The History of Forced Native American Boarding Schools, the Link to Farm to School, and Our Commitment

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August 31, 2021

By Helen Dombalis, Executive Director

Over the past several weeks, National Farm to School Network staff and I have been listening to, learning about, and reflecting on a history that Native and Indigenous people have been naming for generations, but that only recently has gained public attention: the horrific, traumatic, and unjust history of forced boarding schools for Native children.

The US government first opened these schools in 1879 with the express intent of cultural genocide by removing Native children from their homes in order to systemically wipe out Native cultures. Under the management of the US federal government and several Christan church denominations, there were at least 367 schools in 29 states where Native children were punished for speaking their languages, stripped of their cultural clothing and hair, and banned from behaviors reflecting their Native identities. Physical, sexual, emotional, cultural, and spiritual abuse and neglect were rampant. Hundreds of thousands of Native children were removed from their families and forced into these schools. In 1926, it was estimated that 83% of all Native school-age children had been forced to attend. As recent news stories from Canada and the US have retold, many never returned home.

Another piece of this history – which is directly linked to farm to school’s history – was forced agricultural labor in many of these schools. This was a specifically chosen tactic for forcing values of individualism, dismantling communal worldviews, and driving the agenda of a colonistic food system that’s rooted in exploitation, extraction, and profit. It is imperative to understand that this real and traumatic history of Native children gardening at schools in the early 20th century has often been re-spun into a white dominant narrative about the benefits of America’s first school garden movement, which for white children (to be specific) was viewed as "[affording] opportunity for spontaneous activity in the open air, and possibilities for acquiring a fund of interesting and related information.” To be clear, gardening and agricultural labor was anything but a benefit to Native children in these circumstances. (Thank you to Alena Paisano, a former colleague at National Farm to School Network, for previously sharing this history with us.)

Today, National Farm to School Network actively partners on farm to school efforts in Native communities. Through these efforts, we strive to be supporters in work happening to reclaim food traditions, revitalize Native foodways, and build food sovereignty. While there have been shining spots in this work, there have also been shortcomings. Given this, and my deep desire for National Farm to School Network to be a better ally to our Native partners, I have been reflecting: if National Farm to School Network had existed 100 years ago, would we have been complicit in the horrific actions imposed on Native children? In what ways are we complicit to the injustices that continue to persist for Native peoples today? And what changes can I lead to be accountable to and correct this?

One starting way is through this statement you are reading. I state, unequivocally, that National Farm to School Network is committed to standing by our Native and Indigenous partners and their communities in demanding answers, accountability, and justice for past harms and injustices. I am also committed to leading by example, especially for National Farm to School Network staff, in continuing to listen, learn, and reflect on this history. Since actions speak louder than words, I will also be proactive in taking action for justice, including deferring to the leadership of our Native partners and whatever actions they may ask of me and National Farm to School Network – now, and in the future. I acknowledge that sustained commitment and engagement is required, and that my actions – and the actions of National Farm to School Network – will demonstrate the sincerity of this commitment. I openly welcome feedback, conversation, and the opportunity to be held accountable to these things.

National Farm to School Network is committed to a vision of a racially just food system, and as such, we will not keep silent about racial inequities. As a network of farm to school and community food systems advocates, we must address the impacts and legacies of traumatic and unjust histories – past and present – in the spaces we work. If this history of forced residential schools for Native children is new to you, I encourage you to continue listening, learning, and reflecting, and to turn that learning into active support for Native peoples in fighting for equity and justice. Here are some places to start:

Thank you to Mackenize Martinez, National Farm to School Network Program Associate, for elevating this history on a recent call with NFSN staff and for encouraging our organization to speak publicly about it.

UPDATE: Thank you to Valerie Segrest, NFSN Advisory Board member, for suggesting that we also elevate the lasting impact of Native children being fed army rations and how that has altered Native peoples' physical taste buds and interrupted the transmission of cultural foldaway knowledge through generations. Learn more in this article written by A-dae Romero-Briones:
Fighting for the taste buds of our children.

This blog was originally posted August 5, 2021.