Sherman Alexie and the Sexual Assault Legacy of Federal Native American Boarding Schools

The #MeToo moment casts light on the sexual assault epidemic ravaging Native American communities — and on the federal education policies that spawned the crisis

The unfurling accusations of sexual harassment against prominent Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and Alexie’s admission that “There are women telling the truth about my behavior,” are shocking and sad in their own right. They also call attention to the broader problem of sexual assault and harassment on Native American reservations.

According to the Justice Department, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted than other American women. As Ojibwe journalist Mary Annette Pember recently wrote:

Although data indicates that most of the perpetrators are non-Native, the outing of Alexie exposes a shameful open secret in Indian Country; our men are also guilty of using the privileges and protections of wealth, power, and social status to prey on people they perceive as vulnerable.

The violence can be traced back — generation by generation — to the education system the federal government created more than 100 years ago to culturally assimilate Native Americans and solve the supposed “Indian Problem.”

Starting in the late 1800s, children from Native communities across the country were taken from their homes — often as literal hostages, to prevent their tribes from rebelling against the American government — and forced into federally funded, usually church-run, boarding and day schools. The ethos and goal of the schools was summed up neatly by their originator, Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the first Native boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania: “Kill the Indian, and Save the Man.”

There has never been a comprehensive study of the schools in the United States, but the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has found shocking stories of rape, murder, and even medical experimentation in Canada’s First Nation’s residential school system, modeled after the American boarding schools. According to the Commission’s former chair, Canadian judge and politician Murray Sinclair, in the early 1900s it was estimated that the schools had mortality rates of 24%-42%. At Pratt’s Carlisle Indian school, students were more likely to die than soldiers sent into the Spanish American War, according to researcher Preston McBride.

These stories are not just relics from a bygone era when Conestoga wagons and telegraph poles dotted the Western plains. For almost fifteen years now I’ve been a wasicu (Lakota for white person) living part-time on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala band of the Lakota (Sioux) tribe, working mostly as a teacher and archery coach. I’ve been a fortunate and blessed guest, enjoying friendship and community I’d never known before. But the federal schools and the sexual assault they engendered cast a tragic pall over the beauty of Pine Ridge. I’ve interviewed more than a dozen people who attended such schools, most of them in the 1960s and 70s, and the stories they tell are shockingly similar.

First Day of School

Three Lakota boys upon arrival at the Carlisle Indian School in 1883, seven years after the Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn)…

The stories begin with a young child, usually five or six years old, arriving at school and saying “hello” or “good morning” in their Native language — often the only language they spoke — to a non-Native teacher or administrator. This is greeted immediately with a heavy blow — from a stick or ruler, leather strap or fist. The child yells in pain or falls to the ground in tears, shouting something like “Why did you hit me?!” The question is greeted with another blow. The process repeats itself until another Native student, or sometimes janitor, helps pick the beaten child up off the ground and whispers in their ear, “Don’t talk Indian!” in their language. With silence the beating stops, and the first lesson of the schools is imparted: Don’t talk. Don’t cry out. Don’t ask questions. If you do, we will hurt you.

…The same three boys in 1886, four years before the Massacre at Wounded Knee

In many of the stories, the beating is followed by the student being dragged into a shower room. The child is stripped naked, and beaten again if they resist. Boys’ heads are shaved and girls’ hair combed out brutally, and they are often caked in DDT powder to kill any lice that may or may not be present. The child is thrust under a showerhead or hosed down painfully. The child is never warned, never asked how they feel, and any questions or complaints are met with more violence. In this way the second and third lessons of boarding school are imposed: You will not have things explained to you, because you have no agency or control over your own life; your body is not your own, it is to be poked and prodded, stripped and abused, according to the unexplained whims of people in power.

There are endless stories, but I’ll pass along one I recounted in a piece for the New York Times:

“My grandmother used to tell me that she didn’t think she was pretty,” said an E.M.T. friend of mine who responds to a suicide attempt every week or so, “because when the priests used to sneak into her dorm and take a little girl for the night, they never picked her.”

Recent studies on the impact of concussions on the brains of NFL players are leading us towards a perhaps obvious, but long-ignored reality: the brain, like any other muscle or organ, is damaged by trauma. Physical trauma of course, but emotional and psychic trauma as well. A famed 25-year study by the Centers for Disease Control, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study showed a remarkable link between childhood trauma — particularly sexual trauma — and a litany of problems that plague Native American communities today: addiction, depression, diabetes, obesity, incarceration, suicide.

The trauma and abuse, inflicted originally by non-Native teachers, continues to this day. In some families it can be traced, generation by generation, back to boarding school abuse. Public health surveys indicate that the majority of teenage girls on Pine Ridge have been raped. Numbers are harder to come by for boys, but are believed to be similarly elevated, and child sexual assault is the largest driver of the reservation’s frequent epidemics of youth suicide.

Former Pine Ridge tribal prosecutor Elaine Yellow Horse says that the majority of the victims she has worked with and known from her personal life “were sexually assaulted by a family member or a friend.” But many were abused by school teachers and administrators, doctors, tribal and government employees, and others in positions of power. It’s so common that the behavior is normalized, sexual abuse and pedophilia treated as almost acceptable flaws, like being bad at lesson planning or falling behind on hospital paperwork.

The former clinical director of Pine Ridge’s federal hospital, pediatrician Stanley Patrick Weber, was accused of sexually assaulting young boys for nearly twenty years before anything was done about it. In the early 1990s Weber was chased off of another reservation in Montana after similar accusations, but Indian Health Services (IHS) took the same approach to the problem as the Catholic Church did in my home state of Massachusetts, and simply moved him to Pine Ridge. The Pine Ridge hospital is considered the “end of the line” as one IHS employee told me, and without anywhere else to move him, complaints and accusations from victims, family members, and fellow doctors and hospital staffers fell on deaf federal ears, including those of a supervisor of Weber’s, who himself later went to prison for leaving a compact disc full of child pornography behind in his federal office building.

Thanks to the frankly heroic investigative efforts of tribal prosecutors Elaine Yellow Horse and Tatewin Means and a group of federal investigators and prosecutors, Dr. Weber was eventually indicted on multiple counts of child rape and sexual assault and is currently awaiting trial. But Weber was only the most egregious example of abusers abetted and even aided by the power structures they inhabited. Native bodies exploited, voices silenced, and victims shamed, just as they were during the boarding school era.

I once heard a school board member talk about hiring a (Native) middle school teacher even though he’d been fired from a previous high school job for sleeping with students. “His problem is with teenage girls, not the young ones,” the school board member told me. “It won’t be a problem for him at the middle school.”

A female teacher was caught having sex with a student at a nearby high school and fired, then promptly hired by a different reservation high school. (Administrators had an unspoken policy of not letting her coach any after school sports.)

An elementary school employee witnessed what he believed to be a teacher’s aide molesting a young girl in a school hallway and immediately filed a report. Security video confirmed the physical contact. A month later, the accused teacher’s aide was still on the job, until the tribal president spoke out and parents demanded he be taken off the job. The accused was put on paid leave for the rest of the year, while the whistleblower was fired, sending a tacit, powerful message to other school employees: “Don’t rock the boat…” as one of them told me.

Such tolerance and complicity-via-coverup, is shocking at first glance. But it makes an odd kind of sense in the context of the boarding school history. Some (I repeat, some) people on Pine Ridge and other reservations tolerate and normalize sexual abuse committed by authority figures precisely because it is the norm — it has been happening as long as the reservation system has been around.

But I don’t want to make the mistake most parachute reporters fall into when they come to Pine Ridge — telling hopeless tales of unrelenting bleakness and woe. For all of the disturbing revelations that the #MeToo movement is bringing to the fore, it’s not as though such horrors didn’t exist before — they’re simply being more fully exposed after years of enforced silence and shame. “Publicity,” as Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, “is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”

So in the next few days, I’ll be posting an interview with Elaine Yellow Horse, the former Pine Ridge tribal prosecutor quoted above, about her work on sexual assault issues, restorative justice, and using traditional Lakota forms of healing and community building with at-risk youth.

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