Growing up partly on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota, Jerilyn DeCoteau was often intrigued by the rigid and disciplinary way in which her mother ran the household.
“She used to say things like ‘I’m going to make you kneel on a broomstick’ or ‘I’m going to wash your mouth out with soap.’ You know, ‘I’ll make you scrub the floors with a toothbrush,'” she recalled. “I don’t think we really understood where it came from, except we knew that at some point , she had been to boarding schools.”
For Aboriginal children in the 19th and 20th centuries, these federally run residential programs were a far cry from the camaraderie, prestige, and privilege usually associated with the anodyne term “boarding school.”
“It was completely the opposite of that,” says DeCoteau, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. “These places were less about education and more about forced assimilation.”
Since Ellis Island became a symbol for immigrants seeking to build a life in the “New World”, the mythology of the United States has centered on the idea of E pluribus unum: “Among many, one.” But for the early peoples who established sovereign nations in these lands, this process of becoming one was not a choice – and for many the price of assimilation was paid in abuse, trauma and even death.
As Captain Richard Henry Pratt said in an 1892 speech in Denver, the mission of these federal boarding schools – whose operators removed children from their families, replacing their tribal traditions with forced English learning , Anglo culture and Christian dogma – was disturbingly simple: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.
Colorado was home to five such boarding schools, from the Grand Junction Indian School on the West Rim to the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Denver. Another was located on the grounds of Fort Lewis, outside of Durango, where History Colorado researchers are currently conducting a state-mandated site review after mass graves were discovered last year at similar boarding schools. in Canada.
As former chair of the board of directors of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and former attorney for the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund, DeCoteau has dedicated her professional life to the upliftment of Indigenous peoples, including the excavation of this dark and misunderstood chapter of American life.
“There was so much silence around it,” she said. “It was kind of a hidden part of our family history and a hidden part of Native history.”
“Not Even Passed”
This once-hidden story, which was only fully understood by DeCoteau after his mother died of breast cancer at age 47, will be brought to light during a screening of the 2021 film. Home after school: The children of Carlisle at the Boulder Museum on Thursday, September 22.
Director Geoffrey O’Gara’s documentary centers on Carlisle Industrial School in southeastern Pennsylvania, the nation’s flagship Indigenous boarding school, where hundreds of children have died in its 39 years of operation.
Among the Carlisle victims were three Northern Arapahoe boys – Horse, Little Chief and Little Plume – whose remains were repatriated in 2017 by a delegation of tribal citizens from Wyoming. Home from school is the story of their journey from the Cowboy State to the Keystone State, taking viewers to the beating heart of this still-raw history and efforts to heal intergenerational trauma.
“It’s a film that can really change and deepen people’s understanding of the facets of the violence of colonialism,” says Emily Zinn, director of education at the Museum of Boulder. “For people who don’t understand the concept of cultural genocide, I think they will carry that story with them for the rest of their lives.”
To help unpack these heavy concepts, DeCoteau – a new member of the Boulder Museum Board of Trustees – will be joined in a post-screening conversation by the film’s associate producer Jordan Dresser, president of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, guest curator and long-time contributor to the museum.
“Our job as a historical society is really about forging strong, inclusive and engaged citizenship,” says Zinn. “And there’s no better way to do it than [by working] in service of redress with communities and individuals who have been disenfranchised and against whom violence has been committed, in order to live the life we live in Boulder today.
For DeCoteau, whose own family history bears the scars of forced assimilation at the heart of Home from schoolthe film and resulting conversation is an opportunity for audiences to explore how the violence of settler colonialism remains embedded in public life in America – and how we might begin to affect change.
“It’s still very present in our institutions and in our way of thinking,” she says. “I don’t know how you repair all the damage. But some of them definitely need to be canceled.
ON THE SCREEN: Home after school: The children of Carlisle (EXHAUSTED). 6 p.m. Thursday, September 22, Boulder Museum, 2205 Broadway. The film is also available for free on demand via the Kanopy online video platform with your Boulder Public Library card.