, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

A word of caution.  I am going to be talking about the Canadian residential school system and the American industrial school/boarding school system. This also mentions trauma and abuse. If you start to feel uncomfortable, please get off and go read something else. 

Okay. Here we go. First of all, I know that I haven’t been on in a really long time. Life gets in the way. I’m busy with school, reading, and trying to relax. But I’m still here, still thinking, and living and breathing.

I’m not exactly sure how to start this post off. Maybe I should start off by alerting everyone to the fact that I’m talking about a different culture- a non-Western culture and so, the way that children are thought of is different. In indigenous culture “Children are greatly valued and considered gifts from the Creator. From the moment of birth, children are the objects of love and kindness from a large circle of relatives and friends. They are strictly trained but in a ‘sea’ of love and kindness. As they grow children are given praise and recognition for their achievements both by the extended family and by the group as a whole. Group recognition manifests itself in public ceremonies performed for a child, giveaways in a child’s honour, and songs created and sung in a child’s honour. Children are seldom physically punished, but they are sternly lectured about the implications of wrongful and unacceptable behaviour.” (Leroy Little Bear, 31) Kim Anderson echoes this statement and expands even further on the idea that “Aboriginal children are precious … because they represent the future. They are not considered possessions of the biological parents; rather, they are understood to be gifts on loan from the Creator. Because of this, everyone in the community has a connection to the children, and everyone has an obligation to work for their well-being. Each one of us has a responsibility to them.” (Anderson, 159) The way that children are treated and thought of is different than in Western culture. I’m not going to make judgements as to whether it’s better or worse, because I don’t have the authority to do that; but I am going to say that this way of treating children is remarkably different from a Western view.

It’s hard to explain trauma. The best way to do it however, for people who have never dealt with it directly is in simple terms. Trauma is when something bad, scary and unexpected happens to someone and it is beyond the person’s control. It can happen because of a natural disaster, (like a fire, earthquake, flood), or an accident (like a car accident), soldiers in war, and victims of abuse (psychological, physical, emotional and sexual abuse.) Sometimes the brain will shut down to protect the person dealing with it. Or maybe I should let someone else explain it:

“What you said just now-

it isn’t so funny

It doesn’t sound so good.

We are doing okay without it

we can get along without that kind of thing.

Take it back.

Call that story back.”

But the witch just shook its head

at the others in their stinking animal skins, fur, and feathers.

It’s already turned loose.

It’s already coming.

It can’t be called back.” 

(Silko, 128)

There- I let Ceremony describe it for me. Once something happens; it can’t be undone. People can try to pretend that nothing happened, or repress it, but eventually it will come back, and no amount of hoping or wishing will make that event become undone.

In residential schools, children were taken away from their parents and placed into schools to make them civilized. When the Europeans arrive to North America and saw that people were already living there, they quickly tried to set about placing a social hierarchy: with themselves at the apex. Everyone else was inferior. As a result, “Europeans assumed incorrectly that Indians had no systems of education, no forms of governments, no religions, no valuing of wisdom, no methods of advancing knowledge, and no way to teach their children. In her essay… “Systems of Knowledge,” Clare Sue Kidwell details that American Indians educated their young people in a variety of ways and that they had been doing so for thousands of years prior to the European invasion of America.” (Keller et al, 4) The adults completely rejected the indigenous way of caring for children, and attempted to “civilize” them by using their own way of looking after children, and expecting them to accept it: “The seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries of New France were struck by this distinct Aboriginal approach to children… From their perspective Native people over-indulged their children; they loved them ‘excessively’ and raised them without discipline. The missionaries failed to recognize that Aboriginal people disciplined their children through more subtle methods, such as storytelling or teasing.” (Anderson, 159) There was a clear cultural difference between the way that indigenous people and European people looked after their children. “Non-Indians conceived of American Indian parents and communities as unstructured, permissive, and negligent. For these reasons, administrators were determined to put discipline, order, and precision into the lives of every Native pupil, regardless of age or personal problems…Many non-Indians conceived of Indians as wild, untrained, and spoiled. As a result, school officials endeavoured to train the students like drill sergeants break new recruits.” (Keller et al, 17-18) The indigenous people did have order though, it was just taught and thought of in a different way. A brief description about residential schools can be found here if you’re interested in looking further into it. I will be looking at it from one aspect; being sent into the schools, being expected to conform, and having to regain indigenous culture afterwards. If I tried to tackle everything, it would be an extremely long post.

In “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” the narrator takes the reader from her perspective of her life from before she left to go to school, being in school, and the aftermath of being in school and returning home. I just finished a paper on this about three weeks or so ago,* I’m not going to cite it here,  but I will be taking some of the quotes from it and using it in here, to present the same argument, from a slightly different angle and going more in depth.

She is traumatized by the event. Even before leaving for the school she knew something was wrong. Just from seeing “my mother’s face while she spoke…I knew she was unhappy.” (Bonnin, 1) Despite that, she still begs her mother to let her go and believes the lies that the missionaries “had told me of the great tree where grew red…apples; and how we could reach out our hands and pick all the red apples we could eat… I was eager to roam among them.” (Bonnin, 5) When she leaves, she says that “I no longer felt free to be myself, or to voice my own feelings.” (Bonnin, 6) This is a change from how she is first seen,“as free as the wind that blew my hair, and no less spirited than a bounding deer. These were my mother’s pride,-my wild freedom and overflowing spirits.” (Bonnin, 1) After going to the school, one of the first things that happened was that children had their hair cut. This upsets the narrator, who explains that “I remember being dragged out [of the bed], though I resisted by kicking and scratching wildly. In spite of myself, I was carried downstairs and tied fast in a chair. I cried aloud… until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids.” (Bonnin, 7) The act of having her hair cut was traumatizing. “Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!” (Bonnin, 7) She had been told by her mother that having her hair cut was only for people who were being publicly shamed. Having to deal with it in another cultural context, especially alone, was confusing, and most likely humiliating. When she loses her hair it also marks a visual representation of the loss of her freedom. She is changed, both internally and externally.

Porcupines and China Dolls is written by Robert Arthur Alexie. The title of the book is significant; Porcupines and china dolls are meant to refer to the children who attended the residential schools. It opens with a flashback of what happened when they first arrived at the schools. Upon their arrival, “The boys are herded into a long room where a missionary takes a pair of scissors and cuts their hair…they’re given clothes and realize they all look alike. They look like porcupines: well-dressed porcupines.” (R. Alexie, 9-10) They are no longer human, but animals. The word porcupine may also refer to the fact that “The Huron and Iroquois… described the French mothers as ‘porcupines’ because of the rigid disciplinary methods and the corporal punishment they witnessed among the settlers; practices that were common to seventeenth-century European childrearing. European children of that time were considered ‘chattels of the patriarch,’ whereas Aboriginal children were accorded a great deal of autonomy and freedom.” (Anderson, 159) Being called porcupines then has another meaning; not to dehumanize them, but to describe how they were treated by the schools. Alexie actually manages to re-humanize the indigenous people using the same imagery that had been used to dehumanize them. When a boy “starts to cry…it is heart wrenching. It sounds like a million porcupines crying in the dark.” (Alexie, 11) and when the parents discover that some of the children have died at the schools  “twenty or more People are moaning. They are not crying, they are moaning, and it is awful. They sound like a million porcupines crying in the hills.” (R. Alexie, 14)  As porcupines are shown to have emotional reactions, so are the people; they are all connected and instead of focussing on difference, the similarity between porcupines and people are highlighted.

Indian Porcupine, Hystrix indica (Photo credit: Wikipedia) When Porcupines get scared, they have their quills to protect them. The boys at the school “look like porcupines” with their hair cut off. However, they are unable to defend themselves like the porcupine. (Caption taken from my other blog- Uniting all creatures)

In the residential schools children were not allowed to speak their own language. In Porcupines and China Dolls even though “they have never spoken a word of English.” (R. Alexie, 8) they are still expected to pick up English quickly, and speak only English. When he arrives home  he cannot fully integrate himself back into the community right away as he has forgotten his language. “Someone will call his name, and he’ll look at a woman he doesn’t remember. She’ll tell him something in a language he doesn’t understand. It slowly dawns on him: he’s forgotten the language. Or has he? The language is still there, but he’s now thinking in English and has to translate it. It’s a long and difficult process.” (R. Alexie, 14) He has lost his voice in the community because he has been forced into a European one. “Administrators forced Native American children to speak English in their everyday lives, and they expected Indian children to speak only English all of the time. Otherwise, administrators would punish children. As a result, school officials created more distance between themselves and the students. The language barrier between Native American speakers and English speakers proved difficult for both students and teachers.” (Keller et al, 25) Taking away the language of indigenous people and forcing English to be spoken showed that the real purpose of boarding schools was to “segregate Indian children from their parents and cultures, gradually integrating them into the white world in a controlled fashion.” (Keller et al, 13) When they went to the school there was a system that was followed. It happened “as soon as the children left their families,” (Keller et al, 17) and forced them to try to adapt to a culture and way of life that was much harsher than their own. “When the children reached the school they faced an institution designed to assimilate Indian children. School superintendents, teachers, matrons, and disciplinarians often stripped the children and took their clothing, blankets, ornaments, and jewelry. School officials bathed the children and cut their hair to “kill the bugs”. If this did not work, school officials used pesticides to kill lice. This began the process of taking away the child’s outward appearance as an Indian person, a sad and humiliating process for many children who took pride in their unique clothing, material objects, and long hair- connections to their home communities.” (Keller et al, 17) Everything that made the children who they were was taken away from them: they were stripped of their identity.

Although they may have been stripped of their identity, sometimes the school had the opposite effect: “Students used the potentially negative experiences to produce a positive result-the preservation of Indian identity, cultures, communities, languages, and peoples.” (Keller et al, 1) Some students “resisted many aspects of the boarding school environment and often defied school officials, finding innovative new ways to deal with arrogant administrators, abusive rules, and severe punishments. When children first arrived at the school, many cried themselves to sleep and continued to cry for days, weeks, or even months. To comfort themselves and others, some children sang in their Native languages. They sang at night before going to sleep, and they sang when they sequestered themselves away from others who might tell on them… Some children ran off to riverbeds, nearby woods, or orchards where they comforted one another, danced, drummed, sang, and told stories- all in their own languages.” (Keller et al, 22) They tried holding on to culture, even while it was being taken away.

In many cases they succeeded in reclaiming their culture and retelling their story. The film “We were Children” tells the story of two indigenous people who were forced into the residential school system.

This is the trailer for the movie. It is horrifying, it’s a documentary. At the beginning of the movie, there is information given about the history of the schools. “For over 130 years, Canada’s First Nations children were legally required to attend Government-funded schools run by various orders of the Christian faith.” (Wolochatiuk) If they were not attending the school, the parents could be threatened with jail. If you watch the whole movie, you can see how the entire ideology of religion manipulated the way that Europeans treated indigenous people and gave them a sense of control over the children in residential schools. This documentary and other steps have been taken to try to retell the story of residential schools and reclaim the indigenous culture that was taken away from residential school students.

The process of reclaiming one’s identity is a major theme in Porcupines and China Dolls. It is also an extremely long process which can be stressful. Something that has been taken away and nearly eradicated can be extremely hard to recover. In the case of some of the indigenous tradition,  religion and tradition conflicted with each other: “The missionaries, called Anglicans, baptized the Blue People, took away their drums, songs, and funeral practices. The Anglicans told the People that burning their dead was barbaric and uncivilized and that their drums were the devil’s tools. (R. Alexie, 6) The indigenous people gave up their traditions as the ideology of religion was introduced, and it was only countered after conversations started with questions as to why it happened. In Porcupines and China Dolls, the turning point for admitting the wrongs that had been done by the church and schools comes from Mary, who asks “‘How come Our People don’t drum anymore?” (R. Alexie, 174) Martin answers back that  “‘ Missionaries took ‘at away in ‘a 1800’s.”… ‘So our People haven’t drummed for a hundred years?’ ‘Las’ time ‘ey drummed was 1965 when Chief Francis died. Always liked drum dancin’. Be good if someone brought it back.’ [Martin] paused for a second. ‘Our language will be gone in ‘nother generation. Once ‘at goes we’ll have nothin’.'” (R. Alexie, 174) Mary gets Martin thinking about the traditions and how they have been taken away. Traditions are powerful in any culture; to lose a tradition is to lose part of a culture. When they can’t even speak their language, or observe their culture without “looking to see if any missionaries are standing behind” them, (R. Alexie, 16) they are still being controlled. Once they start to drum again, they become hopeful. “It was like a dream in slow motion. Five old men beating drums had appeared out of nowhere. Four old women behind them started singing. They lifted their voices to the stars and heavens and it sent shivers down every spine…They sang of great battles in days gone by. They sang of the great battle they’d witnessed today… They sang of hopes and new beginnings. They sang their hearts out, and it was a fucking sight to behold.” (R. Alexie, 217-218) To not only witness the tradition of the drums but be proud of it is a huge step to rebuilding the culture which was lost. The step of reclaiming culture is just as important as retelling the horrors and stories of what happened.

Junior throws an old school book at Mr. P, fed up with receiving hand me down textbooks at the school on the reservation.

Will’s Garden by Lee Maracle and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie are not specifically about children going through the residential schools, but the family members and mentors of the main characters in the two books do briefly share their experiences. Will speaks to his aunt in Will’s Garden, and she minimizes her experiences but still manages to make Will feel uncomfortable. “‘Not like they tortured me or anything, just fed me their foods in small amounts…That summer, your gramma took a look at my hands and she never sent me back.’… I did not need to know this about that place. I had heard about the abuses, the beatings, the hunger and the rapes, but this made the whole thing a horror story.” (Maracle, 149) She shares part of her story as a student in a residential school. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, we get another perspective from one of the teachers, Mr. P. After Junior throws a book at him, Mr. P apologizes and says that “I want you to know that hitting me with that book was probably the worst thing you’ve ever done…But I do forgive you…No matter how much I don’t want to. I have to forgive you. It’s the only thing that keeps me from smacking you with an ugly stick. When I first started teaching here that’s what we did to the rowdy ones, you know? We beat them. That’s how we were taught to teach you. We were supposed to kill the Indian to save the child.” (S. Alexie, 35) This is a reference to Pratt, who was influential in the creation of the residential schools. (Keller et al, 14) Mr. P explains that “I didn’t literally kill Indians. We were supposed to make you give up being Indian. Your songs and stories and language and dancing. Everything. We weren’t trying to kill Indian people. We were trying to kill Indian culture.” (S. Alexie, 35) Indigenous culture was the target of residential schools. The people who ran the schools thought that if they changed the indigenous people earlier in life, they would eventually remove all indigenous ways of life, their traditions, culture, and “civilize” them.

Mr. P teaches Junior that the rez is a product of the way that indigenous people have been treated prior to his own life. In order to change this, he needs to really join the Western society in a way that he wants to; by not conforming to it, but by being himself.

Even though “Beginning in the late 1850’s, over 150,000 Aboriginal children were legally forced to attend Indian residential schools in Canada.” (Wolochatiuk) the residential schools did not completely serve the purpose they sought out to as being “part of a wider program of assimilation designed to integrate the Aboriginal population into “Canadian society” ” (Wolochatiuk) Although some people embraced it, many resisted the schools and their attempts to silence a culture made it stronger. “The American Indian boarding school [and Canadian residential school] experience is layered with deep meaning that cannot be understood simply by framing the schools, administrators, and teachers as good or evil. Teachers, administrators, and disciplinarians were all individuals, and they did their jobs in their own ways. Some students liked the superintendents and teachers, and others hated them. Some… liked their boarding school days, and others loathed that time in their lives.” (Keller et al, 27-28) Since this is the case I have not made any judgement on the schools or the way that people felt about it. I have merely sought to show what the effect was and how the act of retelling and reclaiming a culture can allow it to thrive. Every culture deserves to be celebrated, every tradition deserves to be respected, and people deserve to be able to respect their culture and others in any way they wish to without fear or anxiety. In 2008, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, issued an apology to those who endured residential schools.

However, that does not mean that it should be forgotten about. It is an important part of Canada’s history, not a very good part, but an important part which has shaped the way that indigenous people and their culture has been thought of. “At their peak in the 1950’s, there were 80 Indian Residential schools across the country. Today there are over 80,000 Indian Residential school survivors. ” (Wolochatiuk) People are still affected by the residential school system. It is a generational problem; as shown through the books I have cited. It is not in the past- far from it, it continues to affect people and will for a long time.




  1. https://someonetoday.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/70498-ceremony.jpg
  2. http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/f/f2/IndPorcupine.jpg/300px-IndPorcupine.jpg
  3. http://smashmrp.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/b92f26da93897737018a6cd24be602323.jpg
  4. http://occr.ucdavis.edu/ccbp2011/images/hope.jpg


  1. IDFA 2012| Trailer|We Were Children. Prod. IDFA. Youtube. IDFA, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 11 June 2014.
  2. Residential Schools Apology/ Excuses Pensionnats indiens. Prod. Prime Minister of Canada Youtube. np, 1 Nov. 2012. Web. 12 June 2014.


  1. Alexie, Robert Arthur. Porcupines and China Dolls. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2009. Print.
  2. Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2009. Print.
  3. Anderson, Kim. A Recognition of Being: Reconstructing Native Womanhood. Toronto: Sumach, 2003. Print.
  4. Bonnin, G “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” in Norton Anthology of American Literature, edited by Nina Baym, pp. 1-22. 1989. W.W Norton & Company, Inc.
  5. Keller, Jean. A. Sisquoc, Leslie and Clifford E. Trafzer. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. United States of America: University of Nebraska Press, 2006. Print.
  6. Leroy Little Bear. “Jagged Worldviews Colliding” in Reclaiming Indigenous Voice and Vision, edited by Marie Battiste, pp. 77-85 2000. UBC Press.
  7. Maracle, Lee. Will’s Garden. Penticton, B.C.: Theytus, 2002. Print.
  8. Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Print.


  1. “”Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”: Capt. Richard H. Pratt on the Education of Native Americans.” “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man”: Capt. Richard H. Pratt on the Education of Native Americans. American Social History Productions. Web. 21 May 2014.
  2. “Indian Residential Schools Educational Resources” Web. June 2 2014.


  1. We were children. Dir. Tim Wolochatiuk. National Film Board, 2012 Film.

*I started this post in October 2013. And then, I abandoned it- See? Told you it would take a while to finish what I started.