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Diversity and Student Success presentation features graduate students’ research about the impact of U.S. boarding schools in Native communities

Four panelists sit in chairs while presenting to the audience.
From left to right, Clyde Ellis, a professor at Elon University; and Meredith McCoy, Danielle Gartner and Rachel Wilbur, doctoral students at UNC-Chapel Hill

The history and legacy of American Indian boarding schools are not regularly taught in K-12 education, said Meredith McCoy, a doctoral student and a member of the Royster Society of Fellows at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. McCoy is working with fellow UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral students Danielle Gartner and Rachel Wilbur to share the complexity of boarding school legacies and their impact on Native communities.

The three graduate student researchers recently discussed their findings at a campus event that brought nearly 50 graduate students, faculty and others together on a chilly November afternoon. The Graduate School’s Diversity and Student Success program sponsored the inaugural “Beyond These Walls” talk, which shares graduate student research that will impact Carolina and beyond.

Gartner (epidemiology), Wilbur (anthropology) and McCoy (American studies) used an interdisciplinary approach to investigate this topic.

Professor Clyde Ellis of Elon University provided context and background information on boarding schools. According to Ellis, beginning in the early 1800s, the U.S. government intended to erase Native peoples’ identity, culture, language and religious practices by re-educating their children to assimilate into the American ideals of staunch individualism, Protestantism, gender-specific occupational training and standard Americanized customs.

McCoy, a descendant of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and Gartner, a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, both had family members who attended the schools.

The children were brought to isolated boarding schools from hundreds of tribal nations and geographical regions across the country, Ellis said. They endured extremely harsh living conditions, sometimes including physical, emotional and sexual abuse and corporal punishment.

An audience listens to the panel speak.
Graduate students, faculty and others listen as the speakers share their research.

Gartner explained the severity of the consequences that Native families experienced, including separation anxiety, the loss of their native languages and dialects, prevalence of depression and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder. The Native family dynamic, which was very close and communal in nature, had been destroyed by these boarding schools, and many families carried that trauma for generations, Gartner said.

Wilbur, a descendant of the Tolowa Nation, added that additional medical and psychological effects ensued during and after children’s time in the boarding schools.

“As adults, some former boarding school students faced substance abuse issues, the inability to form healthy interpersonal relationships and internalized feelings of shame,” Wilbur said.

These negative, lingering effects of “cultural genocide” lasted several generations and well into the 1970s, according to the researchers. However, there were several ways in which these Indigenous communities empowered themselves to overcome the challenges.

Some alumni petitioned and fought court battles against the U.S. government and private institutions that ran the schools. Other alumni and their families took control of some of the boarding schools in the 20th century and restructured them to embrace their Native cultures and celebrate their history through reformed education.

McCoy, Wilbur and Gartner stated that the U.S. government has not done enough to acknowledge its historic actions involving Native communities. In their research, they found that Canada had incorporated programs and resources that assist Native nations in strengthening their communities. The United States could learn from this, they agreed.

Kathy Wood, co-director of Diversity and Student Success, said that conversations and presentations like this help to build community and understanding on campus and beyond.

“We wanted a window into their passion, what brought them to Carolina, and what will certainly carry them beyond these walls: their research,” Wood said. “With this new endeavor, we are excited to showcase the scholarship of our students while cultivating conversation with our broader campus community.”

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