The place where the fire beneath the melting pot was lit


How did Canada set up a system of schools that caused the deaths of so many thousands of children? It’s a question that has haunted me since the National Commission on Truth and Reconciliation demonstrated conclusively that the intent behind our system of residential schools met the internationally accepted definition of genocide.


This winter, the question led me to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. That is the town where the infamous quote came from, uttered by the founding principal of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, Richard Henry Pratt: “Kill the Indian and save the man.”


It’s a quote often misattributed to Sir John A MacDonald.  MacDonald’s sin wasn’t to pronounce the words, though.  It was to embrace the method Pratt extolled in that infamous speech.


Pratt was a pioneer of assimilation. A colonel in the U.S. Army during the wars against Native American nations in the 1860s and 1870s, he commanded a prisoner of war camp for defeated indigenous leaders in Fort Marion, Florida. Here he led efforts to teach prisoners the language and professional skills judged necessary to integrate into settler society.


In 1879, he established a school to teach indigenous children.  But unlike existing schools, established within or close to Native American communities throughout the plains and the far west, he chose a location more than a thousand miles away, in Pennsylvania.  His intention was to break the influence of the children’s families and home communities by keeping children in the school environment for up to five years.  As he put it, “left in the surroundings of savagery, [the indigenous child] grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life…. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose.”


The same year Carlisle school opened its doors, Prime Minister MacDonald sent an emissary to the United States to study the residential schools. Nicholas Flood Davin drew the same conclusion, that schools would only succeed in assimilating indigenous children by breaking “the influence of the wigwam.” 


Just think of that – it is only in the 1870s that Canada and the United States both start systematically separating indigenous children from their parents. We like to think that our histories show a gradual improvement in human rights over time, but this is a case in which the conditions to which indigenous people are subjected deteriorate significantly. 


While in Carlisle, I met with historian Jim Gerencer. I asked him what was happening in our two countries in the 1870s, to lead the Canada and the U.S. to adopt the same policy?  Up until the 1870s, indigenous peoples had been pushed further west as settlers consolidated territories in the east.  The space may have grown smaller and smaller, but the continent had been large enough for different societies living under different laws in different lands


But over the decade from 1865 to 1875, the U.S. government chose to conquer the remaining areas in the plains, through the mass slaughter of buffalo and wars on the peoples that had once depended on them.  In our country, between 1870 and 1885 a series of confrontations between the Métis, First Nations and Canada resulted in the imposition of one system of government on all territories north of the 49th parallel.


With the end of co-existence, our two nations turned to assimilation.  And in both countries, we made children the central focus of the effort to erase the nations that had come before.  Thanks to the proselytization of men like Pratt and Davin, the principal tools of destruction would be schools.


Did our ancestors know how much damage these schools would cause?  The answer seems to lie in the grounds of the former school.  186 students were buried there in less than forty years.  That’s an average of more than four children dying every year, about two for every 100 students.  


In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Potowatomi botanist and poet Robin Wall Kimmerer calls Carlisle “the place where the fire beneath the melting pot was lit.”  These schools were built for destruction.

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