The genocide of the First Nations that reside in the continent of North America was perpetrated by white settlers and colonialism. Not only were whole nations eliminated through continuous warfare, biological attacks, and re-settlement, but the children of the remaining people were forced into what is known as the Indian Residential Schools. These schools systematically divested indigenous children from their culture, mode of production, and their families. These schools tortured, starved, and forced white culture onto girls and boys alike. Both girls and boys suffered at these institutions, but girls were particular tools of assimilation by the u$. Girls in the residential schools were victims of various forms of abuse and were used as a tool by which they, their future mates, and their nations would be assimilated into the settler value system. Assimilation is a colonial tool used to control oppressed nations. There is much mainstream feminism that pushes assimilation. The history of the brutality of forced assimilation that took place in the Residential Schools is one critique of assimilation in feminist literature.

The history of the nations that are indigenous to North America is diverse and rich. Many cultures were very different from European culture. There were many matrilineal tribes. Dwellings, skills, and familial traditions were passed down through generations of women. Many tribes functioned on a “sexual division of labor.” The essay “I am the Fire of Time” gives a good overview of indigenous women prior to and during colonization. This essay describes the division of labor:

These sexual divisions of labor did not always translate into sexual inequality. In many cases, specialization by sex conveyed power to both sexes, and the labor of one sex was not generally valued over that of the other. Each sex had control over its own work and over resources that were essential to the others. (Almott 35)

Women had control over their modes of production and their position in society. Additionally, in some tribes, the ability to take on the roles of the other sex was an option. The same essay asserts that in some Plains tribes a “young female who felt strongly that she wanted to live as a man would go through a special tribal ritual” after which s/he would take on male roles in work and sex. Women, of certain tribes, were free to control their lives and take on varying roles according to their needs or tastes.

The influx of white settlers would change these social dynamics. Colonialism would steal native lands. Constant warfare would result in the deaths of many indigenous peoples. Those that did not die from warfare, disease, or the stress of delocation were a problem for the white settler nation. The final solution to the Indian problem was the residential schools. Take the children from their families and beat, starve, and inculcate them until they were culturally assimilated, or at least psychologically broken.

Ward Churchill, in his book Kill the Indian, Save the Man, marks the beginning of the residential school system in the 1870’s and states that the goal of the system was that:

Every single aboriginal child would be removed from his/her home, family, community and culture at the earliest possible age and held for years in state-sponsored “educational” facilities, systematically deculturated, and simultaneously indoctrinated to see her/his own heritage – and him/herself as well – in terms deemed appropriate by a society that despised both to the point of seeking as a matter of policy their utter eradication. (Churchill 13)

One of the main figures of the early residential school system was Captain Pratt.   He had been a warden at the Fort Marion military prison and was the superintendent of the model residential school, The Indian Industrial School in Carlisle Pennsylvania. (Ibid) Pratt was instrumental in designing the “curriculum” of this school. His thoughts on female students would also carry on to other residential schools. Girls were not originally students at the residential schools, but by 1880 there were almost 60 female students at Carlisle and another school known as Hampton. Robert A. Trennert outlines some of the policies regarding females at the residential schools in his essay, “Educating Indian Girls at Nonreservation Boarding Schools, 1878-1920”:

As rapidly as possible the girls were placed in a system that put maximum emphasis on domestic chores. Academic learning clearly played a subordinate role. The girls spent no more than half a day in the classroom and devoted the rest of their time to domestic work. (Trennert 275)

The reeducation the young females were subjected to was different from their male contemporaries. They were expected to learn and engage in “domestic” work which followed the European value system. These young women were no longer in control of their work or their position in society. They were to learn western style cooking, sewing and other “women’s work” and were divested from their former areas of production, such as indigenous methods of agriculture, handicrafts, and household goods. They were no longer allowed to engage in agriculture, or production of handicrafts as they once had.

Pratt also believed that girls were “more unmanageable than boys because of their ‘inherent spirit of independence.’ To instill the necessary discipline, the entire school routine was organized in martial fashion, and every facet of student life followed a strict timetable (Trannert 276). Young females were viewed as inherently different than male students. They were seen as more savage and difficult to control. They were therefore subjected to harsh discipline, often involving ridicule or physical punishment.  There was also widespread sexual abuse at the schools. Churchill devotes a section of his book, entitled “predation,” which describes the systemic sexual abuse that took place at various institutions. Churchill posits that due to budgetary constraints and hiring policy, only the “misfits, incompetents and sociopaths deemed unfit to work in other settings” were hired to maintain these institutions. Both boys and girls were subjected to various forms of sexual abuse. Churchill draws out the contradiction between what the children were taught and what they were subjected to:

Even as the children were mercilessly flogged for the slightest deviation from the supposed virtues of “strict chastity: and other such aspects of “Christian morality,” they were routinely subjected to the attentions of sexual predators among the staff members, quite prominently including priests, nuns and protestant clergy. (62)

Churchill goes on to highlight many instances of abuse. Some of the young females were impregnated by their abusers. The pregnancies and the abuse itself were routinely kept secret.

One of the major implications of sending young females to the residential schools was that they would be instrumental in the assimilation of their male counterparts and their tribes as a whole. The purpose in sending girls to the residential schools was less for their own assimilation than their supporting the assimilation of indigenous people as a whole. Pratt believed:

The Indian male needed a mate who would encourage his success and prevent any backsliding. Pratt charged Indian women with clinging to ‘heathen rites and superstitions’ and passing them on to their children. They were in effect unfit as mothers and wives. Thus, a woman’s education was supremely important, not so much for her own benefit as for that of her husband. (Trannert 277)

Indigenous women were viewed as mere tools for the destruction of their native culture. They were inculcated with the colonizers values and expectation of women so that they might support their male counterparts in assimilation.  Young girls were used as instruments of assimilation in families and tribes at large. The book, Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home, is a fictional narrative that illustrates this role. The book was written under a pen name by Marianne Burgess, who was an influential matron at the Carlisle school. Burgess helped produce the Indian Helper and other publications from the Carlisle school (Fear-Segal 125). This book tells the story of a young woman returning home to her family’s reservation after having spent years at the school. Burgess creates a narrative in which the young woman is horrified by her peoples’ way of life and struggles with the desire to return to white society or stay and assimilate her tribe.

The book is an obvious piece of propaganda that pictures indigenous women as willing subjects of colonization. When the main character, Stiya, first reunites with her mother she has no desire return to her or the tribe:

’I cannot go with that woman [her mother],’ I pleaded.  My school-mother, in a voice so tender I shall never forget, said, ‘My dear girl, you must stop crying. You must not feel this way toward your own parents. This is your mother, she loves you. You will get used to her ways by and by. (p2)

This quote paints an absurd caricature of the residential school student; the young woman who trusts the matron more than her mother. Most of the students in these schools were abused by every level of administrator.

The book is also illustrative of how young girls were expected to be instruments of assimilation. When Stiya arrives at her family home she is disgusted with the way they live and describes their daily activities as savage. The climax of the story is when the village has a traditional dance and Stiya is expected to attend in “Indian dress.” She refuses and she and her mother and father are whipped for the transgression. Her parents are impressed with her devotion to the white-man’s ways and decide to follow their daughter to assimilation. The book concludes with Stiya’s mother proclaiming: “I believe you have with you the white man’s god,” and her father saying, “I don’t know the white man’s way. Can I learn it? I will learn it” (73). Stiya is the model student; she has taken the white-man’s ways to heart, even willing to bear physical punishment for it, and along the way she convinces her family to take a similar path. The reality of the residential school is not so picturesque as this obvious piece of propaganda would have it.

Ward Churchill, in the section entitled, “Words of Pain,” tells about the lasting and measurable affects of Residential School on Indigenous communities. Churchill mentions several different psychological dysfunctions: RSS, Residential School Syndrome; CCS, Concentration Camp Syndrome; PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Churchill asserts that these are all applicable to those who survived the schools and are also dysfunctions which may be passed to children. Churchill makes a poignant comparison between the survivors of the schools and their children;

For the children of residential school survivors, childhood is often an experience worse than it was for one or both their parents . . . For the residential school children, those tormenting them were at least the aliens who had displaced their parents; for the children of survivors, it is all too frequently their parents themselves. (Churchill 71)

These schools have had a lasting impact on the First Nations of the American continent, not only because of their longevity, but also because of the impact on successive generations.

The Residential School system was designed to eliminate the so-called “Indian Problem.” After the people had been removed from their land, through force and coercion, they were forcibly sent to the Indian Residential schools to be reeducated to white society. These schools viewed women as instruments of assimilation. Assimilation, in reality, means giving up one’s culture in an effort to fit into the larger society, in the case of indigenous women, white, settler society. In this same vein, mainstream feminism supports an assimilationist line. This means that those advocating assimilation are also advocating the adoption of white culture, or oppressor culture, and divestment from one’s own culture.

The history of colonialism on the North American continent is long and brutal. The Indian Residential Schools are just one chapter of the story; however, they are very illustrative of colonial techniques of genocide. The process of assimilating and deculturating the remaining original occupants of stolen land has modern ramifications. The legacy of the Residential Schools is still strong in most Indigenous communities. Assimilation is a tool of the oppressor. Therefore, feminists who argue for assimilation and focus on identity politics are playing a dangerous game whose rules have long been made by the colonizer. Assimilation does not liberate; revolution liberates!

-Terryn Asunder


Almott, Teresa L. & Matthaei, Julie A. (1991). Race Gender and Work: A Multicultural Economic History of Women in the United States.

Burgess, Marianna (Embe)(1891). Stiya: A Carlisle Indian Girl at Home.

Churchill, Ward (2004). Kill the Indian, Save the Man.

Fear-Segal, Jaqueline (2004). “Eyes in the Text: Marianna Burgess and the Indian Helper.”

Gutierrez, Ramon (1991). When Jesus Came, The Corn Mothers Went Away.

Hoevler, Diana Long & Boles, Janet K. eds (2001). Women of Color: Defingin the Isues, Hearing the Voices.

Jaimes, M. Annette, ed (1992). The State of Native America:Genocide, Colonization and Resistance

Mann, Henrietta (1997). Cheyenne-Arapahoe Education: 1871 – 1982.

Mihesuah, Devon A (2003). Indigenous American Women: Decolonization, Empowerment, Activism.

Trennert , Robert A. (1982). “Educating Indian Girls at Nonreservation Boarding Schools, 1878-1920.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol. 13, No.3, Jul., 1882.

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History, Indigenous National Liberation, Media & Culture, National Liberation, Neo-Colonialism