Posted at 5:50 PM on March 4, 2008
by Euan Kerr
Georgina Lightning doesn't mince words.
As writer, director and lead actress in "Older than America" she is unrepentant about wanting to tell the story of the Indian boarding schools in the US and Canada, and their lasting damage on generations of native people up till the present. The schools were designed to encourage assimilation, but critics says many children were abused and even killed. The last of the schools closed in the mid 70's, but Lightning says the psychological damage they left behind has badly damaged the very fabric of Indian society.
Shot in late 2006 around Cloquet "Older than America" is a drama set on the Fond du Lac reservation. It tells the story of a young woman (Lightning) who begins seeing visions of ghostly children. As she struggles to work out what these visions mean she begins to uncover the unsavory history of the now deserted boarding school.
Lightning says growing up on a Cree reservation in Canada, she didn't know that her own father, an abusive alcoholic, had been sent to a boarding school as a child. She only learned this after he committed suicide. Lightning says she came to see how many families around her were in a similar position.
The film will get a special screening on Friday as the opening night event for the Women with Vision festival at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. It will then get its official World Premiere at the South By Southwest Festival.
Lightning says she expects a strong emotional reaction from the Indian and non-Indian communities. She says what she hopes the film will do is start long overdue conversations
Congratulations on the film, "Older than America!" I have been studying this issue for a long time and I always try to connect with others who are sensitive to it. There are a couple of points that I would like to add to the historical events you described.
Indian boarding schools continued to grow throughout the 1940s and 50s and doubled in the 1960s. In 1973, the BIA operated 200 schools in 17 states. 60,000 children were attending boarding schools. Some of the most notorious boarding schools operated in this recent time like Concho boarding school in Oklahoma.
Today there are 10,000 American Indian children who live in an Indian boarding school dormitory. This includes 56 boarding schools, 14 peripheral dormitories, and 7 Off-Reservation Indian Boarding Schools: ND, SD, OK, CA, OR. About half of them take kids as young as 6-years-old. You can verify my #s through the Office of Indian Education Programs. See www.oiep.bia.edu.
Many if not most of the children in these programs are high-needs kids who come from struggling families. Indian boarding schools today are often a dumping ground for these high-needs or at-risk kids. While the conditions of Indian boarding schools are much better today than what they were a hundred years ago, these kids still suffer the effects of cultural abuse and institutionalization in understaffed, under-funded dormitories, often a very long way from home.
Another historical event that I would like to highlight are the recent events that have occurred in Canada with residential school survivors. The Aboriginal Healing Foundation manages $400 million for healing programs throughout Canada. See www.ahf.ca/. Will we ever make similar progress in the United States? I hope so.