Assimilation: Killing the Indian, Saving the Man

by Jacob Sipary

Imagine thousands upon thousands of little native boys and girls being ripped from their homes in order to become “civilized”. Those poor, innocent, and scared little children were forced to completely abandon their culture in order to adopt the “westernized” life. Well, that is exactly what happened from the early 19th century all the way to the late 20th century. Those Native Americans were sent to what is called Boarding Schools.

Today, I am going to talk about the origins, history, 2 personal accounts, and the consequences of Native American Assimilation. The Bureau of Indian Affairs completely scarred countless Native American lives dramatically. According to The Bureau of Indian Affairs, also known as The BIA, they were responsible for the reformation of a staggering 30,000 Native Americans, one of whom was my very own grandmother.

Reformation, also commonly known as assimilation, is the complete absorption of a society along with their ideas. But the consequences of assimilation is that it forced Natives to drop the rich culture, heritage, language, teachings, and traditions that they grew up with.

Boarding Schools all started up in 1870. As stated in, U.S. Cavalry Captain Colonel Henry Richard Pratt coined the term, “Kill the Indian, save the man”, which ultimately built the foundations for boarding schools. The first one being The Carlisle Indian Industrial School which was the cruelest reformation school at the time. Children who were nowhere near home had no choice but to put up with the physical, psychological, and sexual abuse.

According to The Meriam Report, which is an official report of Indian living conditions in the 19th century, hundreds of students had died from outbreaks of smallpox, measles, trachoma, and tuberculosis.

Now, exactly how were the children transported to boarding schools? Well, first little children were forcibly taken from their homes by either court order or administrators came and took them by the hundreds, then they were tethered with a yellow tag and sent to an off reservation boarding school.

When they finally arrived at their destination, they were forced to take off their clothes, surrender their possessions, and any belonging that reminded the children of their homes were confiscated.

And then, they were given two piece clothing that had numbers on them. They were called by their numbers, not their names. That is what Jim LaBelle, an Alaskan Native from Wrangell, recalls from his time spent in boarding school during the unforgettable 1950s.

Not everyone who went to these boarding schools came back alive. Those that were fortunate enough to return back to their families were never the same. The death toll is not exact due to inaccurate government records. But what is known is that hundreds of Native Americans died due to physical abuse, neglect, and illnesses. Sadly, most of them went undocumented until brought to light in recent years.

All were punished just for speaking their language. They were also scolded harshly for using their Native names which were forbidden during school. The goal being, to stop Native Americans from living the life they lived for many countless centuries.

Unfortunately, it did for the most part, due to the cruel punishments that the Natives had underwent for what seemed like forever. The harsh consequences that the BIA gave are heart wrenching.

When an Indian was found, rumored, or even thought to have spoken their native language by a staff member, their mouths were forced open and cleaned with soap. Their objective being, to purify the dirty form of communication that is shared between Natives alike. All because our Native Americans, our ancestors, our predecessors, the ones who walked this earth before us, were told that our culture was inferior to theirs.

According to my very own grandmother, who had no choice but to attend Chemawa Indian School, a boarding school located in Salem, Oregon, her 4 years were quite unforgettable. In her own words, she said, “Yugtun qalartevkaqsaitaakut,” which means, “They told us not to speak Yup’ik.”

When asked how they were scolded and punished, she looked straight into my eyes and remained silent. Those moments of silence were flashbacks of the harsh conditions that she had to survive for 4 long years.

My dear grandmother said thousands of our Yup’ik elders and ancestors were extracted from their homes and sent to various boarding schools throughout Alaska and the lower 48. Out of respect, I called off the interview, hoping and praying that I did not cut open old scars.

She made one final comment. She said she was not allowed to communicate with our family during her duration at Chemawa. She was not allowed to call, send letters, or be in contact to the ones that she held closest to her heart.

The damage caused by the BIA cannot be undone. According to the Alaska Native Language Center, only 45 percent of our 21,000 Yup’ik people can speak Yup’ik. My grandmother along with other Yup’ik elders say within a century, our language will cease to exist.

The conclude, the BIA damaged the cultures of many Native American Tribes. An immense amount of our Native Americans who endured Boarding Schools are still alive today. The BIA’s ways were inhumane, traumatizing, cruel, and unjust. Hopefully, I have shed some light on the forgotten chapter of one of the darkest moments in our culture’s history when the BIA, tried to save the man, but killed the Indian.

Jakob Sipary of Napaskiak, Alaska delivered this speech at the 2019 Drama, Debate & Forensics State Championships held Feb. 22-24, 2019 in Anchorage, AK. He won First Place in the Informative Speaking category for his oratory.

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