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Government Boarding Schools Once Separated Native American Children From Families


In 1879, U.S. cavalry captain Richard Henry Pratt opened a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But it wasn’t the kind of boarding school that rich parents send their children to. Rather, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was a government-backed institution that forcibly separated Native American children from their parents in order to, as Pratt put it, “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Over the next several decades, Carlisle served as a model for nearly 150 such schools that opened around the country. Like the 1887 Dawes Act that reallotted Native American land, or the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 1902 “haircut order” specifying that men with long hair couldn’t receive rations, Native American boarding schools were a method of forced assimilation. The end goal of these measures was to make Native people more like the white Anglo-Americans who had taken over their land.

At boarding schools, staff forced Indigenous students to cut their hair and use new, Anglo-American names. They forbid children from speaking their Native language and observing their religious and cultural practices. And by removing them from their homes, the schools disrupted students’ relationships with their families and other members of their tribe. Once they returned home, children struggled to relate to their families after being taught that it was wrong to speak their language or practice their religion.

“Through breaking bonds to culture, they [broke] bonds to one another,” says Doug Kiel, a history professor at Northwestern University. “It’s a way of destroying a community.”

Some students never made it home at all. Boarding schools were susceptible to deadly infections like tuberculosis and the flu, and schools like Carlisle had cemeteries for dead students. Between Carlisle’s founding 1879 and its closing 1918, the school buried nearly 200 children in its cemetery. In 2017, the Northern Arapaho tribe successfully petitioned the U.S. government to return the remains of two boys who died at Carlisle.

Students who did survive were marked by trauma. Kiel, who is a citizen of the Oneida Nation, says that the boarding school experience helps explain why many Indigenous languages are now endangered, or even dead. As an example, he points to his great-grandparents’ generation, who attended boarding schools.

“My grandmother recalled hearing the Oneida language being spoken around her by the people who were the adults, but they chose not to teach it to children,” he says. “Why? Because it was a source of trauma for them. And they had been told that it was backwards, that it was uncivilized, that it was of the past, that there was no utility in speaking it.” Some thought that speaking it would only be a burden to their children.

















The Carlisle Indian School

Boarding schools based on the Carlisle model fizzled out in the early 20th century. But after that, the rupture of Native American families continued in other ways. By the 1940s, “Native kids are simply being deemed to be in unfit households with unfit mothers,” Kiel says.

“That’s not official government policy,” he continues. “But it’s a racially-biased perception of Native families, of Native homes, of Native mothers that has the effect of forcibly removing Native children from their homes and placing them into, generally, the homes of white people in ways that serve to cut Native people off from their communities.”

Congress passed the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act based on research that “25–35 percent of all Native children were being removed; of these, 85 percent were placed outside of their families and communities—even when fit and willing relatives were available,” according to the National Indian Child Welfare Association’s website. With the act, tribes won the ability to determine the residency of children in that tribe.

Racially-based separation of children from their parents is still a problem. The Department of Health and Human Services acknowledged in 2016 that black and Native children were overrepresented in the child welfare services. And though new laws like the 1990 Native American Languages Act have protected Indigenous children’s right to learn their own language and history in Bureau of Indian Education schools, there are significant educational inequalities between Native and non-Native students.

In 2014, the high school graduation rate for Native students was 67 percent, the lowest among the racial and ethnic groups measured. The following year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan went so far as to call the Bureau of Indian Education “the epitome of broken.”


"Kill the Indian. and save the man" was the founding mission of Richard H. Pratt, the driving force behind Indian boarding schools, a massive federal project that separated thousands of Native American children from their families and warehoused them in state-run institutions. Parents who refused to send their children to the schools could be legally imprisoned and deprived of resources such as food and clothing which were scarce on reservations.

Three of the 25 Indian boarding schools run by the U.S. government were in California. Their goal was to stamp out all vestiges of Native cultural traditions and replace them with white, Christian customs and norms. It was common practice for administrators to bathe new students in kerosene and to cut off their hair. School days were regulated with military precision. Children were put into a cultural assimilation program and were punished for speaking in their Native language or for practicing any ancestral customs. Children&rsquos given names were replaced with Christian ones. So-called “outing programs” trained children to work as farmers, maids, and cooks for white families, providing a steady stream of cheap labor. There were reports of physical, including sexual, abuse at the schools. Native children resisted.

Some ran away, refused to work, and secretly spoke their languages. For years, Native communities protested for the right to educate their own children. But it wasn&rsquot until 1978 that parents won the legal right to prevent family separation. Many boarding schools that once housed assimilation programs are now public schools. To address intergenerational trauma, tribes in California are insisting that these schools reflect the students they serve, with curriculum that incorporates their language, culture, and traditions. They are also working with the ACLU to put an end to disciplinary practices that target Native students, and to ensure the proper allocation of funds earmarked for high-need students.

Native dances and so-called Native feasts should be prohibited. In many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes. You are directed to use your best efforts in the suppression of these evils.
- Letter to Greenville School from Office of Native Affairs

Read more

Audio interview with Erika Tracy, Hoopa Tribal Education Association

Erika Tracy, Executive Director of the Hoopa Tribal Education Association

Photo: Native Children at Carlisle Indian Industrial School
Credit: Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA

Students at Sherman enacting nativity scene
Credit: Sherman Indian Museum Archives

Bus transporting children to Sherman
Credit: Sherman Indian Museum Archives


Underfunded Native American communities struggle with remote learning

A member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland outlined the initiative while addressing members of the National Congress of American Indians during the group’s midyear conference.

She said the process will be long, difficult and painful and will not undo the heartbreak and loss endured by many families.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

Haaland talked about the federal government’s attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language and culture and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental health issues and substance abuse.

The recent discovery of children’s remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in the troubling legacy both in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

After reading about the unmarked graves in Canada, Haaland recounted her own family’s story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.

Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80 percent of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on U.S. boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.

Interior Department officials said aside from trying to shed more light on the loss of life at the boarding schools, they will be working to protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.

As part of the initiative, a final report from agency staff is due by April 1, 2022.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which had about 80 boarding schools, called the announcement encouraging and said anything that can be done to address those “troubling chapters of history” is a positive thing.

“I hope we don’t discover gruesome incidents like were discovered in Canada. I just think it’s good in this country to have conversations about what happened to Native American children,” Hoskin said.

Navajo Nation President Nez also offered his support for the initiative, noting discrimination against Native Americans continues today on many fronts — from voter suppression to high numbers of missing and murdered people.

“Last week, Congress and President Biden established ‘Juneteenth’ as a national holiday, in observance of the end of slavery, which I fully support as a means to healing the African American community,” Nez said. “Now, from my perspective as a Navajo person, there are so many atrocities and injustices that have been inflicted upon Native Americans dating back hundreds of years to the present day that also require national attention, so that the American society in general is more knowledgeable and capable of understanding the challenges that we face today.”

This is not the first time the federal government has attempted to acknowledge what Haaland referred to as a “dark history.”

More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children at the off-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed off on an apology of sorts that was buried deep in a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill the language had been watered down from the original legislation introduced years earlier.


For Survivors Of Native American Boarding Schools, Family Separation Is Nothing New

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the federal government operated boarding schools for native children: many were forced to go.

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In the present moment, all eyes are on the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexican border. However, Vance Blackfox can&rsquot help but look back and remember the separations of his people in years past.

Blackfox is on the board of directors for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. He&rsquos also Communications Director for Native Americans in Philanthropy.

The recently amended &ldquozero tolerance&rdquo policy regarding immigration on the southern border has drawn comparisons to Japanese internment camps in World War II. But Blackfox is reminded of another injustice which he says is largely omitted from history lessons.

He gives workshops and holds conversations with community members about American Indians, Alaskan natives and their history. It&rsquos a rare occasion when someone raises their hand because they&rsquove heard of the boarding school era.

&ldquoAround the 1850&rsquos and &lsquo60&rsquos, the theme became for that century &lsquoKill the Indian. Save the man,&rsquo and the way in which they wanted to do that was to separate children from their home communities, from their parents, their families and put them into boarding schools,&rdquo Blackfox says.

Over 350 boarding schools were established by the federal government and either by voluntary admittance, coercion, or force, thousands of Native American children were enrolled. The government established &ldquoIndian Agents,&rdquo who conducted child round ups and raids.

And though some graduates of the boarding schools said &ldquoI wouldn&rsquot be who I am today without it,&rdquo for many, the schools were a traumatic experience.

&ldquoMore often than not, there are stories of molestation, rape, torture, brutal punishments and the like. They would come out these experiences really traumatized,&rdquo Blackfox says. &ldquoSo traumatized that they were having to deal with addiction and not able to really host a family themselves and be a part of a family.&rdquo

It&rsquos hard to know just how many children experienced the boarding school phenomenon of the 19th and 20th centuries because there was no system in place to account for them and many disappeared.

None of the boarding schools were in Texas. That&rsquos because the majority of Native Americans in the state were either killed or sent to Oklahoma following the Battle of the Alamo. But that doesn&rsquot mean this legacy of separation doesn&rsquot live on here.

&ldquoMy grandmother and my aunties were taken to boarding schools. Some of my uncles too and so most of us can say that that&rsquos the case for our families,&rdquo says Blackfox.

So now, with Central and South American children held in detainment camps as their parents await processing and/or prosecution, Blackfox and his family can&rsquot help but feel outraged by the shared experience.

&ldquoI think about what so many generations of native people on this land, brown people, being forcibly removed from their parents for years,&rdquo he says. &ldquoAnd it makes me angry and it makes me sad. Because I know, we know, that these children being separated from their parents are going to experience that same trauma and the same pain that so many of us have experienced all these generations since the boarding school era. Native people are so angered because we also know that brown people from Mexico and Central America who are coming here out of need and out of survival most of the time are also indigenous peoples. They may not know exactly their tribe or their affiliation but they are brown because they come from indigenous heritage. So once again, it&rsquos happening.&rdquo


US will review the dark history of its Native American boarding schools

/>In this April 23, 2021, file photo, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. On Tuesday, June 22, 2021, Haaland and other federal officials announced steps that the federal government plans to take to reconcile the legacy of boarding school policies on Indigenous families and communities across the U.S. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

In this April 23, 2021, file photo, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland speaks during a news briefing at the White House in Washington. On Tuesday, June 22, 2021, Haaland and other federal officials announced steps that the federal government plans to take to reconcile the legacy of boarding school policies on Indigenous families and communities across the U.S. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

The federal government will investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools and work to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of the institutions, which over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday.

The unprecedented work will include compiling and reviewing decades of records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students, she said.

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.

A member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland outlined the initiative while addressing members of the National Congress of American Indians during the group’s midyear conference.

She said the process will be long, difficult and painful and will not undo the heartbreak and loss endured by many families.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

Haaland talked about the federal government’s attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language and culture and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse.

Tanana Chiefs Conference chief/chairman PJ Simon called Haaland’s directive “the first step in the healing process for our Native people and this nation.”

“The violence experienced by Native people today is directly related to the significant and damaging violence that Native students experienced at the boarding schools and passed on to younger generations through historical trauma,” Simon said in a statement Tuesday. “Only through acknowledgement the truth about boarding school experiences, can Native people begin the process of healing and redefining our identity.

The recent discovery of children’s remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in that legacy both in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

After reading about the unmarked graves in Canada, Haaland recounted her own family’s story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.

Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on U.S. boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.

Interior Department officials said aside from trying to shed more light on the loss of life at the boarding schools, they will be working to protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.

As part of the initiative, a final report from agency staff is due by April 1, 2022.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which had about 80 boarding schools, called the announcement encouraging and said anything that can be done to address those “troubling chapters of history” is a positive thing.

“I hope we don’t discover gruesome incidents like were discovered in Canada. I just think it’s good in this country to have conversations about what happened to Native American children,” Hoskin said.

Navajo Nation President Nez also offered his support for the initiative, noting discrimination against Native Americans continues today on many fronts — from voter suppression to high numbers of missing and murdered people.

“Last week, Congress and President Biden established ‘Juneteenth’ as a national holiday, in observance of the end of slavery, which I fully support as a means to healing the African American community,” Nez said. “Now, from my perspective as a Navajo person, there are so many atrocities and injustices that have been inflicted upon Native Americans dating back hundreds of years to the present day that also require national attention, so that the American society in general is more knowledgeable and capable of understanding the challenges that we face today.”

This is not the first time the federal government has attempted to acknowledge what Haaland referred to as a “dark history.”

More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children at the off-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed off on an apology of sorts that was buried deep in a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill the language had been watered down from the original legislation introduced years earlier.

Associated Press writer Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.


Photography as propaganda

Richard Henry Pratt used photography to demonstrate the success of his school and the degree of transformation that these native children were undergoing. According to Visualizing a Mission, all of Pratt's photos were heavily orchestrated "in order to heighten the contrast between their 'savage' and 'civilized' state and emphasize the efficacy of Pratt's educational methods."

John Nicholas Choate worked as the photographer of the Carlisle school from its opening until his death in 1902. Choate ended up creating hundreds of cabinet cards, boudoir cards, and stereographs featuring Indigenous children, selling the cards for at least $2 per dozen. Pratt also included the photographs in his correspondence, using them to win the support of reservation agents and state administrative officials.

Pratt himself recognized the use of these pictures as propaganda and mentions including them in his letters in his autobiography, Battlefield and Classroom.

According to Indian Country Today, not every student was photographed. Over 8,000 children passed through Carlisle's door, and Pratt "just needed a few representative samples to use for [his] propaganda."


Intro to Boarding School History

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act Fund of March 3, 1819 and the Peace Policy of 1869 the United States, in concert with and at the urging of several denominations of the Christian Church, adopted an Indian Boarding School Policy expressly intended to implement cultural genocide through the removal and reprogramming of American Indian and Alaska Native children to accomplish the systematic destruction of Native cultures and communities. The stated purpose of this policy was to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

Between 1869 and the 1960s, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of Native American children were removed from their homes and families and placed in boarding schools operated by the federal government and the churches. Though we don’t know how many children were taken in total, by 1900 there were 20,000 children in Indian boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled. The U.S. Native children that were voluntarily or forcibly removed from their homes, families, and communities during this time were taken to schools far away where they were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture. They suffered physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect, and experienced treatment that in many cases constituted torture for speaking their Native languages. Many children never returned home and their fates have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
— Gen. Richard Henry Pratt

By the 1926, nearly 83% of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools.

  • 357 boarding schools in 30 states
  • 1900: 20,000 children in boarding schools
  • 1925: 60,889 children in boarding schools

US to review Native American boarding schools' dark history

The federal government will investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools and work to “uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences” of policies that over the decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced Tuesday.

The unprecedented work will include compiling and reviewing records to identify past boarding schools, locate known and possible burial sites at or near those schools, and uncover the names and tribal affiliations of students, she said.

“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities, we must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past no matter how hard it will be,” Haaland said.

A member of New Mexico’s Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary, Haaland outlined the initiative while addressing members of the National Congress of American Indians during the group’s midyear conference.

She said the process will be long, difficult and painful and will not undo the heartbreak and loss endured by many families.

Starting with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies to establish and support Indian boarding schools across the nation. For over 150 years, Indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools that focused on assimilation.

Haaland talked about the federal government's attempt to wipe out tribal identity, language and culture and how that past has continued to manifest itself through long-standing trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, premature deaths, mental health issues and substance abuse.

The recent discovery of children's remains buried at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school has magnified interest in the troubling legacy both in Canada and the United States.

In Canada, more than 150,000 First Nations children were required to attend state-funded Christian schools as part of a program to assimilate them into society. They were forced to convert to Christianity and were not allowed to speak their languages. Many were beaten and verbally abused, and up to 6,000 are said to have died.

After reading about the unmarked graves in Canada, Haaland recounted her own family's story in a recent opinion piece published by the Washington Post.

Haaland cited statistics from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, which reported that by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations. Besides providing resources and raising awareness, the coalition has been working to compile additional research on U.S. boarding schools and deaths that many say is sorely lacking.

Interior Department officials said aside from trying to shed more light on the loss of life at the boarding schools, they will be working to protect burial sites associated with the schools and will consult with tribes on how best to do that while respecting families and communities.

As part of the initiative, a final report from agency staff is due by April 1, 2022.

Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, which had about 80 boarding schools, called the announcement encouraging and said anything that can be done to address those “troubling chapters of history” is a positive thing.

“I hope we don’t discover gruesome incidents like were discovered in Canada. I just think it’s good in this country to have conversations about what happened to Native American children,” Hoskin said.

Navajo Nation President Nez also offered his support for the initiative, noting discrimination against Native Americans continues today on many fronts — from voter suppression to high numbers of missing and murdered people.

“Last week, Congress and President Biden established ‘Juneteenth’ as a national holiday, in observance of the end of slavery, which I fully support as a means to healing the African American community," Nez said. “Now, from my perspective as a Navajo person, there are so many atrocities and injustices that have been inflicted upon Native Americans dating back hundreds of years to the present day that also require national attention, so that the American society in general is more knowledgeable and capable of understanding the challenges that we face today.”

This is not the first time the federal government has attempted to acknowledge what Haaland referred to as a “dark history.”

More than two decades ago, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover issued an apology for the emotional, psychological, physical and spiritual violence committed against children at the off-reservation schools. Then in 2009, President Barack Obama quietly signed off on an apology of sorts that was buried deep in a multibillion-dollar defense spending bill the language had been watered down from the original legislation introduced years earlier.

Associated Press writer Ken Miller in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover's last name.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.


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From 1893 to 1934, some 300 Native American children from kindergarten through eighth grade were boarded annually at a school in Mount Pleasant where rumors of abuse have persisted.

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Why were native american boarding schools created?

The purpose of the Native American Boarding schools was to assimilate Native American children into the American culture by placing them in institutions where they were forced to reject their Native American culture. The boarding school experience for most of the Tribal Nations in the U.S.

How did native american boarding schools start?

The Native American boarding school system was officially started by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, an Army officer. In 1879, Pratt opened Carlisle Indian School, an institution founded to assimilate Native Americans into white society.

Is there a boarding school in the united states?

Boarding Schools in the United States. The United States offers a huge variety of boarding schools, ranging from small schools in the mountains to large residential programs in major cities like New York, Chicago or Dallas.


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