Catholic School in 1923: Were American Indians Really Tortured in Schools?

One of the heart-rending storylines of Paramount+’s Western series ‘1923’ revolves around Teonna Rainwater, a Native American girl who gets tortured in a Catholic boarding school. Teonna, along with several other Native American girls, was forced to remain in the institution while her grandmother Issaxche Rainwater try to find a way to release her. Although an educational institution is expected to safeguard its students, Father Renaud and the several nuns who run the school beat up and emotionally torture Teonna and her schoolmates. Affected by Teonna and her plight, we have found more startling information concerning these schools. Here’s what we found! SPOILERS AHEAD.

Catholic School in 1923

In ‘1923,’ the Catholic boarding school is an institution where Native American pupils are given basic/foundational education. The school run by Father Renaud takes advantage of the laws present to provide compulsory education to Native Americans to abduct girls from Native Indian families. Then, the nuns convert the students to Catholics by teaching them the way of life of Christians. The students are prohibited from speaking their Native American languages, which displays how much the priests and nuns of the place want to separate the Indians from their culture and roots.

Teonna and her fellow students are tortured whenever they fail to follow the rules and words of the priests or nuns. The latter group doesn’t even mind threatening to kill the students if they retaliate. In addition to physical and emotional torture, students are also sexually assaulted by the nuns. In the second episode of the show, one of Sister Mary’s fellow nuns assaults a helpless Teonna, who fails to move from her bathtub since she was left to starve for a day inside a small wooden torture cabin. Even if the family members of the students at the school want their children out of the place, technicalities in the law safeguard the abusers and “imprisoned” the students.

Were American Indians Really Tortured in Schools?

Yes, Indian boarding schools did exist in reality and thousands and thousands of Native Americans were really tortured in these schools. American Indian boarding schools were reportedly established in the mid-17th century in North America to “civilize” or “assimilate” Native Americans into the Christian/Catholic culture. The officials at these places used torture to fulfill their ambitions, which severely affected Native Americans since then. “The majority of the kids I went to school with are dead because of the experience they had, the abuse,” Manny Jules, the former chief of the Kamloops band of First Nations in British Columbia, told The Washington Post.

A Native American survivor of St. Joseph’s Indian School in Chamberlain, South Dakota, called his institution “a smorgasbord” for pedophiles and rapists. The same survivor revealed that girls were impregnated by their rapists in the institution. According to academician David Treuer, the whole system of education in North America was plagued by abusers, which severely affected Native Americans. “Education was something that was done to us, not something that was provided for us. And the boarding schools are a great example of that: They were a means by which the government was trying to destroy tribes by destroying families,” Treuer told The Atlantic.

The reality of what happened in these Catholic schools was revealed when mass graves of Native Americans were found on the school grounds. In 2021, 751 unmarked graves were found in the former Marieval Indian Residential School. According to reports, Marieval was only one of over 130 boarding schools run by religious officials in Canada and it is estimated that around 6,000 children died while attending these schools. When the atrocities suffered by Native Americans in similar boarding schools started to unravel, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced an investigation into “the loss of human life and lasting consequences” of these institutions.

The atrocities and assaults committed by Catholic officials in these boarding schools were acknowledged by Pope Francis. “I am sorry. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said in July 2022, while attending a ceremony at the lands of four Cree nations in Maskwacis, Alberta. The Indian boarding schools, run by Catholics, started to get shut down in the second half of the 21st century. Still, the trauma and suffering caused by these institutions still affect the Native Americans of contemporary times.

“My mother died while surviving civilization. Although she outlived a traumatic childhood immersed in its teachings, she carried the pain of those lessons for her entire life,” author and journalist Mary Annette Pember wrote about her mother Bernice, a survivor of the Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School, situated in Odanah, Wisconsin, and the long-lasting impact of the experience Bernice had at the institution. Pember’s mother’s experience isn’t an exception. Several Native Americans still deal with the traumas caused by their experience at these boarding schools.

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