Historian: American Indian Boarding Schools and Their Impact

LThe U.S. Department of the Interior published a nearly 100-page report this week on federal Indigenous boarding schools that were established to integrate Native Americans during the 19th century and early 20th centuries. The department discovered that the U.S. supported or ran 408 boarding schools between 1819-1869. Students endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” and the report recorded more than 500 deaths of Native children—a number set to increase as the department’s investigation of this issue continues.

“This report, as I see it, is only a first step to acknowledge the experiences of Federal Indian boarding school children,” Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, the study’s author, wrote in a memo.

These institutions were cataloged almost a full year after hundreds of graves left unmarked at the sites of Canadian boarding schools.

“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face,” Deb Haaland, Interior Secretary and first Native American cabinet secretary, said in a statement. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

To get an American Indian historian’s reaction to the significance of the Interior Department’s research and to better understand the history of these boarding schools, TIME called Brenda Child, historian and author of American Indian Families 1900-1940: Boarding School Seasons

These boarding schools were founded for a reason.

Remember that assimilation was the primary goal of schools, but Native people were also the focus. The boarding school policy’s land destruction and dispossession is what I consider the greatest genocide in the history of boarding schools. People at the time thought Native people could just abandon their homes and reservations and tribal ways and wouldn’t need a homeland anymore.

Why? Carlisle Indian Industrial School significant?

Carlisle is significant as it served as a model for government boarding schools. Carlisle was a pioneer in Indian education. At the time people believed Indians needed to be skilled with their hands so they had to enter manual trades. They weren’t educated to be doctors or teachers or lawyers. Carlisle developed a program in which students spent half their time in classrooms, then they would train in vocational work for the remaining half. It was copied at many schools.

This also suggests that the schools trained people to do low-paying jobs for white Americans.

It was definitely a system that valued social class. Indians were Native but of lower class. [who white people thought]Should learn manual skills that have benefited the majority of whites. These boarding schools weren’t about Indians. These schools represented a type of segregated educational system in America’s history. We know which people benefit from segregation.

What is the secret to these American boarding schools being allowed?

I think that the citizens of this country, and politicians in this country and reformers were deeply invested in dispossessing Indians, and that’s why the boarding schools persisted and why they were talked about by people at the time as being great—”This was going to be the best thing! Indians will become citizens. They’re going to get jobs!” And the price they’re paying is being dispossessed of their land. But that’s what it was all about. You have to be able to see past the rhetoric and history of the assimilation period. We can see that this period was a disaster for Native Americans, making them even poorer.

Learn more Deb Haaland, the Native American Cabinet Secretary: Historical significance

Is there anything you think is the most important thing about this report?

The report doesn’t really periodize American Indian history very well. It is generally believed that the beginning of the boarding school era can be traced back to 1879 when Carlisle (the first off-reservation Federal schools) was established. It was the most popular form of Indian education throughout the United States for fifty years. [Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency]The Indian office and its policymakers rejected assimilation at the time. They also rejected the idea of boarding schools.

In the 1930s many were closed down by the federal government, which led to the creation of public schools in Indian education. However, there were some exceptions. [the boarding schools]These were made available at the request Indian families. They used them as poverty relief programs to help their families survive the Great Depression. You have to see this period as more than one policy, which lasted over 150 years. However, there were many other eras in American Indian education’s history. So what Native Americans who went to a government school in 1879 when Indian wars were being fought in America was very different from what they experienced today. [an American Indian] student in the 1930s experienced when people in government were saying, “Well, Native people shouldn’t have to give up their languages or their cultures.” That’s a very different period. I don’t think that students who attended boarding schools experienced the same thing decade after decade.

What place does this report belong in the history research on Indigenous Board Schools?

What I believe the people of the United States wanted to find out was whether there were any hidden issues in their country. Is there a hidden history that we’re not aware of in regard to the government? What they’ve done is to try to take a very comprehensive look at any institution that could be called a boarding school, whether it was run by the federal government or whether it was run by church organizations.

Do you think that the report adds anything to the scholarship on this topic that’s important to note?

The inclusion of Native Hawaiians in the report was something that I found interesting. Many of us who have written about the history of Indian education haven’t really included them in this history. Many similarities exist because there are parallels. Perhaps some missionaries and officials began in Indian schools before moving to Hawaii. The globalization of ideas regarding assimilating or changing Indigenous people is a testament to the power and reachability of these concepts. That is what I love. [the report]Included Hawaii

It takes an overly broad view on schools. This is one of the issues I have with this report. Most historians have specific criteria about which institutions they study. So what the report does is sweep together all kinds of institutions—Catholic schools, Episcopal schools, Presbyterian schools—and I don’t know if that sheds light on the overall history. Maybe it provides a certain overview that there were many, many institutions, but I think it’s better to separate the church schools and the federal schools, the schools that the United States government funded, because they were different kinds of institutions with different purposes.

Learn more The Native American Tribe that fed the Pilgrims: What does Thanksgiving mean to them today?

How did the boarding school impact your family’s life?

My great-grandfather attended Carlisle, and my grandmother, who was Ojibwe, attended Flandreau School in South Dakota. They were Ojibwe speakers who left Red Lake on northern Minnesota’s Red Lake reservation. [these boarding schools were]Their first experience in the English language. Schools wanted children to learn English and to have basic schooling in grammar. Then, they would need to train in manual or domestic trades. My grandmother worked as a housekeeper in South Dakota for white people. My great-grandfather played football. [Olympian]Jim Thorpe, and we are so proud of this sporting history.

My grandmother, who was bilingual unlike the husband she had when she returned home from her honeymoon on the reservation, could write both English and Spanish. Because she was able to write letters, she became the family advocate. When they tried to obtain a loan for their home, she was able to speak up on many matters. She taught her family the Ojibwe language after she moved back to Red Lake. My grandparents insisted on speaking their language and didn’t give up their culture in any way. But I think it’s a mixed bag. [The boarding schools were] an institution that was designed to eliminate Native culture, Native languages, and we’ve paid a price for that.

What can the U.S. government now do to compensate for Indian boarding school funding?

We can’t change the past. We can’t change the experience of assimilation. However, we can help Natives who are deprived of their land. Ask Indians and they will reveal exactly the land that they desire restored.

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To Olivia B. Waxman at


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