Braiding Sweetgrass and Indian Boarding Schools

I’ve been writing about the Quaker Indian boarding schools lately in anticipation of the workshop that will be held about that at the Quaker boarding school I attended, Scattergood Friends School and Farm (July 7, 9-11 am). Often stories provide more powerful lessons than the mere presentation of facts. I’ve been reading Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer, and came upon the following writings about the Indian boarding schools.

The federal government’s Indian Removal policies wrenched many Native peoples from our homelands. It separated us from our traditional knowledge and lifeways, the bones of our ancestors, our sustaining plants—but even this did not extinguish identity. So the government tried a new tool, separating children from their families and cultures, sending them far away to school, long enough, they hoped, to make them forget who they were.

Throughout Indian Territory there are records of Indian agents being paid a bounty for rounding up kids to ship to the government boarding schools. Later, in a pretense of choice, the parents had to sign papers to let their children go “legally.” Parents who refused could go to jail. Some may have hoped it would give their children a better future than a dust-bowl farm. Sometimes federal rations—weevilly flour and rancid lard that were supposed to replace the buffalo—would be withheld until the children were signed over. Maybe it was a good pecan year that staved off the agents for one more season. The threat of being sent away would surely make a small boy run home half naked, his pants stuffed with food. Maybe it was a low year for pecans when the Indian agent came again, looking for skinny brown kids who had no prospect of supper—maybe that was the year Grammy signed the papers.

Children, language, lands: almost everything was stripped away, stolen when you weren’t looking because you were trying to stay alive. In the face of such loss, one thing our people could not surrender was the meaning of land. In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our nonhuman kinfolk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us. Our lands were where our responsibility to the world was enacted, sacred ground. It belonged to itself; it was a gift, not a commodity, so it could never be bought or sold. These are the meanings people took with them when they were forced from their ancient homelands to new places.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (pp. 16-17). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

I knew that in the long-ago times our people raised their thanks in morning songs, in prayer, and the offering of sacred tobacco. But at that time in our family history we didn’t have sacred tobacco and we didn’t know the songs—they’d been taken away from my grandfather at the doors of the boarding school. But history moves in a circle and here we were, the next generation, back to the loon-filled lakes of our ancestors, back to canoes.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (p. 35). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

A man with long gray braids tells how his mother hid him away when the Indian agents came to take the children. He escaped boarding school by hiding under an overhung bank where the sound of the stream covered his crying. The others were all taken and had their mouths washed out with soap, or worse, for “talking that dirty Indian language.” Because he alone stayed home and was raised up calling the plants and animals by the name Creator gave them, he is here today, a carrier of the language. The engines of assimilation worked well. The speaker’s eyes blaze as he tells us, “We’re the end of the road. We are all that is left. If you young people do not learn, the language will die. The missionaries and the U.S. government will have their victory at last.” A great-grandmother from the circle pushes her walker up close to the microphone. “It’s not just the words that will be lost,” she says. “The language is the heart of our culture; it holds our thoughts, our way of seeing the world. It’s too beautiful for English to explain.” PuhpoweeI

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (p. 50). Milkweed Editions. Kindle Edition.

Quaker Indian Boarding Schools: Facing our History and Ourselves

July 7, 2019   9 – 11 am, Scattergood Friends School and Farm, 2 miles east of West Branch, Iowa

Native American organizations are asking churches to join in a Truth and Reconciliation process to bring about healing for Native American families that continue to suffer the consequences of the Indian boarding schools. With support from Pendle Hill (the Cadbury scholarship), Friends Historical Library (the Moore Fellowship), the Native American Rights Fund, and other Friendly sources, Paula Palmer researched the role that Friends played in implementing the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation of Native children.

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