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Native Americans' Haunted Heritage

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  • Native Americans' Haunted Heritage

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    Native Americans' Haunted Heritage

    Diana Louise Carter
    Staff writer

    enlarge JAY CAPERS staff photographer
    Barbara Schlegel of Rochester, whose parents met at Thomas Indian School near
    Gowanda, looks at family photographs with her grandson, Zachary Sutton, 10.
    Schlegel said her parents found it difficult to be affectionate with their
    children because of their experiences at the boarding school.
    Day in Photos

    (May 16, 2005) — Mohawk journalist Doug George-Kanentiio, 50, remembers
    standing at attention, watching a boarding school classmate being beaten with a
    leather strap. "They did it until you either broke down and cried or they drew
    blood," he said.

    During this frequent occurrence at the Mohawk Institute for Native Canadians
    in Brantford, Ontario, George-Kanentiio, then 11, and his classmates couldn't
    show emotion or else they'd be the next to get the strap, he said. To this
    day, Lori V. Quigley, now a 46-year-old linguistics professor at the State
    University College at Buffalo, and her four sisters are careful not to use profanity
    in front of their parents. "We never said even 'God'" as an exclamation,
    Quigley recalled of her childhood. "If we did, we knew our mouths would be washed
    out with soap."

    It was the same punishment that their mother, Marlene Bennett Johnson, had
    received for speaking in the Seneca language at the Thomas Indian School near
    Gowanda, Cattaraugus County. And when one of her daughters misbehaved, Johnson
    punished all the girls, repeating what she had experienced as a child. Although
    most native boarding schools have long since faded into history, their impact
    continues to ripple through generations of Native American families. Seminars
    on that impact were held in April in Rochester and the Buffalo area. Boarding
    schools run by government agencies or churches in the 19th century and first
    half of the 20th century aimed to turn Native American and Native Canadian
    children into copies of white children. One school that became the blueprint for
    others was the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, founded in 1879 by
    Richard Henry Pratt, a veteran of the Indian wars and former commander of a
    prisoner of war camp. Pratt's assimilation theories were summed up in his motto,
    "Kill the Indian and save the man." Pratt's philosophy was also U.S. government
    policy until well into the 20th century.

    "The whole purpose (of the schools) was to try to explode the extended family
    and re-create a sort of nuclear family," said Barbara Landis of the
    Cumberland County (Pa.) Historical Society, an expert on Carlisle. Thomas Indian
    School, originally a church-run school for orphans, became a state institution,
    drawing native students from all over New York.

    Forced to speak English and stripped of their religious and other traditional
    practices, students often found it impossible to fit into their reservation
    communities again. Yet many did return, unaware not only of their own people's
    cultural traditions but also of the normal way families interact. "The abuse
    there, the lack of human warmth, of contact or praise, has resonated through
    Akwesasne and every native community that I know of," said George-Kanentiio, who
    comes from the Akwesasne Mohawk community on the St. Lawrence River but now
    lives in central New York. Quigley said boarding schools caused
    "multigenerational trauma."

    The schools also had positive effects, with stories of personal success and
    lifelong friendships with fellow students from other native nations. "You can't
    describe it as a successful experiment and you can't describe it as a horror
    story," said Landis, who, with George-Kanentiio, recently spoke in Rochester.
    "Oftentimes, people will tell me that the reason their families have degrees
    and advanced degrees is the value for education they learned at Carlisle,"
    Landis said. "In that same family, there may be a child buried at Carlisle."

    Falling in love

    Barbara Schlegel, 59, of Rochester talks with pride about the accomplishments
    of her parents, Mohawks who went to Thomas as children, and of her adoptive
    maternal grandmother, who earned national recognition as one of the last living
    students of Carlisle, which closed in 1918. As teenagers, Schlegel's parents
    fell in love at Thomas. Her late father, Oliver White, went directly into the
    Navy from Thomas, while her mother, Mary White, now 81 and living at the St.
    Regis Mohawk Reservation, earned a scholarship that helped her attend nursing
    school at the University of Rochester. Schlegel's father arrived in Rochester
    after World War II and worked as a machinist for local companies. But while
    Schlegel credits Thomas for providing her parents with a strong education, she
    also tells of how the school continued to hold sway over them after they left.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic

  • #2

    When her father's older brother, Ernest, was killed in action during World War
    II, it took Oliver White eight months to confirm his brother's death. Instead
    of informing the White family, the War Department had notified the school
    because it was listed as next of kin. The school passed on the information only
    after White wrote from the Pacific to inquire about news of his brother. He then
    informed his mother. Echoing the story of many children of boarding school
    students, Schlegel describes how her parents were diligent workers and providers
    but never demonstrated their love for their children physically. "We knew we
    were loved, but there were no hugs, kisses or sitting on Daddy's lap," she

    As the mother of three and grandmother of six, she has tried to be different.
    "We've made sure there's affection shown in our family."

    Playing 'matron'

    Quigley's mother, Marlene Johnson, 69, describes a much darker Thomas Indian
    School than does Schlegel, calling it a "mini-correctional institution."
    Johnson said she was made to stand with all the girls in her dormitory for four
    hours in the middle of the night with their arms raised over their heads. Their
    offense: refusing to tell who started a group giggling fit after lights out. In
    the dormitories, the girls often played "matron" instead of "house," she
    said, because they had no experience in family settings. The child playing the
    matron would tell the others, "Don't be dreaming about becoming a teacher or
    becoming a nurse. Little Indians grow up to become drunk Indians." Years later,
    Johnson's sister confessed to her that she had been sexually molested by a
    matron at the school but was afraid that no one would believe her if she reported
    it. Johnson believes the molestation contributed to her sister fulfilling that
    fatalistic pronouncement about alcohol; she died at age 51. When Thomas
    closed, Johnson's sister was sent to a Kansas boarding school while Johnson, at age
    15, was turned over to a wealthy Fredonia family to be a live-in maid for $5 a
    week. Eventually, Johnson —"sick and tired of people telling me I was a dumb
    Indian and couldn't learn" — put herself through the State University College
    of Technology at Alfred and got an associate's degree in business. Later, she
    earned a bachelor's in sociology and a master's in counseling from St.
    Bonaventure University. She proudly said that all her daughters have college degrees
    and professional careers. But she also said it's a wonder they don't hate her
    for punishing them the same way school matrons punished her.

    'Heck of a shock'

    George-Kanentiio's experiences in a boarding school in Canada are bleaker yet
    than Johnson's. Ontario provincial authorities intervened after his mother
    died; his father struggled to provide for his 12 children but couldn't, he said.
    George-Kanentiio and two brothers were told by social workers that the Mohawk
    Institute in Brantford, 350 miles west of Akwesasne, would be a good place,
    with lots of other native children. "You were told that you would have good
    food and clothing. They made it sound very appealing when I was 11. Without any
    resistance, my brothers and I agreed to go. We were in for one heck of a shock
    when we got there. "It was kind of like a reform school. There wasn't much in
    the way of academic fostering or even emphasis on learning trades or skills."

    Teachers used corporal punishment and urged older students to keep younger
    students in line the same way, he said. Sexual abuse worked its way down the
    chain of command, too, George-Kanentiio said. He and his brothers were fighters
    and stuck together, so they were never sexually molested. They ran away
    repeatedly but were picked up and returned by the Canadian Mounties. Eventually, the
    brothers' scrappiness got them all kicked out in 1968, he said.

    A provincial investigation of the school led to its closing a year later,
    after a student who tried to run away was struck and killed by a train.


    Only recently have Native American adults started to talk about their
    boarding school experiences and the consequences, both negative and positive.
    George-Kanentiio said the discussions are prompted partly because the first
    generation of native social service workers now works in native communities, making
    survivors more comfortable about talking. In Canada, the discussions have led to
    pending national legislation aimed at compensating people who attended
    government-operated or government-sanctioned schools. George-Kanentiio is part of a
    class-action suit against the Anglican Church for its hand in the school he
    attended. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last week that the suit can go

    About Thomas

    Thomas Indian School in Gowanda, Cattaraugus County, was founded in the early
    1800s, according to historians. Early on, missionaries from various
    Protestant denominations ran the school as an orphanage and depended on donations from
    private patrons. Over time, the school became a state institution, drawing
    native students from across New York. Many, especially those who had been placed
    there by social service workers, boarded at the school. Others lived with
    their families and attended only during the day.

    The school's unofficial historian, Geraldine Gates, who was a day student
    there, said the grounds encompassed 174 acres and the students raised farm
    animals, crops and fruit. Eventually, the school was converted to a state mental
    institution before it closed in 1957. One building — the hospital — remains
    standing and recently was renovated for use by the Senecas.
    Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear... just sing, sing a song.sigpic


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