We recently heard of the shocking discovery of the grave of 215 children found on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada. The children belonged to Indigenous communities, and were forcibly enrolled in such schools as part of the Canadian government’s policy of cultural assimilation. Residential schools were essentially boarding schools that targeted Indigenous children, ostensibly to teach them to become “modern citizens” but actually stripped them of their own identity, language, and heritage. These youngsters stayed for long stretches of time—months, if not years—in residential schools without being able to go home, all the while being subjected to abuse and neglect. The children buried in Kamloops are among the countless others who have disappeared while they were in this system. That there does not seem to be any official recording of these deaths suggest that the people who ran Kamloops (and perhaps the many other residential schools throughout Canada) simply did not care about children dying under their watch.
I first learned about the Canadian residential school system from the graphic novel “Paying the Land” by acclaimed writer and artist Joe Sacco. Sacco is known for his journalistic keenness and empathic retelling of stories of people who lived through war in works such as “Footnotes in Gaza” and “Safe Area Goražde.” In “Paying the Land,” he focuses on the Dene in the Northwest Territories. Though not living under active conflict, the Dene nevertheless wage daily struggles with multinational companies, the Canadian state, poverty and addiction, and the turbulent recent past—of which residential schools were a substantial part.
“Paying the Land” is a thoughtful and accessible introduction to the issues the Dene face. It is told mainly through the words of Dene leaders, almost all of whom had gone through residential schools. I invite everyone who wants to learn more to get a copy.
But what I want to focus on at this moment was the story of one of the Dene leaders who shared his story to Sacco: Paul Andrew, a chief of the Shúhtaot’ine (or Mountain Dene). When he was eight, Paul Andrew’s parents had been compelled to send him and two of his brothers to a residential school run by nuns who regularly hit them. But aside from the physical abuse, Paul Andrew recalled how distinctively hurtful it was that the school stripped him and his peers of their sense of their individual selves. Instead of being called by name, they were given numbers. “It’s part of taking away that personality,” he explains, so that it was easier to reshape them into whatever type of person the school saw fit—or easier to sweep any deaths under the rug, as what happened at Kamloops.
This was in sharp contrast to the life Andrew and his brothers enjoyed in their mountain communities: “In the camp, you’re an individual, you’re unique, you’re important, you have a role… In residential schools there’s no individuality.” Indeed, “Paying the Land’s” powerful first pages are a vivid visual retelling of Andrew’s young life before residential school: his birth, his learning the ways of the camp, the freedom and excitement of moving about by moose-kin boat or dog sled, greeting the sun as it came up, being socialized in a manner that made one attuned to the needs of others, and all the while being independent, and being valued as a unique person.
We should pause briefly with Andrew’s statement. It begs us to question the common dichotomy between “traditional” societies that are often viewed and portrayed as “innate” collectivists, and “individuality” as a feature or result of “modern” life and “capitalist” relations of production. But many “subsistence” producers (those that rely heavily on non-industrial ways to make a living) do hold a strong sense of individuality in high esteem. Though it may seem paradoxical to us, it is precisely this hardy personal autonomy that allows sharing relations to flourish and prevents violence and the formation of ego-centric authority. If everyone recognizes each individual’s uniqueness and their freedom to decide for themselves, then social solidarity is based not upon compulsion or pressure to conform to a “collective,” but upon mutually beneficial moral principles—and in many such groups, these principles are infused in their myths, epics, rituals, and other cultural practices.
In a recent seminar, the anthropologist Tania Li talked about how dichotomizing “individuality” and “communitarianism” can actually be residues of colonial thinking, something that we should be conscious about when we mobilize similar concepts today. Though nowadays this often occurs in well-intentioned contexts (say, in advocacy), they can still box people into stereotypes. I personally think that a lot of current usages of this dichotomy is more reflective of our (that is, non-Indigenous) own ennui and discontents with “modernity” than a fine-grained depiction of Indigenous life (as in Paul Andrew’s recollection).
Closer to home, Andrew’s recollection of his youth resonates with Manobo experiences I’ve gathered through stories and while staying with them during fieldwork. Children are brought to the fields to observe and learn daily chores, but largely they come and go as they please, are independent, and enjoy personal leeway. Parents are especially indulgent, but rather than turn kids into spoiled brats, I think that this teaches generosity and responsiveness to others’ needs.
More recently, many people have remarked about how the Lumad students of the Bakwit schools can assert and speak for themselves. We saw this quite clearly in the events surrounding the February raid at the Bakwit School in the University of San Carlos compound in Cebu City. Such remarks—both admiring and grudging—often attribute this to these kids being educated in the Bakwit schools. These schools have certainly played a significant role in this, but I would argue that such an outlook to life is foremost instilled in them in the same way as with the Dene: by growing up as Manobo, in particular ways that are situated well within their own culture.
I’ll give just one illustration here and it comes from studying Manobo tattooing. Tattooing often happens in late childhood and early teens, and many Manobo remember this as an occasion for their young selves to exercise their own decision-making. Because tattooing is painful, the choice to undergo this must be made consciously. Also, this pain is something that the individual can fully feel and process only for him or herself. It’s stressful, yes, but the people I’ve spoken with say they came out of it feeling proud, self-assured, and even beautiful (a much-valued trait!). Such circumstances really focus one’s attention to one’s own self—physically, mentally, and emotionally—helping create a robust sense of individual capacity and self-worth.
The Lumad’s current campaigns focus on collective gains, as these should. But I think these campaigns have benefitted greatly from the foundations laid by previous Lumad generations of forging strong members who think, decide, and engage with each other as healthy individuals. Conversely, when Canadian residential schools stripped young Indigenous people of their individuality, they were destroying any such foundation for collective life with their own community. What we can learn from these Indigenous societies is that when we say that we want to build a better world, a sound sense of being an individual is too valuable to view in black-or-white, or to be given up wholly to capitalism. Like the Dene and the Manobo, it is something to be fostered on to succeeding generations.