Local woman shares family’s traumatic experiences at Indian boarding schools

Program viewers listen to Cathy Baylor — top row, second from left — speak about the atrocities of Indian boarding schools.

“Every one one of us bears the scars of what happened to our parents, our grandparents and beyond.” That was how Lynnwood resident Cathy Baylor described the impact of Indian boarding schools during a virtual Monday program presented by the Salish Sea Chapter of the Washington State Federation of Democratic Women.

Baylor said she didn’t used to think much about how boarding schools had affected her family. However, once news stories began surfacing of mass children’s graves being uncovered on boarding school properties, Baylor knew she couldn’t remain silent.

“[The news stories] resolved me to tell our story to whomever would listen,” she said.

Speaking on Indigeneous Peoples Day, Baylor said three generations of her family – who belong to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes – were forced to attend boarding schools and the family is still suffering from what her relatives endured there.

Baylor’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father all attended one of the 408 boarding schools that were owned or operated by the U.S. government between 1819 and 1969. Until the 1920s, Native American families were forced to send their children to these schools despite the physical, sexual and emotional abuse that ran rampant, Baylor said. While parents didn’t want to send their children away, parents were heavily fined or even imprisoned if kids missed school, she added.

“Every Native American person you meet today came from families whose children were removed from their homes and sent away to these schools,” Baylor said. “These boarding schools took vulnerable children and subjected them to horrendous treatment, leaving many of them broken forever.”

Baylor said she often wonders what her family would be like if they hadn’t been sent to schools that treated Native American culture as a disease. While her grandfather and father worked hard to care for their families, Baylor said they always seemed sad, defeated and broken.

“The trauma has been bad,” she said. “I always wondered why; what led to this suffering? These were my family, and they were good people. They loved their children, yet their lives were riddled with sadness, addiction and dysfunction. [My family members] were removed from their families at a young age and dropped into a place where the authorities in their lives told them that everything about themselves and everything they loved was dirty, evil and wrong.”

Baylor said her family never liked talking about their treatment at the boarding schools as it was too painful a memory to relive. However, she said she can only imagine the horrors her loved ones were forced to live through.

During her presentation, Baylor explained that Richard Pratt, an American military officer who founded and was the superintendent of the Carlisle Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania, had a famous slogan: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

This slogan influenced many of the teachings in boarding schools throughout the U.S. Most schools, Baylor said, had three key principles aimed at eradicating Native culture:

First, language re-education stripped children of their Native language and forced them to only speak English. If anyone was caught speaking anything but English, they were physically punished. Because of this, many children completely forgot how to speak in their native tongue and were eventually ostracized from their tribes because they were unable to communicate with them.

As a result of language re-education, over 90% of Native languages completely vanished, Baylor said. While there were once nearly 3,000 Native dialects spoken in North America, around 175 remain today. The rest died with past generations in the boarding schools and will never be revived.

Second, Christianity was taught as the only acceptable religion in boarding schools. All Native American beliefs, religions and rituals were seen as barbaric and were forbidden at all times. Anyone seen practicing anything besides Christianity was punished.

The third principle was an inculcation of capitalistic views. In most Native American tribes, land was hardly ever owned by specific people. Food, housing and tools were widely shared for the greater good of the entire tribe. However, this thought process was not acceptable in boarding schools, and Baylor said students were criticized for sharing with classmates and were taught to only think of themselves, disconnecting them from their peers.

When children arrived at the schools, they were totally stripped of their culture. Their long hair was cut, their clothes were destroyed and replaced with Western-style uniforms, and everyone was given new “white” names, Baylor explained.

The kids were marched military-style from class to the dining hall to the dorms. Free time was non-existent; when students weren’t in class, they were forced to perform manual labor to maintain the school grounds.

“Health conditions were poor and physical abuse was pervasive,” Baylor said.

Many students were murdered by school staff or died due to lack of medical care. Food in the cafeterias was almost always scarce and students often went months before receiving basic medical care that they needed. Baylor said it’s no surprise the school grounds were riddled with gravestones.

The children who did make it through the traumatic school months often weren’t allowed to go home during summer. Instead, they were put in a “placing out” system. Baylor said this system placed Native children with white families for the summer so the students could become immersed in white culture and wouldn’t have the opportunity to regress to their “barbaric” ways.

Rape, physical violence and emotional abuse were also extremely prevalent in these situations. Many children, who were still viewed as savages, were forced to become domestic servants to the white family, working long hours with little food or sleep.

While Native children are no longer forced to attend boarding schools, Baylor said the damage will continue to follow families for centuries. The life expectancy for Native Americans is roughly five years less than that of other races in the U.S. Native Americans are six times as likely to die from alcohol-related causes, twice as likely to be murdered and one-and-a-half times more likely to die by suicide.

“Family alcoholism is not unique to Native Americans despite what you may think,” Baylor said. “What sets them apart is that for generations, they experienced the authorities in their lives telling them that everything about them and all their ancestors since time immemorial were worthless.”

Children who did survive the boarding schools carried the damage into their adult years. Many continued the patterns of abuse in their own families, turned to drinking or decided to take their own life.

“This is why I cry,” Baylor said. “The trauma in this community is real and it’s now.”

Baylor said the best thing the community can do now is become educated. While the past cannot be undone, the history of boarding schools can be more widely taught so the same thing is less likely to happen again.

She also urged program participants to reach out to their Congressional representatives and encourage them to support bills like SR 2907 and HR 5444, which are aimed at helping repair the damage done to Native people not only by boarding schools but by American colonization as a whole for decades.

While Native Americans are likely to carry the impacts from boarding schools for generations to come, Baylor said she is working hard to help as many of them find healing as possible.

“This is not a happily ever after story, at least not yet,” she said. “But we’re hoping it one day will be.”

Those who want to watch a recording of the presentation can do so here.

–By Lauren Reichenbach

  1. “While Native children are no longer forced to attend boarding schools, Baylor said the damage will continue to follow families for centuries. ”

    I find that comment unbelievable because it ignores the unpredictable future of those not yet born. I am a non-indigenous male whose family comes from extreme poverty, my mother raised in a shack with no heat, no water, no electricity, no plumbing. My maternal grandmother became a house servant when she was but a young girl, as it was deemed acceptable and proper for her to make her own way in the world, as it was for most. One should read Dickens to recall it was common in European culture, this culture, to expect children to take care of themselves early as life was short and hard.

    Native Americans who speak of hardships are not alone in the world, they are not the only ones who have endured, suffered, and persevered; they are not the only ones who have been treated as less the equal, who have a history of trial. Life has been a trial, for most humans, for most of human history.

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