view counter

Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School - A Rich-Heape Film

Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School, a documentary that examines an educational system that was designed to destroy Indian culture and tribal unity. 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. Challenged by that philosophy, hundreds of students died, but many survived to change the system and gain fame.

Jim Thorpe (Sauk and Fox), who was honored as the greatest athlete in the world by King Gustav of Sweden at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, is the iconic hero who survived the boarding school system. 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.

Thorpe may be the most famous hero that emerged from the system, but all of the students were heroic says Clifford Trafzer, Ph.D., professor of history and director of graduate studies, University of California Riverside, and editor of Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. They had to be heroes; they had to face the monster, which was the system which was set up to try to rob them of their culture, their languages, their way of life, their foods, their clothing.

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, who attended boarding schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, 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. Numerous times they d put on this big old white, big huge white cone. Put on there, it says dunce. I didn t know what it meant. I didn t know English. They put it on me. Make me wear it all over. Kids would laugh at me.

We met Andrew Windy Boy in 2002 while on the Summit Lake Paiute Reservation in northern Nevada. Andrew s oral history of his boarding school experience was the inspiration for this film, says Steven R. Heape, Cherokee Nation Citizen and executive producer of Rich-Heape Films. This was by far the most difficult interview I have ever done, says Chip Richie, director of the film. To witness the pain and humiliation that Andrew experienced some 50 years ago, to see it so fresh and alive in its telling, was very disturbing. 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. This is a story that must be told and not forgotten, Heape said.

Criticism by reformers during the late 19th and early 20th century led to a national investigation that resulted in the Meriam Report of 1928. In spite of a scathing indictment in one of the chapters, there was little change for several years. As outrageous and unforgivable as this system was, it is even more incredulous to discover that this failed policy was then introduced to Alaska in the 1940s with the same devastating results, Richie says.