The film details the literal stripping of American Indian culture from the Native children who attended them.
As I sat to watch this documentary, I felt myself immediately riveted, almost silenced by the words unfolding before me.
The film begins with a partial amount of the remarks given by Kevin Gover, then assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, at the175th anniversary of the establishment of the BIA on Sept. 8, 2000:
“The Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually.
“So many of the maladies suffered today in Indian country result from the failures of this agency. Poverty, ignorance and disease have been the product of this agency’s work.
“And so today I stand before you as the leader of an institution that in the past has committed acts so terrible that they infect, diminish and destroy the lives of Indian people decades later, generations later. These things occurred despite the efforts of many good people with good hearts who sought to prevent them. These wrongs must be acknowledged if the healing is to begin.”
“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English” is directed by Chip Richie and produced by Steven Heape. It begins with stories from the grown Native children who were once young and are now becoming our elders.
Andrew Windy Boy, Chippewa/Cree, is featured in the documentary and speaks about the Wahpeton and Flandreau Indian schools with an anguish that can be touching to those with the hardest of hearts. He is a man that still feels deeply what was personally lost upon attending his school.
“They took me from my grandfather and removed my Native tongue, but our spirits don’t understand English.”
In the midst of the anguish displayed, the film gives, in interesting detail, the historical process of teaching – or “un-teaching” – Native people.
The film is quick to explain that the conversion to Christianity was the primary goal of Jesuit priests in 1568 when schools were established for indigenous peoples in Cuba.
It goes on to describe the individuals involved in the process that ultimately created the American Indian boarding schools.
The earliest of advocates of this practice was John Eliot, an English missionary who arrived in Boston in 1631 to convert Native people to Christianity. His opinion was that “Indians could not be civilized unless they were removed from the feral wilderness and from their sinful lifestyles in the communities in which they lived.”
In 1693, when the College of William and Mary was chartered in Williamsburg, Va., part of its mission was to enroll and convert American Indian students to Christianity.
“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English” illustrates the process of European colonization, citing that the belief of the arriving settlers was one of “Manifest Destiny.”
Manifest Destiny asserted that European settlers had a “God-given right” to create a perfect nation and that “the Native was an impediment to expansion and a problem to be overcome.”
The creation of Native boarding schools, which would “kill the Indian” yet “save the man,” would be the proposed answer to this perceived problem.
Henrietta Mann, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma and professor emerita at Montana State University, adds to the film with a historical citation. “In 1869, Ulysses S. Grant instituted a ‘Peace Policy’ which delegated the responsibility of Indian affairs to the various Christian denominations in a country which is supposed to separate between church and state.”
At this point, the film becomes increasingly difficult to watch due to the overwhelming emotion that starts to overtake you.
You feel as though you are watching helplessly as schools are built and small Native children’s identities are stolen, their beautiful long hair is cut short and the Native languages are literally “smacked” from their mouths.
The availability of Native people who are able to share their experiences of boarding school is high. As they relay their stories, your heart is sure to follow their sadness.
But all is not doom and gloom in the film. The experiences are sad, and the results seem unfair. But Richie and Heape do an excellent job of presenting the story that leaves you with a feeling of empowerment.
“Our Spirits Don’t Speak English” is a story for everyone, regardless of race or experience. It is a film that is excellent for a classroom as well as your living room. In the simplest description, it’s a beautiful and moving film that is brilliantly entertaining and informative.