American Indian boarding schools

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Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, c. 1900 Carlisle pupils.jpg
Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, c. 1900

Native American boarding schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools, were established in the United States during the early 19th and mid 20th centuries with a primary objective of "civilizing" or assimilating Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture. In the process, these schools denigrated Native American culture and made children give up language and religion. [1] At the same time the schools provided a basic education in Euro-American subjects. These boarding schools were first established by Christian missionaries of various denominations, who often started both missions and schools on reservations, [2] especially in the lightly populated areas of the West. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government paid religious orders to provide basic education to Native American children on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) later founded additional boarding schools based on the assimilation model, usually located off reservations and which sometimes drew children from a variety of tribes. Some off reservation schools, such as St. Joseph's Indian School in South Dakota, continue to operate.


Children were typically immersed in European-American culture. Schools forced removal of indigenous cultural signifiers, cutting the children's hair, having them wear American-style uniforms, forbidding them from speaking their indigenous languages, and replacing their tribal names with English-language names (saints names under some religious orders) for use at the schools, as part of assimilation and to "Christianize" them. [3] The schools were usually harsh and sometimes deadly, especially for younger children who had been forcibly separated from their families and forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures. [3] Investigations of the later twentieth century have revealed many documented [4] cases of sexual, manual, physical and mental abuse occurring mostly in church-run schools. [5] The National Museum of the American Indian also notes that some students had good memories of their school days, having learned skills and made lifelong friends.

But in summarizing the recent scholarship from Native perspectives, Dr. Julie Davis argues:

Boarding schools embodied both victimization and agency for Native people and they served as sites of both cultural loss and cultural persistence. These institutions, intended to assimilate Native people into mainstream society and eradicate Native cultures, became integral components of American Indian identities and eventually fueled the drive for political and cultural self-determination in the late 20th century. [6]

Since those years, tribal nations have carried out political activism and gained legislation and federal policy that gives them the power to decide how to use federal education funds, how they educate their children, and the authority to establish their own community-based schools. Tribes have also founded numerous tribal colleges and universities on reservations. Tribal control over their schools has been supported by federal legislation and changing practices by the BIA. The largest boarding schools have closed. By 2007, most of the schools had been closed down and the number of Native American children in boarding schools had declined to 9,500. The remaining ones are primarily under Native American control.

History of education of Native Americans by Europeans

... instead of exterminating a part of the human race ... we had persevered ... and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country ... But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America – This opinion is probably more convenient than just.

Henry Knox to George Washington, 1790s. [7]

In the late eighteenth century, reformers starting with President George Washington and Henry Knox, [8] in efforts to "civilize" or otherwise assimilate Native Americans, adopted the practice of assimilating Native American children in current American culture. At the time the society it was dominated by agriculture, with many yeomen subsistence farmers, and rural society made up of some small towns and few large cities. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 promoted this policy by providing funding to societies (mostly religious missionaries) who worked on Native American education, often at schools established in or near Native American communities. The reformers believed this policy would help the Indians survive increasing contact with European-American settlers who were moving west into their territories.

Moses Tom sent his children to an Indian boarding school. [9]

I rejoice, brothers, to hear you propose to become cultivators of the earth for the maintenance of your families. Be assured you will support them better and with less labor, by raising stock and bread, and by spinning and weaving clothes, than by hunting. A little land cultivated, and a little labor, will procure more provisions than the most successful hunt; and a woman will clothe more by spinning and weaving, than a man by hunting. Compared with you, we are but as of yesterday in this land. Yet see how much more we have multiplied by industry, and the exercise of that reason which you possess in common with us. Follow then our example, brethren, and we will aid you with great pleasure ...

President Thomas Jefferson, Brothers of the Choctaw Nation, December 17, 1803 [10]

Some Native American tribes had already established their own education systems before being forced to attend boarding schools. They developed one of the first women's colleges. [11]

Non-reservation boarding schools

In 1634, Fr. Andrew White of the Society of Jesus established a mission in what is now Maryland. He said the purpose of the mission, as an interpreter told the chief of a Native American tribe there, was "to extend civilization and instruction to his ignorant race, and show them the way to heaven." [12] The mission's annual records report that by 1640, they had founded a community they named St. Mary's. Native Americans were sending their children there to be educated, [13] including the daughter of Tayac, the Pascatoe chief. This was either a school for girls, or an early co-ed school. The same records report that in 1677,

"a school for humanities was opened by our Society in the centre of Maryland, directed by two of the Fathers; and the native youth, applying themselves assiduously to study, made good progress. Maryland and the recently established school sent two boys to St. Omer who yielded in abilities to few Europeans, when competing for the honour of being first in their class. So that not gold, nor silver, nor the other products of the earth alone, but men also are gathered from thence to bring those regions, which foreigners have unjustly called ferocious, to a higher state of virtue and cultivation." [14]

Harvard College had an "Indian College" on its campus in the mid-1600s, supported by the English Society for Propagation of the Gospel. Its few Native American students came from New England, at a time when higher education was very limited for all classes and colleges were more similar to today's high schools. In 1665, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, "from the Wampanoag...did graduate from Harvard, the first Indian to do so in the colonial period". [15] In early years, other Indian schools were created by local communities, as with the Indian school in Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1769. This gradually developed into Dartmouth College. Other schools were created in the East. Most Indians did not live on reservations, unlike the developments in western states, to which many tribes were moved.

West of the Mississippi, schools near indigenous settlements and on reservations were first founded by religious missionaries, who believed they could extend education and Christianity to Native Americans. After the Civil War, some of these efforts were related to the progressive movement. As Native Americans were forced onto reservations following the Indian Wars, missionaries founded additional schools with boarding facilities. Children were enrolled distant from their communities and were generally not permitted to travel home nor receive parental visitation.

Carlisle Indian Industrial School

Chiricahua Apaches Four Months After Arriving at Carlisle. Undated photograph taken at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Chiricahua Apaches Four Months After Arriving at Carlisle.jpg
Chiricahua Apaches Four Months After Arriving at Carlisle. Undated photograph taken at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

After working to teach and assimilate Native American warriors held as prisoners at Fort Marion, Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt proposed to the federal government that a similar model be used to create boarding schools for younger Native American students. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, founded at a former military installation in Pennsylvania, was the first to be set up of this type.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) used it as a model for other American Indian boarding schools. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was based on students being assimilated to European-American Christian culture and the English language. They had to give up Native American traditions while attending the school. . Pratt had previously supervised Indian warriors held as prisoners of war in Florida, where he began to establish an immersive education program for them. Pleased by his success, he was said to have supported the motto, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”[ citation needed ] Pratt said in a speech in 1892:

"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead." [16]

Pratt promoted "assimilation through total immersion." [16] He had earlier conducted a "social experiment" on Apache prisoners of war at a fort in Florida. [17] He cut their long hair, put them in uniforms, forced them to learn English, and subjected them to strict military protocols. [17] After they had made progress in his classes and were released from imprisonment at the fort, he arranged for the education of some of the young Native American men at the Hampton Institute, a historically black college. Hampton Institute was founded in 1868 by biracial representatives of the American Missionary Association soon after the Civil War for the education of freedmen. At the end of the American Indian Wars, after Pratt's initiative, in 1875 it developed a program from Native American students. The United States Army sent seventy-two warriors from the Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche and Caddo nations, to imprisonment and exile in St. Augustine, Florida. Essentially they were considered hostages to persuade their peoples in the West to keep peace.

At the prison, he had tried to inculcate Native Americans with Anglo-American culture, while giving them some leeway to govern themselves. Pratt carried this concept of assimilation to developing the Carlisle Indian School. The curriculum included vocational training for boys and domestic science for girls, related to rural culture at the time. Students worked to carry out chores around the school and produced goods for market. They also produced a newspaper, [18] [ citation needed ] had a well-regarded chorus and orchestra, and developed sports programs. The vocational training reflected the administration's understanding of skills needed at most reservations, which were located in rural areas, and reflected a society still based on agriculture. In the summer students often lived with local farm families and townspeople, reinforcing their assimilation, and providing labor at low cost to the families.

Carlisle and its curriculum became the model for the Bureau of Indian Affairs; by 1902 it authorized 25 federally funded non-reservation schools in 15 states and territories, with a total enrollment of over 6,000 students. Federal legislation required Native American children to be educated according to Anglo-American standards. Parents had to authorize their children's attendance at boarding schools and, if they refused, officials could use coercion to gain a quota of students from any given reservation. [19]

As the model of boarding schools was adopted more widely by the US government, many Native American children were separated from their families and tribes when they were sent or sometimes taken to boarding schools far from their home reservations. These schools ranged from those similar to the federal Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which became a model for BIA-run schools, to the many schools sponsored by religious denominations.

In this period, when students arrived at boarding schools their lives altered dramatically. They were given short haircuts (a source of shame for boys of many tribes, who considered long hair part of their identity), required to wear uniforms, and to take English names for use at the school. Sometimes the names were based on their own; other times they were assigned at random. The children were not allowed to speak their own languages, even between each other. They were required to attend church services and often baptized as Christians. As was typical of the time, discipline was stiff in many schools. It often included assignment of extra chores for punishment, solitary confinement and corporal punishment, including beatings by teachers using sticks, rulers and belts. [17]

Anna Moore said, regarding the Phoenix Indian School:

If we were not finished [scrubbing the dining room floors] when the 8 a.m. whistle sounded, the dining room matron would go around strapping us while we were still on our hands and knees. [20]


In 1891, [21] the government issued a “compulsory attendance” law that enabled federal officers to forcibly take Native American children from their homes and reservations. The American government believed they were rescuing these children from a world of poverty and depression and teaching them "life skills". Tabatha Tooney Booth of the University of Oklahoma wrote in her paper, Cheaper Than Bullets,

“Many parents had no choice but to send their kids, when Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to withhold rations, clothing, and annuities of those families that refused to send students. Some agents even used reservation police to virtually kidnap youngsters, but experienced difficulties when the Native police officers would resign out of disgust, or when parents taught their kids a special “hide and seek” game. Sometimes resistant fathers found themselves locked up for refusal. In 1895, nineteen men of the Hopi Nation were imprisoned to Alcatraz because they refused to send their children to boarding school. [22]

However, in 1978, the Indian Child Welfare Act gave Native American parents the legal right to refuse their child's placement in a school. Damning evidence related to years of abuses of students in Non-Reservation boarding schools contributed to the enactment of the Indian Child Welfare Act. Congress approved this act in 1978 after hearing testimony about life in Native American boarding schools.

Meriam Report of 1928

In 1926, the Department of the Interior (DOI) commissioned the Brookings Institution to conduct a survey of the overall conditions of American Indians and to assess federal programs and policies. The Meriam Report, officially titled The Problem of Indian Administration, was submitted February 21, 1928, to Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work. Related to education of Native American children, it recommended that the government:

Despite the Meriam Report, attendance in Indian boarding schools generally grew throughout the first half of the 20th century and doubled in the 1960s. [20] [ failed verification ] Enrollment reached its highest point in the 1970s. In 1973, 60,000 American Indian children are estimated to have been enrolled in an Indian boarding school. [20] [23] The rise of pan-Indian activism, tribal nations' continuing complaints about the schools, and studies in the late 1960s and mid-1970s (such as the Kennedy Report and the National Study of American Indian Education) led to passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. This emphasized decentralization of students from boarding schools to community schools. As a result, many large Indian boarding schools closed in the 1980s and early 1990s.[ citation needed ] By 2007, 9,500 American Indian children were living in Indian boarding school dormitories. [16] This figure includes those in 45 on-reservation boarding schools, seven off-reservation boarding schools, and 14 peripheral dormitories. [16] From 1879 to the present day, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans as children attended Indian boarding schools. [24]

Today, a few off-reservation boarding schools still operate, but funding for them is in decline.

Disease and death

Given the lack of public sanitation and the often crowded conditions at non-reservation boarding schools, students were at risk for infectious diseases such as tuberculosis, measles and trachoma. None were yet controlled by antibiotics or vaccines, and epidemics swept schools as they did cities. [25]

The overcrowding of the schools contributed to the rapid spread of disease within the schools. "An often-underpaid staff provided irregular medical care. And not least, apathetic boarding school officials frequently failed to heed their own directions calling for the segregation of children in poor health from the rest of the student body". [26] Tuberculosis was especially deadly among students. Many children died while in custody at Indian Schools. Often students were prevented from communicating with their families, and parents were not notified when their children fell ill. Many times, children died and the families had never known they were sick. "Many of the Indian deaths during the great influenza pandemic of 1918–19, which hit the Native American population hard, took place in boarding schools." [27]

The 1928 Meriam Report noted that infectious disease was often widespread at the schools due to malnutrition, overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, and students weakened by overwork. The report said that death rates for Native American students were six and a half times higher than for other ethnic groups. [20] Another report regarding the Phoenix Indian school said, "In December of 1899, measles broke out at the Phoenix Indian School, reaching epidemic proportions by January. In its wake, 325 cases of measles, 60 cases of pneumonia, and 9 deaths were recorded in a 10-day period." [28] "

Implications of assimilation

The U.S. federal government decided it needed to assimilate Native Americans.[ when? ] From 1810 to 1917 the U.S. federal government subsidized mission and boarding schools. [29] :16 "By 1885, 106 [Indian Schools] had been established, many of them on abandoned military installations". Using military personnel and Indian prisoners, boarding schools were seen as a means for the government to achieve assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream American culture. Assimilation efforts included forcibly removing Native Americans from their families, converting them to Christianity, preventing them from learning or practicing indigenous culture and customs, and living in a strict military fashion.

When students arrived at boarding schools, the routine was typically the same. First, the students were forced to give up their tribal clothing and their hair was cut. Second, "[t]o instill the necessary discipline, the entire school routine was organized in martial fashion, and every facet of student life followed a strict timetable". [30] Since military personnel originally ran many boarding schools,[ citation needed ] military principles gave strict structure to daily routines.

One student recalled the routine in the 1890s:

A small bell was tapped, and each of the pupils drew a chair from under the table. Supposing this act meant that they were to be seated, I pulled out mine and at once slipped into it from one side. But when I turned my head, I saw that I was the only one seated, and all the rest at our table remained standing. Just as I began to rise, looking shyly around to see how chairs were to be used, a second bell was sounded. All were seated at last, and I had to crawl back into my chair again. I heard a man's voice at one end of the hall, and I looked around to see him. But all the others hung their heads over their plates. As I glanced at the long chain of tables, I cause the eyes of a paleface woman upon me. Immediately I dropped my eyes, wondering why I was so keenly watched by the strange woman. The man ceased his mutterings, and then a third bell was tapped. Everyone picked up his knife and fork and began eating. I began crying instead, for by this time I was afraid to venture anything more. [31]

Besides mealtime routines, administrators "educated" Indigenous students on how to farm using European-based methods, which they considered superior to indigenous methods. Given the constraints of rural locations and limited budgets, boarding schools often operated supporting farms, raising livestock and produced their vegetables and fruit. [32]

From the moment students arrived at school, they could not "be Indian"[ citation needed ] in any way. [29] :19 Boarding school administrators "forbade, whether in school or on reservation, tribal singing and dancing, along with the wearing of ceremonial and 'savage' clothes, the practice of native religions, the speaking of tribal languages, the acting out of traditional gender roles". [32] :11 School administrators argued that young women needed to be specifically targeted due to their important place in continuing assimilation education in their future homes. Educational administrators and teachers were instructed that "Indian girls were to be assured that, because their grandmothers did things in a certain way, there was no reason for them to do the same". [30] :282

"Removal to reservations in the West in the early part of the century and the enactment of the Dawes or General Allotment Act in 1887 eventually took nearly 50 million acres of land from Indian control". On-reservation schools were either taken over by Anglo leadership or destroyed. Indian-controlled school systems became non-existent while "the Indians [were] made captives of federal or mission education".

Although schools did use verbal correction to enforce assimilation, more violent measures were also used, as corporal punishment was common in European-American society. Archuleta et al. (2000) noted cases where students had "their mouths washed out with lye soap when they spoke their native languages; they could be locked up in the guardhouse with only bread and water for other rule violations; and they faced corporal punishment and other rigid discipline on a daily basis". [29] :42 Beyond physical and mental abuse, some school authorities sexually abused students as well.

One former student recounted,

Intimidation and fear were very much present in our daily lives. For instance, we would cower from the abusive disciplinary practices of some superiors, such as the one who yanked my cousin's ear hard enough to tear it. After a nine-year-old girl was raped in her dormitory bed during the night, we girls would be so scared that we would jump into each other's bed as soon as the lights went out. The sustained terror in our hearts further tested our endurance, as it was better to suffer with a full bladder and be safe than to walk through the dark, seemingly endless hallway to the bathroom. When we were older, we girls anguished each time we entered the classroom of a certain male teacher who stalked and molested girls. [29] :42 [32]

Girls and young women taken from their families and placed into boarding schools, such as the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, were urged to accomplish the U.S. federal government's vision of "educating Indian girls in the hope that women trained as good housewives would help their mates assimilate" into U.S. mainstream culture. [33]

Historian Brenda Child asserts that boarding schools cultivated pan-Indian-ism and made possible cross-tribal coalitions that helped many different tribes collaborate in the later 20th century. She argues:

People formerly separated by language, culture, and geography lived and worked together in residential schools. Students formed close bonds and enjoyed a rich cross-cultural change. Graduates of government schools often married former classmates, found employment in the Indian Service, migrated to urban areas, returned to their reservations and entered tribal politics. Countless new alliances, both personal and political, were forged in government boarding schools. [34]

[ unreliable source? ]

Jacqueline Emery, introducing an anthology of boarding school writings, suggests that these writings prove that the children showed a cultural and personal resilience "more common among boarding school students than one might think". Although school authorities censored the material, it demonstrates multiple methods of resistance to school regimes. [35] Several students educated in boarding schools, such as Gertrude Bonnin, Angel De Cora, Francis La Flesche, and Laura Cornelius Kellogg, became highly educated and were precursors to modern Indigenous activists.

After release or graduation from Indian boarding schools, students were expected to return to their tribes and induce European assimilation there. Many students who returned to their reservations experienced alienation, language and cultural barriers, and confusion, in addition to posttraumatic stress disorder and the legacy of trauma from abuse. They struggled to respect elders, but also met resistance from family and friends when trying to initiate Anglo-American changes. [32]

When faculty visited former students, they rated their success based on the following criteria: "orderly households, 'citizen's dress', Christian weddings, 'well-kept' babies, land in severalty, children in school, industrious work habits, and leadership roles in promoting the same 'civilized' lifestyles among family and tribe". [32] :39 many students returned to the boarding schools. General Richard Henry Pratt, an administrator who had founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, began to believe that "[t]o civilize the Indian, get him into civilization. To keep him civilized, let him stay." [36]

List of Native American boarding schools

Listed of Native American boarding schools by present-day state or territory, and in alphabetical order.








Indian Territory









New Mexico

New York

North Dakota




South Dakota





See also

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