governments of Canada and the United States, and the governing bodies of the various churches, to oversee the schools under their control.

The third abuse, once officials knew that health conditions and services were substandard, once they knew that disease was rampant, once they knew malnutrition was a problem, once they knew for certain that the children under their protection were being physically, mentally, and sexually abused, was their failure to act. They did nothing.

They knew, and they did nothing.

National Post

Excerpted from The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America. Copyright © 2012 Dead Dog Café Productions Inc. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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