Over centuries of colonization and land occupation, generations of Indigenous people in the United States and Canada have been subject to systematic attacks on their sovereignty and human rights. During this time, Indigenous communities have been victims of genocide, forced removal and relocation from territory, and the residential school system, which served as a form of ethnocide. These experiences of violence, physical and otherwise, were perpetrated mainly by government and religious authorities, with the intention of eradicating Alaskan Native, American Indian, and First Nations (ANAIFN) peoples, whose presence on the land they had occupied for generations had become troublesome for the emerging nations of the United States and Canada. The residential school system differed from other movements that threatened the sovereignty of ANAIFN communities because it was created and supported under the guise of charity, Christian nobility, and good will. Yet, the intentions and ethnocidal impacts of residential schools paralleled physical genocide experienced by Indigenous communities decades earlier. The residential school system in the United States and Canada represents one of the most widespread and under-acknowledged instances of ethnocide, or cultural genocide, in North American history.
Education as a tool of acculturation, especially for Indigenous children, began to be used throughout the American and Canadian school systems in the early nineteenth century. Public schools across both nations saw increases in immigrant pupils, and governments were quick to implement policies that established education standards meant to culturally unify students. In practice, these standards almost always perpetuated the social and cultural beliefs and understandings of the white and Christian populations who held authority. Though efforts to educate Indigenous people through assimilation had been somewhat common practice for two hundred years, residential schools began to emerge as a phenomenon to directly target ANAIFN children in the nineteenth century. In doing so, residential schools allowed the American and Canadian governments to drastically increase their assimilation efforts; by institutionalizing their tactics, they were able to target communities on a mass scale.
In the early nineteenth century, the government of the United States formally sponsored the residential school system for the first time, allocating funds to already-established American Indian-targeted schools to further assimilation efforts. Previously, funding for residential schools had come from private donors, many of whom lived in Europe, who likely genuinely believed that educating ANAIFN children by Western standards was beneficial to Indigenous communities themselves. Amid growing support for the assimilation of Native peoples, the US Congress passed an updated Indian Civilization Act in 1873, centred on the goal of building more residential schools. With a commitment of significant annual funding, financial support for residential schools reached three million U.S. dollars by the turn of the twentieth century. Along with dramatically growing funding, residential schools across the United States and Canada saw exponential increases in enrolment; by 1900, hundreds of thousands of children were attendees in hundreds of residential schools. Within a few decades, the residential school movement had rapidly grown from privately sponsored mission schools to government-funded institutions, and within thirty years of the Indian Civilization Act, about half of all Native children in the United States and Canada were in the residential school system.
During this period of rapid growth of the residential school system, the schools acquired a more sinister motive, which was absent from earlier education efforts. Rather than simply spreading Christianity and literacy, the schools began to operate as fundamental tools of cultural genocide. In fact, this cultural genocide occurred on a massive scale, with almost three hundred established residential schools across the United States and Canada. Sadly, many children were sent to schools thousands of miles away from their traditional land. More often than not, ANAIFN children were forcibly separated from their communities at a young age and placed in schools without the consent of their parents, and without the ability to contact them. The conditions of the schools were often unsuitable for children, with an average of over one hundred students per caretaker. As assimilation was the central goal of school administrators, ANAIFN children were forbidden to speak their own languages, practice their own traditions, and sometimes barred from communication with their siblings and fellow tribal members. As recognized by former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, abuse was commonplace in the majority of residential schools, with high levels of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse reported by survivors. The impacts of this abuse and the forced separations were severe and extreme, and today are widely regarded as considerable sources of historical trauma within ANAIFN communities.
Ethnocide and genocide are different in practice, but their impacts and destructive consequences are largely similar. The Oxford Dictionary currently defines genocide as “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular nation or ethnic group.” However, the United Nations also includes in its definition of genocide “the transfer of children from one group to another.” Under this more inclusive definition, the residential school system operated as a form of genocide, and specifically as cultural genocide, or ethnocide. Ethnocide varies from traditional interpretations of genocide because it does not directly involve mass murder. Yet, even without systemized exterminations, the intentions of ethnocide are often identical to those of genocide. Often, the choice to pursue a destruction of culture rather than to pursue a destruction of lives altogether is simply a matter of convenience for those in power. Further, the pupils of the residential schools were themselves survivors, and descendants of survivors, of genocide. Essentially, genocide had not worked to fully eradicate Indigenous people from North America, so ethnocide became the next logical step, both as a tool of eradication and of control.
Indeed, the government-sponsored and large scale effort to vastly transform identity through indoctrination in Indian residential schools constitutes intentional and systematic ethnocide. Upon arriving at residential schools, it was common practice for AIANFN children to have their hair cut and their clothes replaced in order to immediately alienate their physical appearances from their cultural identities. Pupils were also often given new names; names assigned to fit with Christian norms, with no regard for the often very meaningful and intentional names they had been given by their own communities. Perhaps most damaging, children were not permitted to speak their own languages, and often returned as adults to their communities unable to communicate with their own grandparents and elders. This generational separation and language gap was devastating for ANAIFN communities, as tribal traditions and knowledge could no longer be passed down to younger generations.
After a resilient survival of genocide, ANAIFN communities were ill-equipped to respond to the kidnapping and indoctrination of their children by much more powerful and much more wealthy government entities and religious missions. The cultural losses resulting from the Residential School system are similar to the impacts of genocide; though the people have survived, everything that they believed in and loved was attacked. Today, largely due to an inherent mistrust of Western education as well as a sense of cultural loss, ANAIFN children have substantially lower high school graduation rates than other populations. For example, in Canada, only 36% of First Nations people graduate secondary school. In the United States, the poverty rate that comes as a direct result of two centuries of government policies aimed at removing power and sovereignty from Indigenous communities is approximately 25%. In Montana alone, unemployment rates for American Indians sometimes exceed 70%, over ten times the national unemployment rate of 6.9%. As an effort to cope with historical trauma, high poverty rates, and the impacts of intergenerational rights abuses, ANAIFN communities have higher rates of alcohol and drug dependence than any other ethnic group. While the residential school system is not entirely responsible for these statistics, the impact of a wide-scale ethnocide just decades after a wide-scale genocide cannot be understated.
The implications of understanding residential schools as a form of ethnocide go far beyond just ANAIFN communities; they suggest that Western education, when used as a form of indoctrination, is always ethnocide. Education used for this purpose has the power to destroy culture on mass scales, just like genocide does. Today, modern forms of education as ethnocide occur around the world, including in China, where nomadic children are required by law to attend state-run Chinese schools. Under a thin veil of humanitarian rights, the Chinese government and international NGOs argue that nomadic children must be educated in order to thrive in modern China. Not only does this incorrectly insinuate that nomadic children cannot be educated by their own communities, as they have been for thousands of years, it also forces them to settle so that they can attend school, thus destroying their nomadic lifestyles. In the modern development paradigm, education is rarely challenged; it is viewed as a human right that should be brought to all children around the world. Yet, Western education has so often failed people in the past, and continues to fail many today, especially those living lifestyles that are inconsistent with Western ideals. Education as ethnocide is perhaps most troubling because it is framed as humanitarianism and as an attempt to help underserved communities. While education certainly has the power to alleviate poverty and provide opportunities in a Western, highly-industrialized world, in Indigenous communities it often instead leads to poverty, undermines sovereignty, and attacks cultures.