Integration Back to Communities

Another substantial intergenerational effect that the residential school system had on Native Americans was that it caused great difficult for students to integrate back into their home communities once released. When they returned they were not close to their family members and some reported feeling like strangers in their own homes. One survivor describes his difficulty, “My family — my siblings went through what I went through so we were pretty much alike in that, but there was a real gap in the relationship — a close relationship between my parents and us. It wasn’t there anymore. It was like — I mean when you think back, I mean we were gone a majority of the year and that bonding or something just disintegrated maybe. So I — all my life I was never able to communicate freely with my mother or my father and — there was no intimacy at all.[1]” One of the biggest difficulties with integrating back to their home communities was the loss of their indigenous language. At the residential schools children were forced to only speak English. When the children spoke their language, they said: “[The Sister] made us take down our drawers and she strapped us on the backside.” Some survivors reported their parents being angry with them because they had forgotten how to speak the language. This lack of communication could have lead to the inability to carry out a relationship with their parents. The loss of traditional language also impacts survivor’s children. Many children now do not know how to speak traditional languages because it English was their primary medium of communication after leaving the schools.

The Head Start Program did a study  on Navajo children in 1990. The study found that only 7 percent could speak Navajo fluently, while 11 percent had limited proficiency, and 82 percent had none at all.[2] More and more children come to school each year with only a passive knowledge of the community language.[3] Some believe that this intergenerational language shift represents a crisis of identify. It is a crisis of values, morality, and ways of knowing the most basic question of what it means to be Navajo- and whether children, will indeed be lost, disconnected from the words and worlds of their forebears.[4] This is a trend that is likely consistent across the different Native American tribes. This leaves many children without a sense of whom they are. The social and economic environment within which a language community raises its children has a tremendous influence on whether those children make the effort to use and continue to develop their ancestral language.[5] The failure to pass on ancestral languages throughout generations foreshadows a bigger scale problem of a loss of culture. Many survivors stated that members of their family viewed them as somehow different after attending the residential schools. One recalls, “We had no other parents and I remember from Wrangell us going home and we had been like indoctrinated or something where we went back home thinking differently than we had the year before. And there were quite a few of us in my family, and I remember one year a few years later, my father getting real angry at us because we hadn’t learned how to do things that were a basic necessity of the Inupiat lifestyle and I never forgot that. I never forgot his frustration and I didn’t tie it to anything then, but it was those two worlds clashing and trying to find ourselves, that loss of identity and being told to think white and be a white person.” This loss of cultural practices is also something that devastated relationships between parents and children. The destruction of culture was facilitated through parent’s inability to visit or communicate with their children. Often time’s residential schools even withheld presents, letters and other personal property of children.[6] The residential school model was generally located at a considerable distance from Indian reserves with the intention of keeping pupils away from their families and tribes for as much of the year as possible[7]. A Canadian government report in 1896 concluded that Indian “parents’ migratory life style, their dislike of corporal punishment for children, and their indifference to the occupational prospects of educated youths impeded the assimilation policy and programs.”[8]

In a few instances parents were allowed to visit their children. One such picture is at the bottom of this page. This picture is of a man named Quewich dressed in traditional-quasi clothing[9] and his three children. This picture was taken in 1900 at the Qu’ Appelle Industiral School in Saskatchewan, Canada. This photograph was used by the Department of Indian Affairs throughout the time as an illustration of the confidence of the residential school system. This photograph was supposed to show the success of relationally reconceiving indigenous identities.[10] Milloy comments on the picture, “ The father, stooped and wrinkled, already a figure of the past having reached the limit of evolution, appears to be decaying right in front of the camera, dying off, as was his culture. In sharp contrast, his children neatly attired in European clothing, the boy’s cadet cap a symbol of citizenship, examples of the future of the great transformation to be wrought by separation and education in the residential school.”[11] This description while compelling the reader to feel empathy for the father shows how the Department of Indian Affairs would have viewed this as progress. However, looking at the photo from a different perspective gives us a completely different conclusion other than “success.” The first thing that I notice about this photograph is the distance that is prevalent between Quewich and his children. While it is not known how long these children spent in the Qu’ Appelle Industiral School it would seem that they would be happy at the chance to be reunited with their father. Most people even when they are not gone for long periods of time greet their family with hugs and smiles. It almost seems as if it were two pictures collaged together. One may also notice how the older sister has her hand on the brother’s back but no such display of affection is directed towards the father. Whether this separation is due to a loss of cultural identity by the children or perhaps the father being angry about the change seen in his children, one cannot say. However, it is clear that there is a dissonance present in this photograph as a result of the children attending residential schools. While I can only speculate about this picture another thing that strikes me is the mood this picture projects. The father in the background gives the feeling that was conveyed by Milloy, “dying off.” He looks hopeless as to regaining his children and bringing them back into the traditional ways of life. It is hard to speculate as to what the children in this photograph may be conveying through their expressions. It could be a shared helplessness as to returning to their old way of life. It could also be a stark determination to continue the shedding of indigenous culture and continue to assimilate to “civilized” standards. One thing that is interesting to me is the ages of the children. There is no information of the background of Quewich and his children or what happened to them after this photo. The young boy looks to be around the age of 12, his sister in the back around 10 and the younger sister on the chair about 6. While it is unknown how long they had been at the school before this photo was taken, it is interesting to think about how much the children do actually remember about their lives outside of the school. Especially in regards to the youngest child, if she was taken at a young age it is hard to imagine she would remember anything about life outside of the school. The thing that stands out to me the most about Milloy’s description of the photograph was the reference to clothing. Quewich here is dressed in traditional clothing whereas the children are dressed strictly in European fashion. Their hair also differs from that of their father. These outfits show how sharp the contrast between the two cultures really is. It is hard to imagine wearing traditional clothing for a large portion of your life and then suddenly having to switch. Another aspect of this picture that I find particularly disturbing is what happens afterwards. It is rare that students ever got to see their parents. It is also rare that children would be in close proximity to their siblings. Who knows when the next time these children would have seen their father and their siblings after this photograph was taken. It could have been years until their release from the residential school. This picture to me symbolizes the burdens on families that residential schools caused. This separation between father and children shows how through the destruction of language and culture integration back into families was virtually impossible.


Originally Published By Department of Indian Affairs

Originally Published By Department of Indian Affairs



[1] Diane Hirshberg and Suzanne Sharp, “Thirty Years Later: The Long-Term Effect of Boarding Schools on Alaska Natives and Their Communities.”

[2] Charles Glenn, American Indian/First Nation Schooling: From the Colonial Period to the Present, (New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2011,) Page 165-166.

[3] Glenn, 166.

[4] Glenn, 91.

[5] Glenn, 174.

[6] Churchill, 32.

[7] Glenn, 91.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Milloy, 29.

[10] Jocelyn Downie and Jennifer Llewellyn, Being Rational: Reflections on Relational Theory and Health Law, (UBC Press 2011,) Page 143.

[11] Milloy, 29.