Traditional Indigenous education, including adult responses to misbehaviour, rarely involved physical punishment. In sharp contrast, many of the methods used by the staff and faculty at the residential schools to discipline students involved severe corporal punishment. Forms of physical punishment were acceptable in both Europe and British North America and were common at the elite boarding schools in Britain at the time. But the residential schools were no elite boarding schools, and for many students the physical punishment experienced in the residential schools was physical abuse. Rather than preparing students for life after schooling was complete, a mixture of willful neglect and abuse negatively impacted many residential school students for the rest of their lives.
The line between punishment and abuse was frequently crossed. Many in the schools’ administrations believed that the students’ independent spirit had to be broken in order for them to accept a new way of life. Students who did not adhere to school schedules and regulations received strappings (whippings) and were often humiliated in front of peers. Students who tried to escape from the schools had their hair cut very short. Indeed, such offences would earn students long hours—even days—in a dark and secluded closet, often without real food.1 (The cutting of hair on the first day at school or for punishment had a profound meaning. Long hair has a deep and spiritual meaning in Indigenous cultures. To many, it serves as an extension of a person’s mind, reflective of its strength and beauty. The hair length and style also distinguish between different Indigenous nations. And symbolically, the cutting of a person’s hair by an enemy is an act of humiliation and forced submission.)2
The staff at the Mohawk Institute even built a prison cell for those who tried to escape.3 Indeed, disobedience and escape were two of the most common forms of resistance to the harsh, foreign discipline. In the 1990s, as the truth behind the treatment of Indigenous students came to light, it became clear that discipline and punishment could easily lead to physical abuse. And since the abusive behaviour of some staff of the residential schools was covered up, some of them routinely abused their students both sexually and physically.4
Geraldine Sanderson, who attended Gordon’s Indian Residence in Saskatchewan from 1959 to 1964, talks about her classmates’ desires to return to the familiarity of home. However, few ever made it very far, since the schools were often established in isolated areas, and punishments for those who were caught were harsh. She explains:
Gordon’s Indian Residence is an Anglican Institution. When I attended there, students were confirmed when they reached age 13.5 It was a really big deal. Everyone was confirmed.
I attended school at the Gordon’s residence from 1959–1964. I was nine years old when I started there. Every year a big bus would come to pick us up at the reserve and take us to the school. It took over three hours to get to Gordon’s from the James Smith Reserve. It was a long way from home. I was a very little girl. I got very lonesome.
Every once in a while students would run away, trying to get home. They would travel at night, helping themselves to vegetables and fruit from gardens along the way. One time we even took a pony from a farmer’s yard and rode it for several nights trying to get home. We hardly ever made it home, we were usually caught. And then we were punished.
Punishment for running away varied. One boy was hauled up in front of all the assembled students by the principal. He had a reputation for being mean. He forced the boy to pull his pants down and gave the boy 10–15 straps with a great big leather strap. Girls often had their head shaved bald if they tried to run away so that everyone would know. It was awful. I felt very ashamed. We also had to scrub the stairs with a toothbrush.6
When students who could not take the separation from their parents and the harsh environment ran away from the school and were caught by the school staff or the Indian agents, they often received strappings or were struck with the “cat-o-nine tails,” a whip with a cotton cord and nine knotted thongs, commonly used for punishment by the British navy and army.7 For offences such as running away, students also received hours of isolation in dark closets, boiler rooms, or abandoned areas of the school.
Even common childhood accidents like bedwetting were punished harshly. Lorna, who was at the Mohawk Institute from 1940 to 1945, describes the “shock treatments” the girls would receive, regardless of whether they had actually wet their beds.
They used to give us shock treatments for bedwetting. A lot of us never wet our beds but we still had to do it anyway. They said it worked for the girls but it didn’t work for the boys. They couldn’t really ever find out why, but I think it was because of the sexual abuse that went on there. . . . They used to bring in a battery—a motor of some sort or some kind of gadget, and he’d put the girl’s hand on it and it would jerk us and it would go all the way through us from end to end—it would travel. And we would do that about three times.8
At the Alberni School on Vancouver Island, which was in operation from 1892 to 1973 under the United Church, punishments were particularly harsh, and treatment of the children was often brutal. A staff member in 1961 and 1962, Marian MacFarlane, was fired for attempting to rescue a young child from a severe beating.
The local dentists were given free Novocaine by the government for the Native kids, but the traditional practice after the war years was for them to hoard the Novocaine for their practice in Port Alberni and just work on the Indians without painkillers. Everyone in the school knew about this and condoned it, from the principal on down. No one minded when Indians were hurt, naturally; they were being beaten every day.
To give you an example of the prevailing mentality towards Indians, I once caught a matron beating a little girl with a piano leg. She was just murdering that kid, who was maybe six years old, and she would have killed her if I hadn’t have grabbed the matron and socked her one. So off the matron goes to complain to John Andrews, the principal. That would have been in 1962. You know what Andrews did? He fired me for hitting the matron! And you know what he said? ‘I couldn’t let the matron go because she plays the organ on Sundays. Anything she did to that little squaw would have been better than us losing our organist.’ Well, that shows you what we were dealing with: the lives of the Indian kids were completely expendable. They were considered less than human, almost like a disease we had to get rid of.9
- 1 : In 1914, the Mohawk Institute was sued and fined after Nelles Ashton, the principal, imprisoned for three days two girls who had escaped from the school. The girls received only water for sustenance. See Elizabeth Graham, ed., The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools (Ontario: Heffle Publishing, 1997), 110.
- 2 : For a selection of elders’ testimonies regarding the importance of hair in Native American and Indigenous cultures, see Elders Talk About the Significance of Long Hair in Native American Culture (video), accessed May 12, 2015.
- 3 : Elizabeth Graham, The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools, 23.
- 4 : For painful testimonies on this topic, see Garnet Angeconeb, “Garnet’s Journey: From Residential School to Reconciliation,” accessed February 26, 2015.
- 5 : Confirmation is a Christian rite in which a young member of the church affirms his or her faith. It marks the fact that the person is mature, understands the teaching, and can become a full member.
- 6 : Geraldine Sanderson, “Running Away,” Residential Schools website, accessed February 26, 2015.
- 7 : Understanding Slavery Initiative website.
- 8 : Elizabeth Graham, The Mush Hole: Life at Two Indian Residential Schools, 378.
- 9 : Marian MacFarlane, testimony at Simon Fraser University Harbour Centre forum, Vancouver, BC, February 9, 1998.