Film offers look at brutality of Indian boarding schools
By Charles Chandler
One would think to have that Thursday morning cup of coffee and blueberry muffin with friends at your favorite table in Riverstop Café would be risk-free. And, it felt innocent enough when Larry Gouine from the Native Circle of Newaygo County invited me to drop by the Brooks Township Hall the next day and preview a movie called Indian Horse. Little did I know that when I said Ok, I would be AMBUSHED by an old emotional self that I thought had been left down in Oklahoma.
When I said yes, my expectation was that I would be sitting with a small group of Native American maybe eating some popcorn and watching a movie about beautiful Indian horses. Not being blown up, shot down and napalmed. As I sat between Larry Gouine and Two Dogs watching this movie, I felt my protective privileged emotional WASP skin slowly burn away. I listened to the gasps, saw tears being wiped from cheeks and others physically react as if trying to dodge the blows or protect children from the abuse and tragedy we saw in this movie. There are some events in this movie that I cannot unsee or un-feel.
The movie Indian Horse is based on the award-winning bestseller by Richard Wagamese. It is an over the top drama that illuminates the dark and brutal history of Indigenous Residential Boarding Schools. It is also a brilliant example of how the human spirit, embodied in the protagonist “Saul Indian Horse,” can overcome indescribable hardships.
The movie was shot on location in the cold, gritty industrial provinces of Canada. Surprisingly this movie was produced with assistance from Clint Eastwood. There is about as much mercy in this movie as there were in Eastwood's infamous spaghetti westerns. Be forewarned this is no Hallmark Movie with that perfect, “and they lived happily ever after” ending. If you are a tough ole Hockey Fan you will find some enjoyable moments. One example is when the young hockey phenom Saul uses frozen horse apples (poop) as practice pucks.
I do challenge you to see this move and walk away without feeling like you have been emotionally tumbled inside of an Elmer’s Redimix Truck. For context and reference, a review of some relevant events that never made it to your high school history books would help with the why and how questions. Go to the internet and google up the “US Indian boarding school policy” https://boardingschoolhealing.org/education/us-indian-boarding-school-history/.
Even though this movie is about the Canadian Indigenous Residential Boarding Schools the United States had the same policy and this program has largely been written out of the history books. My alma mater the University of Tulsa was one such school and began life in Indian Territory in 1882 as a Presbyterian School for Indian Girls. There were more than 350 government-funded, and often church-run, Indian Boarding schools across the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. Indian children were forcibly abducted by government agents and sent to schools hundreds of miles away from their families and traditional homes. Between 1869 and the 1960s, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and the churches. Though we don’t know how many children were taken in total, by 1900 there were 20,000 children in Indian boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled.
The American Native children who were voluntarily or forcibly removed from their homes, families, and communities during this time were taken to schools where they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture. They suffered physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect, and experienced treatment that in many cases constituted torture for speaking their Native languages.
Many children never returned home and their fates have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government. The stated purpose of this policy was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”
Regarding these programs, many parents had no choice but to send their kids to these schools, when Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to withhold rations, clothing, and annuities of those families that refused to send students to these schools. Some agents even used reservation police to virtually kidnap youngsters, but experienced difficulties when the Native police officers would resign out of disgust, or when parents taught their kids a special “hide and seek” game.
Sometimes resistant fathers found themselves locked up for refusal. The Hopis in Arizona surrendered a group of men to the military to be imprisoned in Alcatraz, rather than voluntarily relinquishing their children.” This practice continued until the mid-1970s when in 1973, 60,000 American Indian children are estimated to have been enrolled in Indian boarding schools The rise of pan-Indian activism, and tribal nations' continuing complaints about the schools, and studies in the late 1960s and mid-1970s (such as the Kennedy Report and the National Study of American Indian Education) led to the passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. Finally, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act gave Native American parents the legal right to deny their child's placement in these schools.
This is a very timely movie and if you are brave enough to do so, then I suggest you keep two current events in mind as you watch. One, the recent Bishops Summit at the Vatican and the other the current US policy and practice of separating children from the families of asylum seekers when they arrive along our southern borders.
After the movie ask yourself these questions:
When are we going to stop brutalizing our children?
When will we stop demonizing the helpless and the disenfranchised that knock on our doors and ask for our help?
And why do we so fear those that are not like us?
The Movie Indian Horse is presented by the Native Circle of Newaygo County. It will be shown Saturday March 30 2019 at 4:00 PM at the Loomis Lodge located at 198 Croton Drive Newaygo, MI. Admission is free and the movie is recommended for those 14 and older. This a drug and alcohol-free event.
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