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"Genocide Disguised as American Education"-American Indian Boarding Schools & Their Lasting Legacy

It started as an experiment and in the eyes of the United States Government, soon became a promising solution to finally end Indigenous resistance to colonial western expansion once and for all. To the remaining Indigenous tribes who had already survived centuries of the genocide of their people, it meant a new and more psychologically brutal form of eradication.


The myth of the "merciless Indian Savage" is literally engraved into the founding of the United States of America.

"...the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions." - The Declaration of Independence, 1776

As soon as settler colonialism became the basis for the creation of a new American nation, all Indigenous nations who occupied that land were impediments to progress. For the colonizers, Indigenous eradication was necessary for the survival of their invading, white male dominated, American democracy.

It is estimated that the population of Indigenous in 1491 was roughly 60 million*. The United States census of 1910 recorded just over 200,000.*

President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 enforced the relocation of eastern Indigenous tribes and communities to the lands west of the Mississippi, so white settlers could take over their indigenous homelands. The gold rush only further exacerbated the continuation of westward settler expansion. Disease and government sponsored violence against American Indians during this time period, decimated entire Indigenous nations.

By 1881 a United States Board of Indian Commissioners report stated, "instead of dying out under the light and contact of civilization" the Indian population "is steadily increasing." As this continued to stand in the way of the colonizers complete "ownership" of the entire United States, the new plan for dealing with “the Indian problem” was to absorb and assimilate the remaining tribes.

On the surface the new government policy of assimilation was progressive, more humane, and was better for public relations than the continuation of slaughter during the growing age of industrialization. In actuality assimilation was systemic, psychological ethnic cleansing.

The Dawes Act of 1887 was the backbone of assimilation. The act authorized the federal government to break up tribal lands by partitioning them into individual plots. Only American Indians who accepted their individual allotment of land were able to become citizens of the United States. As a result, over 90 million acres of tribal land was taken from Indigenous tribes and sold to mostly white colonizers. The Dawes Act pushed to assimilate American Indians by annihilating their Indigenous identity and way of life. Although not a new concept, another form of assimilation, presented to the public as education, reemerged.

Photograph of Richard Henry Pratt, black and white, Pratt has stern look on his face and is dressed in a suit

The erasure of tribal identity under the guise of education, was popularized as a profitable venture by Richard Henry Pratt. While stationed at Fort Marion in present day St. Augustine, Florida (occupied Timucuan land), Pratt had 72 American Indian prisoners under his command, on whom he began experimenting. He believed American Indians could be assimilated through vocational and religious training. Pratt taught the prisoners how to speak, read, and write English, and how to perform manual labor. He stripped them of their tribal clothing, and made them wear military uniforms. For Pratt this experiment proved American Indians were not unruly "savages", they were capable of being "civilized." He took his findings to the federal government in hopes they would fund the continuation of the experiment on a larger scale, and they did, specifically targeting American Indian children and young adults.

In 1879, the government funded Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the first ever off-reservation boarding school for American Indian children. Richard Henry Pratt, became the school's superintendent. Soon more and more government funded schools popped up across the United States and Canada. By 1900 there were150 US boarding and residential schools, where upwards of 20,000 American Indian children and young adults were stripped of their tribal identities and indoctrinated into Western, settler colonialism.* By 1926, 83% of American Indian children were attending boarding schools.*

Children as young as two years old and as old as fifteen, were forcibly taken from their families and reservations, put on trains, and purposefully taken to schools hundreds and thousands of miles away from their families. Families who refused to give their children up were beaten, refused commodities by the federal government, and even imprisoned at Alcatraz*. The act of being forcibly removed from your family, watching your parents get beaten, being put on a train and sent far away from your family induced serious trauma.

“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.” - Captain Richard Henry Pratt, 1892

As Ward Churchill, author of Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools explained, the children arrived at the schools in an already traumatized condition, where large and strange adults, laid down the law and told them to turn over everything they brought with them. All tribal clothes, mementos from their family, and other tribal items were taken away from the children and they were given military style, school uniforms. Their long hair, which had significant cultural and spiritual symbolism, was immediately cut. They were stripped of their names and given new European American names, like Theresa.

As time went on, children received corporal punishment and solitary confinement anytime they spoke their tribal language, sang their songs, practiced their religion, or displayed any form of their indigenous identity. Alongside the behavior alterations, children were taught an American education grounded in American exceptionalism, Christianity, and vocation. They were taught to view themselves, their families, their spirituality, and the communities they were raised in, through the eyes of their oppressors.

Children endured sexual and emotional abuse, forced manual labor, neglect, and disease. Navajo leader Manuelito agreed to uphold a 1868 treaty requiring American education for Navajo children, and sent his sons to Carlisle. Within a year of being at Carlisle, one of his sons contracted a disease and died. Heartbroken and infuriated, Manuelito ordered that his surviving children be returned home to him. His second son came home ill, and within weeks, also died.*

All the while, Superintendent Richard Henry Pratt hired a photographer to take before and after photographs of the students, creating propaganda to showcase how successful the program was. In truth, he documented the desecration of Indigenous culture in real time.

American Indian boarding and residential schools continued their existence well into the late 20th century. Survivors continue to speak of their experiences and how much residual trauma they hold from the not so old history.

In 1945 Bill Wright, a member of the Patwin nation, was sent to Nevada's Stewart Indian School at the age of six. In 2008 he recalled, "I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, 'Grandma, I don't understand you. She said, 'Then who are you?" He told her his name was Billy. "Your name's not Billy. Your name's TAH-rruhm,' she told him. "And I went, 'That's not what they told me'."*

Kathleen Wood, a member of the Navajo nation, attended the Chuska Boarding School in Tohatchi, New Mexico. She recalled a memory of three brothers at the school who ran away during the heart of winter, because they missed their families in Dodge City. As they were thousands of miles from home, they got lost in the wilderness. By the time they were found, all three boys had lost functionality in their legs due to frostbite, and needed amputation.*

After the 1928, the Meriam Report: The Problem of Indian Administration came out and detailed the severe brutality of boarding schools, some of the schools began to close. Some excerpts from the report below, exemplify the horrendous conditions the students endured.

"The Conditions Among the Indians. An overwhelming majority of the Indians are poor, even extremely poor, and they are not adjusted to the economic and social system of the dominant white civilization."
Health. The health of the Indians as compared with that of the general population is bad. Although accurate mortality and morbidity statistics are commonly lacking, the existing evidence warrants the statement that both the general death rate and the infant mortality rate are high. Tuberculosis is extremely prevalent. Trachoma, a communicable disease which produces blindness, is a problem because of its great prevalence and the danger of spreading among both the Indians and the whites.
"Absence of Well Considered, Broad Educational Program. The outstanding evidence of the lack of an adequate, well-trained personnel is the absence of any well considered. broad educational program for the Service as a whole."
"The boarding schools are frankly supported in part by the labor of the students." "The question may very properly be raised as to whether much of the work of Indian children in boarding schools would not be prohibited in many states by the child labor laws, notably the work in the machine laundries."

Still other schools persisted well into the 1970's and 80's. In large part due to the American Indian rights movement of the 1960's and 70's, the 1975 the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act was passed. The act gave tribal communities greater control over their own affairs, specifically in education. Eventually, the remaining boarding schools were handed over to existing tribes to be run in partnership with the Bureau of Indian affairs. Many of the schools, like the Santa Fe Indian School in New Mexico, exist today but now pride themselves in a curriculum that empowers Indigenous youth.

Sadly, American Indian boarding and residential schools were just part one in the assimilation of American Indian children into mainstream American culture. An alternative form of the assimilation of was found in adoption. The video below by Vox, chronicles the horrifying history.


Organizations like the Native American Rights Fund and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition are pursuing strategies to support the healing of American Indian boarding and residential school survivors.

"The mission of the Boarding School Healing Project is to secure a meaningful response from the U.S. government and churches as well as healing and reconciliation among Native American individuals, families, communities, and tribes. The Project is conducting education and outreach in Indian country and with churches, with the goal of developing a proposal to the U.S. Congress for response by the federal government. NARF also compiles research on historical trauma and healing."

Please consider donating to this important cause here.


For further learning

To learn more about the impact of American Indian Boarding and Residential Schools:

For introducing children to the difficult history of American Indian Boarding Schools:

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