The original Gitmo

American prison gave rise to residential school model

As U.S. President Barack Obama begins the process of closing down the prison at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, in part due to allegations of the illegal torture and abuse of prisoners, it reminded me of a similar situation that involved Native American leaders during the 19th century.

In the 19th century, the wars between the U.S. and Native Americans were just beginning to wind down. The United States was implementing its “manifest destiny” policy, begun in 1845. Basically, the policy held that it was white America’s predetermined destiny to take over the lands of Native Americans, to resettle them with people who were Christian by religion and of European descent.

As western Native Americans began to submit to the superior American forces, there was the question of what to do with those who had led the battles against the U.S. military. The solution was to cart them away to prisons. In all, over 175 Native American leaders were arrested and incarcerated, including Chief Spotted Tail of the Lakota and Geronimo of the Apache. The most notable of these prisons was Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida.

Years before, the U.S. had converted this old Spanish fortress into a prison. Its purpose was to incarcerate what they considered to be the worst of the Native American leaders, beginning in the 1830s with a Seminole named Osceola. By the 1870s, Native American leaders were being handcuffed and shackled, then shipped by train in cattle cars to the prison where they spent years of deprivation and torture at the hands of the guards. Only after they had been pacified were they allowed to return to the reservations that were being set up for their people.

One of those in charge of overseeing the prison was Colonel Richard Pratt. Colonel Pratt, believing the Native American could only be redeemed from savagery if caught young enough, convinced and probably coerced some of the leaders to give up their children. Pratt created boarding schools for these children where they would learn to be civilized and educated in the white man’s ways. The two most famous schools were known as Carlisle and Haskell.

Upon their arrival to these schools, in which they were subjected to harsh discipline, the children would have their hair cut off and would be dressed in military attire. Pratt referred to it as killing the Indian to save the man.

Imagine the trauma these children faced in having to not only have their hair cut off – hair being sacred to many Native American peoples – but also forced to wear the uniform of the soldiers who in many cases had killed members of their families.

The Canadian connection to the story occurs in 1879 when Flood Davin was sent by the Government of Canada to report on the success of these schools. American boarding schools like Carlisle and Haskell became the template for the residential schools in Canada where thousands of young aboriginal Canadians were subjected to the worst kind of sexual and physical abuses perpetrated by their overseers. These schools lasted for 90 years.

Brian Rice is an associate professor of education at the University of Winnipeg.

Published in Volume 64, Number 6 of The Uniter (October 8, 2009)

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