Portrait of Matthew Villenueve
Professor Matthew Villeneuve Photo: Paulius Musteikis

Back in the early 19th century, the U.S. government created a set of federal boarding schools for Native American children.

These schools, which removed thousands of children from their families and reservations, weren’t strictly designed to educate; in many cases, they were also engines of cultural assimilation, designed to eradicate Native American language and culture.

Matthew Villeneuve didn’t attend one of these schools, but his great-grandfather briefly did in 1900, before running away from it. Villeneuve’s family belongs to the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe in North Dakota, but he grew up in Washington after the family relocated. His great-grandfather’s shrouded history is one of the things that drove Villeneuve to become a teacher, and it drives the research the assistant professor of history and American Indian Studies conducts.

Matthew Villenueve points to an old photo that includes his great grandfather.
Photo: Paulius Musteikis

“What we’re talking about is a series of institutions designed to sever a Native individual’s relationship to their people’s collective knowledge,” Villeneuve says. “And that’s a weird thing for a school to do. That’s the question that really animates my work: If that’s a school, what kind of school is that?”

In many cases, a dangerous and deadly one.

Historical records and Native oral histories indicate that Native children who attended these boarding schools were forced to cut their hair and change their names. Speaking a Native language was cause for corporal punishment.

Food and medicine were often scarce, and the students, who were often crammed together in dormitories, contracted fatal diseases like tuberculosis and typhoid fever.

“All of these factors make the space hostile to health, to say nothing of learning,” says Villeneuve. “Part of my work argues that one of the things that Native people learn is just simply how to survive these institutions.”

Many, however, did not. In 2020, First Nations investigators discovered a mass grave on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, a boarding school for Native American children in British Columbia.

“It was this moment when a lot of people rediscovered that the United States was the one that created the blueprint for these schools, and the United States had its own boarding school system.”

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the United States ran more than 400 such schools, until the last one finally closed in 1982. Villeneuve’s research has focused on 28 off-reservation industrial schools, including two of the dozen schools that once operated in Wisconsin. (One was in Wittenberg; the other is now a Veterans Affairs hospital in Tomah.)

When he teaches his students about this history, Villeneuve cautions that the boarding school experience may have been horrific, but it’s not monolithic.

“We have to pay attention to how the students came out of this,” he notes. “We have records that say, ‘I did OK, and my experience was actually not half bad.’ How do we square that against the people who literally didn’t survive and cannot speak?”

Villeneuve also points to the 1930s, when the federal government began to try shutting many of the schools down. In some cases, Native communities, who had found ways to make the schools their own, pushed back.

“The history that I study is just one moment in a long history of Native people trying to figure out how to make schools work for them,” he explains.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior issued an investigative report on the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. There are two bills currently in Congress that would establish a truth and reconciliation inquiry, giving historians like Villeneuve the opportunity to access federal records and make full site visits.

“It would change everything,” he says.

Even if the bills pass, Villeneuve knows the picture will never be complete — federal recordkeeping can be haphazard and piecemeal. Still, gaining access to the letters and petitions Native families wrote in their desperate search to find and reunite with their children is important. Some survivors of the boarding schools are still alive, but Villeneuve knows their accounts won’t be available forever.

“If something doesn’t make sense to the present, you have to do the work to reconstruct the past to make it legible,” Villeneuve says. “At the end of the day, this is about Native people reconstituting their own identities as communities and nations.”

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