Indian boarding school film teaches a new lesson

By Sandra Hale Schulman
News From Indian Country 8-08

Gut wrenching, confounding, and complex, Rich-Heape Films have released their long awaited documentary titled “Our Spirits Don’t Speak English: Indian Boarding School.”

A chapter of American history that few know about, this is the searing story of how Indian children were forced – often by their poverty-stricken parents – into boarding schools that were run like Christian military prisons. Once there, the children were stripped of their Native clothing, shorn of their long hair, and punished if they spoke Native languages. They were shamed and abused psychologically, many were abused sexually as well. The effects of the abuse left lasting impressions on the children who often grew up to be abusers themselves.

The skills they were taught denigrated them to lifelong working class service jobs such as construction, cooking, and sewing. When they returned to their reservations, they were shunned by their families who felt the skills they had were useless and did not accept their short hair and formal dress. Started in the late 1800s, the last school closed in 1968. Most former students are in their 50-70s, the administrators are mostly deceased.

The film was released in the beginning of June. On June 10, 2008, the government of Canada formally apologized to the World, in a solemn parliament session for its treatment of Indians in the last century. Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, apologized for previous governments’ policies of taking Indian children from their parents and homes and forcing them into residential Roman Catholic schools. The U.S. government has yet to make a statement.

“How do you apologize to the dead?” asks filmmaker Steven Heape, Cherokee Nation Citizen and executive producer of Rich-Heape Films.

Yet, despite the harsh treatment, the film shows that many of the graduates eventually took their newfound knowledge and used it to fight the system that had attempted to destroy them. The most useful thing they learned was English as it brought all the various tribal children – Cherokee, Chicasaw, Cree, Navajo – together in a common language.

When it began in 1879, the philosophy of the Indian boarding school system was “to kill the Indian and save the man,” the mission statement of Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder and superintendent of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania until 1904.

Jim Thorpe (Sauk and Fox), the iconic hero, survived the boarding school system and was initially held up as a role model of what the school could do for a student. Grace Thorpe (Sauk and Fox), his daughter, in her last interview before she passed away on April 4, 2008, discusses boarding school experiences in the new documentary.

The battle against and the victory over the boarding school monster is told by educators, former and current students who were interviewed at Carlisle; Sherman Indian School, Riverside, Calif.; Sequoyah High School, Tahlequah, Okla.; Anchorage, Alaska; and other locations.

One of the most compelling is an interview with Andrew Windy Boy (Chippewa/Cree), from which the title is taken. Windy Boy gave the filmmakers the idea for the documentary. He attended boarding schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and talks about the assault on his culture.

“[They] took me to the boarding school where I wasn’t allowed to talk my Native tongue or practice my Native ways. I didn’t know any other language so whenever I’d talk, it would come out. Cree would come out. And whenever I’d talk, I’d get hit.”

“We met Andrew Windy Boy in 2002 while on the Summit Lake Paiute Reservation in northern Nevada,” says Heape. “Andrew’s oral history of his boarding school experience was the inspiration for this film. Andrew’s story is not one you will find or hear in the public school system. He and other survivors of the boarding school system truly have my respect for what was endured just for being an Indian child. These kids – 5 year olds – were handcuffed and taken away in buses to the other side of the country. This is a story that must be told and not forgotten.”

In addition to Grace Thorpe, participants include Henrietta Mann (Southern Cheyenne), Ph.D., endowed chair in Native American Studies at Montana State University – Bozeman, and Daniel R. Wildcat (Yuchi of the Muscogee Nation), Ph.D., co-director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center and member of the faculty of American Indians Studies.

Gayle Ross, renowned Cherokee storyteller and Great Granddaughter of Chief John Ross, is host and narrator of the film.

August Schellenberg narrated the opening introduction statement.

Screenwriter of the film is Dan Agent (Cherokee/Choctaw), former editor of the Cherokee Phoenix from November 1999 through 2006, original story by Karl Tipre. With sophisticated photo montages and extensive archival footage, the film is exceptionally stylish for a documentary.

According to Heape a class action suit was filed by some North Dakota elders against the school system but never went anywhere.

“We are getting the word out about this film through film festivals, PBS, mass distibution, and any other venue that would benefit from it,” says Heape. “This story truly crosses borders.”

“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English; Indian Boarding Schools” is the latest addition to the Native-owned film company’s portfolio of award winning films, that includes “Trail of Tears: Cherokee Legacy,” released in 2006 and chosen “Best Documentary Feature” at the 31st Annual American Indian Film Festival.