As we come fully into fall and social media timelines fill
with photos of kids shining with scholastic achievement (mine being one
of them – star speller, woohoo!), I’ve been reflecting on one photo in
A friend posted a picture she took while at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania earlier this year. It shows the headstones of a Piute child named Boise and a Shawnee child named Fanny.
It’s a sobering and triggering photo.
Carlisle was the first off-reservation
Indian boarding school. For many Natives, it represents the destructive
and often deadly nature of official US assimilation policies forced down the throats of Native youth and families from the late 1800s to the mid-1900s.
Note: I use the term “Indian”
sparingly and only when referring to the legal and historical name
thrust upon Indigenous people of the US by the federal government.
“American Indian” is the legal term used today. Whenever possible, I use
Native, Indigenous, or specific tribal names.
I’ve heard harrowing first-person
accounts of children having lye spread in and around their mouths for
speaking prohibited Native languages. Kids as young as five and six were
bathed in kerosene and forced to cut their sacred hair upon arrival.
Physical and sexual abuse was widespread. Trying not to die was as much a part of the curriculum as learning a new trade.
Boarding schools were Guantánamo for Native babies.
And it was considered totally legit in
the name of mainstreaming. Carlisle – and the dozens of other schools
modeled after it – ruled by the motto: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
As someone who has worked extensively
with Native youth and families in both the public education and social
services systems, and as someone whose immediate family were sent to
Indian boarding schools, I can say unequivocally that the effects of
what’s known as the Indian boarding school era are still felt – in
immense and powerful ways – today in both the US and Canada.
And yet many refuse to lay blame at the feet of these institutions. Boarding schools weren’t that
bad, they say. They point to the Natives who got good jobs, or
flourished athletically, like Jim Thorpe, and especially those who
refused to return to their Native homelands in favor of the Western
More still know nothing of the atrocities
experienced by boarding school survivors and dismiss studies that show
intergenerational trauma affects Native students in classrooms today.
I’ve heard these phrases and more too
many times to count: “They’re just lazy,” teachers tell each other in
the lounge discussing failing students. “Their parents don’t even care,”
they surmise after another missed parent-teacher conference. “Pull
yourself up by your bootstraps” or “Work harder like your peers,” they
tell the kids who don’t turn in homework.
Educators need to remember context before passing judgment.
It’s therefore my hope the following
serves as a sort of history lesson to explain the links between the
Indian boarding school era and Native educational outcomes today.
The Humane Way to Assimilate
Let’s assume good intentions
established Indian boarding schools during the late 1800s. Using a
broad lens, the concept of boarding schools doesn’t look so bad.
Many historians say these schools were a way to save what many saw as a dying race.
The reservation system
was failing, Natives were living in extreme poverty, and conflicts
continued to plague US military forces on the Great Plains (and, uh, massacres continued to plague Native tribes).
Assimilating Native youth seemed to be
the only way to save Native people. If Native youth learned how
successful they could be learning English and Western culture,
everyone’s problems would be solved.
At first, churches and missionaries set
up schools outside reservation borders and kids would attend during the
day and return home in the afternoon. But Native kids still learned from
family and cultural systems on the reservation, still spoke their
Native languages, and were generally still “Indian.”
Army officer Richard H. Pratt
came on the scene in 1879, fresh from an experiment working with Native
prisoners, to whom he taught English and Christianity and trades for
Not so surprisingly, the inmates
overwhelmingly chose conversion and assimilation to longer imprisonment,
so Pratt saw his experiment as a success and published “then and now”
photos showing the prisoners first as “savages” (long hair and leather
clad) and then as “civilized” (cut hair, pressed shirts, and polished
Pratt and his supporters were certain the prisoner experiment would work for Native children. What could go wrong?
Pratt convinced the families of about 80
children from the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota to
let him educate their kids 1,500 miles away in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
The long distance, he argued, would break the hold tribal life had on
Pratt’s school was styled on military
regimen; drills and industrial work were built into a school day that
lasted from 5:45 a.m. through 9 p.m. Tribal languages and practices were
not allowed. Pratt’s the guy who coined the “kill the Indian” phrase
In 1893, mandatory education for Native
children became federal policy. If parents refused to send their
children away, Bureau of Indian Affairs authorities could withhold
treaty-obligated annuities or rations (food, clothing, land) and jail
Hundreds of Indian boarding schools,
both on-site and off-reservation, were built and utilized through the
early part of the twentieth century. Tens of thousands of Native
children were forced through the system.
By the 1920s, however, the boarding
school trend lost favor, primarily because of how expensive it was
(annual appropriations reached into the millions) and how few Native
students chose to assimilate into white society upon graduating. The feds turned over many school administrations to religious organizations.
It would be another half-century, in the
1970s, that the Indian boarding school era would fade out its mission to
Today, many boarding schools continue to
operate specifically to education Native children, but under tribal
authority and oversight and with positive, education-based missions that
incorporate Indigenous teachings and perspectives.
Fear and Punishment as Educational Tools
Though I find it problematic at best,
many consider the foundations and intentions of Indian boarding schools
to have been beneficial and successful – if the aim was to save a dying
race, then the 5.2 million of us alive today can thank Indian boarding
schools for a job well done.
It is my belief, however, that government
and church-run boarding schools have had the single greatest negative
impact on Natives, beyond wars or reservations or anything else the US
threw our way.
Not only did the forced removal of Native
children result in the destruction of the tight familial structures and
cultural values many tribes relied on, it also brought tribes to their
knees politically and ended Native-led resistance efforts.
What better way to establish dominance
and ensure submission than to take away that which is most precious to
the people you’re trying to conquer?
The schools weren’t developed to educate, but to “civilize” by whatever means necessary.
Interviews and accounts from school administrators in a document known as the Kennedy Report (1969)
show how they believed brutal punishments for transgressions like
speaking Native languages were necessary to (literally) break children
from tribal values.
My mom and other relatives went to Indian boarding schools, and I’ve listened to and researched first-person accounts of the abuse and destruction children endured.
One gentleman I interviewed told how he
was five years old and didn’t want his hair cut, as was mandatory for
boys arriving at school. One clergyman told him to get in line with the
girls if he wanted his hair kept long. Staff gave him a pink rosary,
instead of the blue reserved for boys.
He didn’t think anything of it – gender
roles weren’t so rigid for Lakota people as they were for Westerners –
until the teachers and older students began to mock him and laugh at his
long hair and pink rosary.
Though shamed, he still refused to
have his hair cut. He was beaten and blacked out; when he awoke, his
hair, considered sacred by the Lakota, was gone.
I also interviewed a woman who said she
watched as a girl in her dorm slowly died from a common cold because the
staff didn’t want to waste medicine on a child they thought was faking
illness, and she was made to run extra laps in the morning.
The woman said she and the other girls
piled blankets on the sick child and pushed her bed up by the heater at
night, but she was dead within the week and buried in the back of the
This isn’t education. It’s torture.
The Impact on Native Student Outcomes Today
Earlier this year, a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics used science to prove what Natives have known for a long, long time: Trauma affects DNA.
To put it another way, intergenerational stress and historical trauma are real and impact children in real ways.
Generations of kids forced into boarding
schools meant generations of parents without children to raise. The
system succeeded in dismantling traditional family and cultural
structures and values.
When it comes to boarding schools, the trauma is passed down in obvious ways:
- There are many in my generation and younger who were never taught our tribal languages. Why would our elders teach us something that could get us beaten or worse, as they were?
- Boarding schools taught many parents and grandparents raising children today to be distrustful of the education system.
- Violence in Native communities remains
cyclical in nature. The abuse experienced by thousands of Native youth
at boarding schools was rarely, if ever, treated or addressed. Left
unchecked, the violence has cropped up in families generation after generation.
- Due to the lack of mental health
resources on reservations, many abuse survivors turned to alcohol or
drugs to self-medicate. Crimes committed to feed addictions led to
incarceration. The Native incarceration rate is nearly 40% higher than the national average.
- Our children don’t learn positive ways to cope. Native youth suicide is at more than three times the national average (reservation communities experience ten times the national rate).
Less straightforward is how Native students fare in schools today.
Our histories with the education system
mean many Native adults don’t see the point in making their kids do well
in school. Distrust is one thing, but an even bigger problem is that
teachers and staff have no concept of boarding school horrors and thus,
wrongly assume lazy students and disinterested parents.
Make no mistake: Actions and viewpoints
like these have similar consequences on today’s Native students as
boarding schools had on their ancestors.
Healing from Indian Boarding School Trauma
Ironically, education is key to overcoming the devastating effects of the Indian boarding school era.
I’ve given talks about boarding schools
to teachers in districts across the nation and after every presentation,
it never fails that at least a few teachers express how sorry they are
for their ignorance and judgment of the Native students in their
My presentations usually last one
hour. Think of what could be possible if education majors had whole
courses on the subject in college.
Native immersion programs for K-12
schools that incorporate family interaction into the curriculum are
important to build trust and parental buy-in. When I was teaching a
Native social studies program to middle school students a few years ago,
my day included built-in, one-on-one time with students and home visits
with family to engage them with the Lakota curriculum.
Furthermore, districts should never
doubt the impact a relatable teacher can have on students and families. I
often advocated for my students who left unexpectedly for funerals or
other family gatherings, which hold different importance for Natives
than Western traditions dictate. Without my intervention, many of those
students would have been expelled or sent to truancy court.
Hiring Native teachers and inserting
Native perspectives into curriculums, including math and sciences, would
undoubtedly help turn failing students into successful ones.
Finally, healing the trauma experienced
by parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents alive today may never
fully be realized, but lobbying Congress to completely fund its
obligations to tribes so they can establish quality mental health and
treatment facilities in tribal communities is a good place to start.
Despite President Obama’s 2016 budget request asking for a small increase
in tribal funding over this year, programs in Indian Country remain
woefully underfunded. Advocacy from allies in the form of calls and
letters to your government representatives is a must.
For many, the emotional and physical
scars received at boarding schools might never fade, but healing can
start with mass education campaigns, therapy, legal reparations, and
official acknowledgment and apology from governments and religions
Solutions and healing are possible. A
good place to start? Get comfortable with the full, unabridged history
of the Indian boarding school era.
Doing so provides relevant context in
understanding the strains on today’s educational systems, Native
families, and most importantly, Native students.
Taté Walker is a Contributing Writer
for Everyday Feminism. She is Mniconjou Lakota and an enrolled citizen
of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. She lives in Phoenix and is the
editor of Native Peoples magazine. Contact her at www.jtatewalker.com and read her articles here.