One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples Photo: ‘Remembering our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience 1879-present’ at the Heard Museum, Phoenix
  • Unlike the Native American Indians, India got back her land but we lost our memories. In fact, we do not even know that we have walked through the fire of colonial holocausts— cultural and physical.

Manifest Destiny: America’s national policy, c. 1840, which was guided by the belief that the right to acquire territorial sovereignty, ocean to ocean was backed by divine providence. American settlement advanced under the legacy of Manifest Destiny and was in direct conflict with Native Americans’ belief in the right to maintain their lifeways with the backing of their creator. The resulting conflict was the primary cause for the Indian Wars.

The exhibit speaks of a Hiroshima long before they discovered the atom bomb. There is a statement by one Rosemary Christiansen made in the Minnesota Public Radio:

“I don’t believe that we can talk too harshly about what we have suffered, we Indian people have suffered from that particular point in our history, I call it...the Hiroshima, of Indian education, because it basically destroyed the fiber of our family life.”

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

The place where I stand is the Heard museum, Phoenix, Arizona and it is the section that showcases the Indian schools— the tools through which the Euro-Americans decided to “solve” the “Indian problem”. The Jefferson quote dominating the entrance wall says it all: “While they (Indians) are learning to do better on less land, our increasing numbers will be calling for more land.”

“The boarding school system was designed to erase all outward traces of Indian culture..” another panel says.  I wonder if the feeling I have is déjà vu Macaulay. I move on. And there is the sound I am unable to locate though it is familiar. The sound is that of the scissors playing on someone’s hair locks. I see before me a just a chair and a lot of cut hair locks around. Here is where the native hair arrangements were forcefully cut off and they were all made to look the same. “...we’d lost our hair and we’d lost our clothes; with the two we’d lost our identity as Indians”, the panel says.

No, I say to myself. This is the statement of an American Indian. This is not about Kudumi— the tuft of hair almost all Indian students once had and were shamed into removing. But now I feel a bond to those Native Americans— there is something more than the name that connects us across the oceans. Their sufferings, too, have taken the same route.

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

Josephine Sparks belongs to the Suquamish Native American community and she says that in the boarding schools designed for Native American communities, the children “never came home” a lot of times. The native children were taken away from their parents for “Humanising and Christianising’. The voice of one of those children said, “In my anguish, I moaned for my mother but no one came to comfort me.” In 1911, the U.S. Army entered into the Hopi Indian community and forcefully took away their children from the parents.

1911? A memory surfaces with stabbing pain.

“Segregation is one of the most effective means of combating epidemics of crime.” The words come to my mind as I look into the eyes of the “Indian” children, who look at me from beyond through the photographs in the exhibit. However, these are not words from the panel in front of me. These were the words of Booth-Tucker of the Salvation Army. And the context was about the children of communities declared “criminal” by the British.

Who were these “criminal tribes” and castes? Sansis of Punjab relate themselves historically to Sikh emperor Ranjit Singh. They were made “criminal tribes” because they resisted the British colonialism. In my own Tamil Nadu, in 18th century, the documents of the famous Vaishnavite Thirumohur temple describe how when the armies of the British East India company plundered the temples, carrying away the sacred jewellery loaded on camels, Kallars— the traditional village as well as highway guards of the region— attacked the British plunderers and retrieved the loot and handed them back to temple. Soon after the British established their plunder Raj, they promptly declared the Kallars criminal tribes.

In 1910, Booth-Tucker had written his Criminocurology Or The Indian Crim And What To Do With Him— a veritable 20th century Malleus Maleficarum, demanding stronger action and “gospel of compulsion”. 1911 was the year of reissuing the Criminal Tribes Act (CTA) in India and it was decided that the “criminal tribes” were redeemable by increasing punitive measures. The CTA of 1911, in its provisions 17 and 19, gave power to the authorities to separate and remove children from their parents and transfer any child to any settlement or school in any part of British India.

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

The guide at the Heard Museum was explaining how some Apaches were recruited by the Euro-Americans. The colonisers manipulated the traditional rivalry and conflicts within the native Indian communities and used them to decimate the Native American resistance.  I cannot but recall how the British had manipulated the psyche of Indian communities to despise each other. On 13 June 1896, an anonymous letter to The Hindu reported how the British propaganda of Kallars as a criminal caste had led to the burning of Kallar houses. Women and children were burnt to death. The letter writer had agonised, “Mr Editor, what have these poor Kallars done to the Government?”

I move slowly through the panels. And there come the graves. I see the cross stand triumphant over the grave of Susia Nach Kea, an Apache tribe girl at the Carlisle Indian School and innumerable many like her. Lawrence Webster studied at Tulalip Indian School in 1908. In 1985, he reminisced: “Death was the only way you could get home. It had to be a sickness or death before they’d let you out of there very long.” The mission to “civilise” Native Americans ultimately killed many children. In a field half as big as a football ground, more than 180 graves of children stand at the former Carlisle Indian School. The parents never got to see their children, even in their death. Often, they received letters which told them how their wards embraced death “like real men” and were given “Christian burials”.

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

I shudder at the possible parallels. It was only after 1947 when some officials and leaders became sensitive to the utterly inhuman conditions in which the so-called criminal tribes and castes were subjected to in India. Thus, the terse report by A. Aiyappan— then Secretary for the Aboriginal Tribes Welfare Enquiry Committee (1948) — recorded the condition of Bitragunta settlement near Madras as like those of “Nazi concentration camps” and of children being kept “behind barbed wire as though they are very dangerous animals”. At Stuartpuram settlement in Tamil Nadu, the Committee recorded evidence about “some high-handed actions of the manager” which resulted in “a volume of feeling against the management being left in the hands of missionaries”.

The Committee report still showed a colonial hangover— accepting the basic premise that these communities “need” the settlement and that “the case for continuing the work of the existing settlements and, if possible, extending and improving them is stronger now than it was in the past”. Equalling the Nazi concentration camp-like conditions, they show concern for possible beef-taboo entering the tribal communities through what they call “Hindu missionaries”. Yet, the stark reality of the cruelty they witnessed forced them to concede that the boarding school system, introduced by Christian missionaries with British support, “involved cruelty both to the children and the parents”.

As I step out of the museum, conflicting emotions arise within. The American Indians have lost their land and yet they retain the memories and bequeath it to generations. Here in India, too, the Hiroshima of colonial “education” fire-mushroomed over the organic networks of beautiful trees. Unlike the Native American Indians, we got back our land but we lost our memories. In fact, we do not even know that we have walked through the fire of colonial holocausts— cultural and physical.

I have come out of those panels showcasing the “solution” to “Native Indian problem” which was wrought by American Indian education. As I walk through the connecting corridor, I reconcile myself. Perhaps now the new American dream is different. At least now they bravely accept the truth or is it because they can allow the true story to be told now because the “Indian problem” has been decimated? As if in answer, I see a painting. It is a painting by Oliver Enjady of the Mescalero Apache tribe. A fire- mushroom dawns over the horizon of Apache Trinity which acts as the epicenter for concentric circular waves with nuclear hazard symbols spreading across Apache territory. The Mescalero Apache reservation was downwind of the Trinity atom bomb testing site. The artist says in an adjoining note: “I think Manifest Destiny is still happening”.

One Hiroshima Over Two Peoples 

I wonder about the residual radiation of Hiroshima that remains with us— our own English educated, India-hating elites who perpetuate the myth of Manifest Destiny whose British version is White Man’s Burden.

Aravindan is a contributing editor at Swarajya.


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