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In the 1870’s, a man named Richard Pratt decided to use his Army training and experience (setting up a prison program) to design American schools for indigenous youth who were seized from their families to be “civilized.” His philosophy was “…kill the Indian in him and save the man.” The schools were never intended to teach. They had no academic curriculum. They were meant for discipline and punishment. Both were severe and merciless. As Pratt so aptly put it, the idea was to erase Indian culture. The staff did their best.
People of European descent were certain they were superior and an obvious choice when it came to role models. They liked themselves immensely. They spread their cultural genocide over the Westernized globe. Canada wasn’t exempt. As in the modern day United States—where immigrant children are being raised in cages without their families or cultures to face their lives without love or identity—as soon as Native American children were old enough, they were shoved into an unkind world where the trauma of their early years would buy them no mercy. Many whites crinkled their noses in disgust when these lost souls later fell into traps such as addiction and depression. How could anyone expect better?
When I was in college during the civil strife of the 1960’s, studying so-called Black Literature was a bold choice for a girl like me, and I never ventured beyond into the literature of indigenous peoples even though my program proclaimed an emphasis in American Literature. I’m deservedly embarrassed to report I didn’t correct that omission until now. Recently, my husband and I watched the 2018 Canadian film INDIAN HORSE, based on a novel (one of many) of the same name by Canadian Richard Wagamese, a recently deceased member of the Ojibwe peoples. The school portrayed in the film is representative of many Indian schools in North America. Edna Manitowabi, Anishnaabekwe, Professor Emeritus in Indigenous Studies from Trent University, plays the grandmother in the film. She wanted to be included since she had experienced the horrors of such a school in real life. Sadly, the school depicted wasn’t set in the 1870’s but in the 1970’s under the woefully misguided direction of the Catholic Church.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the film is that it isn’t intended to skewer evil-doers. Neither does it excuse them. The central character of Saul (as an adult played by Ajuawak Kapashesit) has an opportunity to edge his way into greater White culture through hockey, but the derision of his white teammates and “fans” causes him to question that decision. Why should he turn his back on a culture that can sustain him spiritually and emotionally to chase materialistic European-style dreams? Isn’t it more important to find and honor your true self? It’s a question we often hear in these times. In his book ONE NATIVE LIFE, Wagamese writes of the Canadian melting pot, “…Within this cultural mosaic lies the essential ingredient of freedom—acceptance.” He doesn’t mean to acquiesce to an identity that doesn’t fit. Rather, he endured a difficult life as he gradually discovered that we must accept one another in our differences, because we are neighbors. He writes that members of his culture believe, “stories are meant to heal,” and that’s what he tries to do with INDIAN HORSE. The resilience and forgiveness behind his attitude are powerful antidotes to the hate and injury around us. Those who are determined to make our culture homogeneous have tried to eliminate “the others” before. The haters eventually lose because, unlike the “others,” they aren’t defending their souls.