When my son Andrew was a senior in 2003, I was invited to Jo Johnson’s speech class to hear one of my son’s speeches. I wished it had been videotaped and I wish his mother had been there too because he gave a powerful speech about my wife’s family. The thing I remember most is the part where he talked about his Grandpa, Axel Holmes, Sr., being sent off to an Indian boarding school with his three older brothers. My father-in-law was only 5 at the time. When my son spoke of this we both teared up and Andrew had to stop talking for several seconds before he could go on.
Axel never talked about boarding school. I learned about the brothers’ boarding school experience from my wife’s uncle Art Holmes. They were all young boys 200 miles from home not knowing when they’d ever get home again. There was physical and sexual abuse perpetrated on them by both staff and other students. When the boys finally got home after several years they found their parents were divorced. They never saw much of their dad after that. Their Mother had remarried a Non-Indian and he didn’t want the boys around, so they had to fend for themselves.
Art talked about his struggle with alcohol. Alcohol, he said, was a painkiller and there was a great deal of emotional pain in their lives that alcohol briefly took away. One time, Art said he was talking to his Aunt and expressed hatred for his Mother for tricking him and brothers into getting on the train that took them to the boarding schools. Art’s Aunt told him it was the only thing they knew to do. They did their best but they didn’t know how to parent because they themselves had grown up boarding schools. Art talked about not knowing how to parent his own children. “Only thing I knew was to beat the hell out of them.” This is the legacy of Indian boarding schools.
With the discovery of a mass unmarked grave of Indian children at a former Indian boarding school in western Canada (some Indian children never made home, and their parents never knew what happened to them, (think of that little girl “Beaner” over in Chisholm that disapeared and what her parents have gone through), Indian boarding schools are in the news. This is a teachable moment because most people have no knowledge of Indian boarding schools, what happened in them, or their effect on Indian people, even today.