By Andrew Woolford
University of Nebraska Press (2015)
Review by Jon Reyhner
Andrew Woolford’s title, This Benevolent Experiment, refers to the goal of some Indian boarding school proponents in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he shows clearly in this well-documented book that the experiment was an abysmal failure. His study focuses on the similarities and differences between two Canadian church-run boarding schools in Manitoba and two U.S. government-run boarding schools in New Mexico, and their role in committing genocide, which the author defines as “the purposeful destruction of a group.”
Sadly, these schools could teach Indian children to hate their own parents and sometimes students remembered, especially in Canada, that “all we learned was praying.” Students who often came to school speaking no English were taught only in English and could even be told that their Indian language was the language of the devil. Woolford delves into the complex nature of the situation where children often lived in poverty on reserves and reservations, and the boarding schools offered an education for Indian children to better understand and deal with the colonial settler population that was overrunning the continent. Some of the students went on to become leaders of their bands and tribes, using their education to resist further settler encroachment and to help end forced cultural assimilation.
Run by religious groups, Canadian schools were chronically underfunded and not well-inspected by the Canadian government, which led to the well-documented abuse of many of their students. The U.S. schools were a little better funded and inspected, but still depended on the labor of students to stay in operation. Canadian schools did not end the half-day of work for students until 1951. Schools in both countries were often violent places, leading to a legacy of “historical trauma” and “soul wounds.”
Canada has taken the lead in coming to terms with the dark legacy of boarding schools with the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and the 2008 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, as Woolford details, these efforts still have their flaws. A Canadian boarding school survivor testified how these schools sought to eliminate the most important things: “First, what’s most important in our lives is language. Second, is our land. The land means everything to us. Third, is our history. And the fourth and the last one is our way of life.” In the United States, the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” initiative, and now the Common Core curriculum attempt, very unsuccessfully, to raise all students’ tests scores. None of these efforts focus on building tribal strengths and affirming tribal identity, which researchers such as Terry Huffman see as critical.
The 2007 United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples roundly rejects the whole cultural assimilationist basis upon which Indian boarding schools were predicated. Woolford’s book joins a growing number of studies on the complex legacy of boarding schools.
Jon Reyhner, Ed.D., is a professor of bilingual multicultural education at Northern Arizona University and author of numerous books, including American Indian Education: A History.