When schools are not schools

Indoctrination is not education, yet so-called “schools” throughout the colonial history of the United States and Canada have had a devastatingly didactic and destructive influence on the development of young Indigenous North American students. Instead of providing these students with hope, awareness and pride for their individual and collective cultures, these “educational institutions” sought to oppress the expression of their Native American identities.

Beginning in the 19th century, Indigenous children from across Canada and the United States, were kidnapped from their familial homes and forced into boarding schools. The ultimate goal of these “schools” was to assimilate the children within the predominant white Christian culture, thereby effectively white-washing the rich cultural heritage and prior knowledge of their Indigenous identities. Tragically, the impact of these “schools” was a tremendous erasure of Indigenous languages and heritage. Furthermore, they imparted horrific verbal and physical abuse upon the student body. A better term to describe many of these facilities would be internment camps.

Although Indigenous communities have known about and reckoned with the extent of these abuses for years (see: CBS News, 2021 and Morin, 2021), the harsh reality has been largely obscured from mainstream history and contemporary culture until more recent investigations and discoveries uncovered harrowing instances of physical and intellectual mistreatment.

Our education systems are still not doing enough to recognize and address the academic and cultural issues of Indigenous American Students (see: Saccaro, 2014). As long as schools perpetuate dehumanizing myths about Indigenous North Americans (see: Dunbar-Diaz, 2016), maintain mascots and athletic team names that are derogatory to Indigenous Americans and observe skewed versions of Christopher Columbus and Thanksgiving, the white-washing of Indigenous culture will continue marginalizing generations of Native American students.

One way to raise awareness and exhibit empathy for historical and contemporary trauma, is through visual art that symbolically depicts individual and communal experiences of discrimination and oppression. Vancouver, Canada-based artist Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun has made works of art to honor the memories of the Indigenous school children who were killed and buried in a mass grave at the Kamloops Indian Residential School.

Yuxweluptun is of Cowichan and Syilx descent. He attended the infamous boarding school from kindergarten through second grade. His painterly style incorporates the traditional iconography of First Nations art from the Pacific Northwest. His time-honored forms tell new tales, which reflect the condition of the Indigenous Peoples with regards to threats from climate change, displacement and racial discrimination. One of Yuxweluptun’s socially engaged paintings, titled Portrait of a Residential School Child, is a critical and spiritual response to the poignant and deplorable treatment of Indigenous students in former Native American boarding schools.

Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, Portrait of a Residential School Child, 2005. Courtesy of the artist.

The anonymous subject in the painting is an archetype for all of the students who were abducted, abused and killed at these institutes of miseducation and indoctrination. The student’s face evokes formline art of the Northwest Coast and sacred First Nations imagery such as the salmon-trout head eye, as well as allusions to the Christian faith like the gold leaf halo that surrounds the portrait. The combined religious iconography signifies a strong rebuttal to the assimilation and degradation that white Christians bestowed upon the Indigenous students. In the aftermath, the student’s cultural identity transcends the deplorable acts of white supremacy. According to Yuxweluptun the sacred First Nations symbolism, which overrides the subtle Christian art references, shows that they may have “killed his body but not his spirit.” (quoted in Hadani, 2021).

The spiritual, social and emotional resilience of intergenerational Indigenous communities has inspired new progressive education movements, where languages, traditions and land rights are documented and taught to larger populations of Native North Americans. These essential and enduring actions are representative of the need for complete decolonization and Indigenous sovereignty. There should never again be a moment in time when any student is re-educated in an institution that seeks to erase their essence. The pedagogy and methodology of sustaining and expanding Indigenous cultures enables Indigenous Peoples to express their rich and multifaceted backgrounds, identities and experiences without the influence or revisionism of settler colonialism. Yuxweliptun explains that “An artist can’t do anything if he doesn’t watch, observe and participate in what’s going on…My work is to record” (quoted in Townsend-Gault, 1995). Actively listening and learning from the past and present lessons taught by Indigenous Americans benefits us all. And it would behoove all North American schools to incorporate Indigenous student-centered learning throughout the K-12 and higher education curricula.

References, Notes, Suggested Reading: 

Ditmars, Hadani. “‘I want the UN to come and see what has happened here’: Canadian Indian residential school survivor speaks out for victims in his art.” The Art Newspaper, 28 June 2021. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/news/canadian-indian-residential-school-survivor-honours-victims

Dunbar-Diaz, Roxanne. “The Miseducation of Native American Students.” Education Week, 28, Nov. 2016. https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2016/11/30/the-miseducation-of-native-american-students.html

Morin, Brandi. “Residential school survivors reflect on a brutal legacy: ‘That could’ve been me.’” National Geographic, 28 June, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/residential-school-survivors-reflect-on-brutal-legacy-that-could-have-been-me

Sacarro, Matt. “This Is What Modern Day Discrimination Against Native Americans Looks Like.” Mic, 20 October 2014. https://www.mic.com/articles/101804/this-is-what-modern-day-discrimination-against-native-americans-looks-like#.7TW9vXJGj

“Survivor of school where remains of 215 Indigenous children were found recounts abuse: ‘We were told we were ugly.'” CBS News, 4 June 2021. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/kamloops-residential-school-survivor-abuse/

Townsend-Gault, Charlotte. “The Salvation Art of Yuxweluptun,” in Born to Live and Die on Your Colonialist Reservations, Vancouver: Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery, 1995 (exhibition catalogue).

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