This paper is an attempt to discuss the biography of Mary Englund’s An Indian Remembers based on her childhood experiences in a Christian European convent. Her story starts from the day she is taken away from her family to be civilized in a distant residential school. Englund’s experience in the school could be described as European way of civilizing the young native people that includes compulsory assimilation, segregation, control and racism. The concept of civilization is perceived to be for the best interest of the Indian community, or at least this is what it seems to appear like.
Thus, this paper will tackle the issues of methods used to civilize the Natives and its effects on Englund’s personality and mentality as well as the real purpose behind civilization. Is it really for the best interest of the Indian people or is it a form of exploitation of the Natives to benefit the European colonialists?
Assimilation is one form used to civilize the native children.
This seems to put Englund to a lot of curiosity eventually to confusions. On her first day in Mission, Englund learns about the assimilation policy implemented by the convent which draws out her curiosity about its purpose. In her experience, she learns that boys and girls live in separate buildings and wonders why. She appears curious and thus questions a lot but she gets no decent answer to satisfy her curiosity. Englund also observes girls being divided in groups to certain tables during meals and girls are assigned to different jobs, some goes to the dormitory while others to kitchen or classrooms. Again, she does not seem to understand the purpose of these procedures. This explains her ignorance about the system of a Christian convent. Anyhow, she seems to let go of her curiosity and simply accept it as a form of instruction she ought to follow with no question asked. With all these curiosities, she has possibly developed a sense of confusion on why things are done in these manners.
Another form used by the school is by segregation. Through this, Englund seems to suffer from isolation. Englund recalls when a priest takes her from her family (430). While she is expected to feel sad leaving her mother, she seems to feel nothing but excitement. She says that “We were left alone so many times we never had the tendency to say, ‘Well, I’m sorry I’m going to go away and leave my mother’ because we were alone most of the time.” (431) Due to her mother’s recurrent absence, it seems like Englund does not have the chance to bond with her which explains her coldness towards her mother. Though one would be induced to concur to this, Englund does not totally blame her mother as she recognizes the sacrifice she has to make to feed them. When she arrives in the Mission, she is then separated from her brother. Englund makes a few friends in the convent but as she learns that she could not trust anyone, she possibly voluntarily distant herself from others. In one instance, they are told not to discuss their school activities with their parents but there is one girl who does it and hence she gets reprimanded for that. Due to this incident Englund becomes cautious not to be seen doing anything inappropriate or else she is bound to be scolded by the nuns. As she grows older, she learns to bottle up her feelings knowing that telling a soul could possibly cause her a punishment. Being away from the people she cares about and finding no one to trust among her classmates, Englund’s narration suggests that she suffers from isolation. Though she may think that she could trust her mother, she dare not tell her anything fearing that someone would tell the nuns. It seems like Englund has no choice but to keep her feelings and opinions to herself causing her loneliness.
Moreover, the nuns have full control over the native children by means of strict surveillance and punishments. This seems to be the cause of the development of Englund’s rebellious nature. No matter where they are, in or out of school, the nuns have their eyes on them. In the school, nuns are always at the look out, to ensure that children are doing their dormitory routines perfectly. Even during their domestic activities like cleaning, mending socks and sewing, the nuns instil perfection in their works. Being new and ignorant, Englund often makes mistakes. She tends to become rebellious whenever her pride and beliefs are offended. Once she rebels when she unknowingly touches one Sister and gets slapped for it. With all pride she says, “Well, she slapped me! Oh I wasn’t going to be slapped.” (435) There is another time when she throws her temper after she gets hit by a scissor. This clearly shows that unnecessary punishments lead Englund to her rebellious nature. Everything has to meet perfection or else they either have to redo it or get punished. Besides being always at the look out, the nuns also use the bells extensively. Englund recollects as one girl once told her that “You don’t talk before the bell rings and you don’t talk after the bell rings either.”(434) Basically, the sound of the bell instructs them when they can and cannot talk which seems like the watchful nuns are still not enough for the job. Englund also states other reasons that make her rebellious. One is the use of prayers as a form of punishment (Englund 439) and the other is when she is said to be unqualified to become a nun for having unmarried parents and no money (441). It seems like this contradicts the teachings of Christianity. In Christian values, money is not an important factor in life but still the convent uses it to discourage Englund from pursuing her dream.
Throughout her life in the Mission, the nuns and priests throw in numerous racist comments about Indians and mistreat them in various ways. Because of this, Englund seems to believe that Indians are the inferior race. In her first trip to the Mission, Englund describes Father Chirouse as “awfully nice” for talking to her (431). After their conversation, the priest moves further to another seat. This appears like the priest is ashamed to be seen sitting with the Natives. Also, take the occasion when a nun calls native homes as camps for instance. Englund admits that she is hurt and is still whenever she thinks back (432). This gives an impression that the European nuns see the Natives as a lower class people who are unsuitable to live in a home like theirs. In another occasion when the native children are practising a speech in English, Sister “V” comments, “Now if you weren’t an Indian girl you could do that perfectly well, better; a white girl she would go over that very well, nicely.” (438) It seems like the amount of effort they put in would never matter because they are Indians. In addition, Englund seems bitter when they are served with grounded food. She mentions that the nuns believe that Indians eat rotten fish so they give less attention to the food they serve them (438). Moreover, Englund recalls how the nuns constantly remind them of their Indian roots and that they are uncivilized and savages (438). Despite of how much the Indians try to adapt to the European way of living, it appears like they would never fit in. Furthermore, Englund is deprived of her aspiration to be a nun because she has no money and her parents are unmarried (441). This could possibly be an excuse to indirectly tell her that she is unworthy to be a nun because she is an Indian. With all of these racist comments and harsh treatments, she finds it degrading to her and her fellow Indians (438). At the same time, these mistreatments seem to serve as an awakening call that helps her realize what she wants her life to be. This is demonstrated when she makes a sensible decision to choose health over money. In here, she seems to finally realize that she is ready to take control of her life.
Are all these ways of civilizing for the best interest of the Indian people? Englund says that all parents thought that school means goodness for the entire Indian community. It is a wonder how her mother could believe this without knowing what is going on in the school. Perhaps, the priests convince her mother to believe that schooling is beneficial not only to Englund but the whole Indian community too. If this is indeed the real motive, this contradicts the outcome of Englund’s life after school. First she is not allowed to get a higher education, and then she is dismissed from school because of her age. Assumingly, this is when the convent’s control has to end. Instead the convent recommends Englund to work for an old lady as a caretaker. Because of this, the real motive of the European is questionable. It is likely to believe that all these promotion of goodness about civilization is a mere scheme to exploit the Natives as the European’s slaves.
The means of civilizing the Natives have indeed impacts on Englund’s personality and mentality. Though she suffers from confusion and isolation and becomes rebellious, Englund gains enlightenment that releases her from control and racism. For one reason, Englund ought to thank the Europeans for civilizing her as they give her the chance to have a life better than the one she could have if she stays in her village. However, looking at the other side of it, the purpose of civilizing the Natives is never been for the best interest of their well-being but for the advantage of the Europeans. In conclusion, Englund’s experience in the Mission reflects the exploitation of native children by the European colonialists.
Englund, Mary. “An Indian Remembers”. Academic Reading: Reading and Writing Across the Disciplines. Peterborough: Broadview, 1995. 426-442
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