Girls' dormitory, Thomas Indian School, 1938Girls’ dormitory room, Thomas Indian School (1938): Courtesy of the New York State Archives, Thomas Indian School Photographs Collection.

Trauma across Generations: Film Documents Native American Boarding Schools in WNY

“I do not believe that Indians…have any right to forcibly keep their children out of school to grow up like themselves, a race of barbarians and semi-savages.” Thus spoke Thomas Jefferson Morgan, who served as the commissioner of Indian Affairs for the federal government from 1889 to 1893.

Such attitudes contributed to the practice of taking Native American children away from their families and placing them in residential schools, where they were not allowed to express their culture in any way, including speaking in their own native languages.

The continuing impact of such a policy will be explored in a presentation featuring the documentary Unseen Tears: The Impact of Native American Residential Boarding Schools in Western New York. The film will be screened at a three-part presentation on Thursday, February 18, from 7:00 to 9:30 p.m. in Bulger Communication Center South. The presentation is free and open to the public.

Before the screening, information tables will be staffed by nonprofit agencies serving the Native American community and by student organizations, including the Student Social Work Organization and Kappa Omega, the college’s chapter of the national social work honor society. Afterward, a panel will discuss the continuing effects of the boarding schools on today’s Native Americans. The panel will comprise former boarding-school residents, social workers and school counselors who work with the Native American population, and children and grandchildren of survivors of boarding schools, including Barbara General, ’02, whose mother attended one such school, the Thomas Indian School. Now on the National Register of Historic Places, the school is located in Erie County on the Cattaraugus Territory.

The work, produced by Native American Community Services, tells the story of the Thomas Indian School and the multigenerational trauma that continues today as a result. Lori Quigley, associate dean of the School of Education, belongs to the Seneca Nation. She served as an adviser to the film and is featured in it.

“Our interest in this project is not historical,” said Quigley. “Our focus is on the continuing impact of the boarding-school experience on Native American communities, both rural and urban.” Quigley’s mother resided there for 10 years, from the age of 5, and Quigley said that her mother’s experience continues to affect the family.

“From a social work point of view,” said Deborah Renzi, coordinator of field education for the Social Work Department, “trauma profoundly impacts individuals, families and communities, and the generations that follow, unless healing takes place.” The Social Work Alumni Chapter will attend the presentation.

Quigley said that post-traumatic stress disorder is among the lingering effects of the boarding-school experience. She noted, too, that “Native resiliency models” are a growing area of study. Such models explore the way cultural- and belief-based practices have enabled Native American communities to adapt in positive ways despite the trauma that was inflicted. “It’s been exciting to see this discipline grow,” said Quigley. “In large part, it’s because more Native Americans are attaining the higher degrees necessary to conduct the research.”