A century of trauma at U.S. boarding schools for Native American children

Federally funded schools used abusive tactics to strip children of their culture and inspired a similar program in Canada. A new initiative aims to reckon with that past.

Zitkála-Šá was eight years old when the missionaries came. Lured from the South Dakota Yankton Indian Reservation with promises of adventure, comfort, and an education, in 1884 the girl went willingly to Wabash, Indiana, to attend a Quaker-run boarding school dedicated to training Native American children.

Then she realized the teachers who had taken her traditional clothing upon her arrival wanted to cut her hair, too. Proud of her long black hair and raised to associate short cuts with the shame of captured warriors, Zitkála-Šá snuck away from the other children. But the adults found her hiding place. They dragged the kicking child into another room and tied her to a chair. 

“I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids,” she wrote in her 1921 memoir American Indian Stories. “Then I lost my spirit.” Renamed Gertrude by the missionaries, Zitkála-Šá would go on to live most of the rest of her childhood at boarding schools for Native students. (Zitkála-Šá went on to fight for suffrage for women and Native Americans.)

She was one of hundreds of thousands of students who attended such schools in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries. The U.S. boarding schools inspired a similar program in Canada, which is now reeling from the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the residential schools its First Nations children were forced to attend.

(Canada’s residential school survivors reflect on a brutal legacy: “That could’ve been me.”)

The grisly discovery has also forced a reckoning in the U.S. about its residential boarding schools which punished Native students for speaking their languages, forced them to take new names, and coerced them to convert to Christianity. And many were federally funded in an ambitious attempt to force Native Americans to assimilate into white American society.

The first Native American boarding school

Native Americans had inhabited and tended their traditional lands for thousands of years before the arrival of white settlers in the 1600s. Rather than learn from the land’s indigenous people, however, the settlers began to pressure Native Americans to abandon their traditional societies and adopt the ways of the new republic.

In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, a law that allowed the federal government to exchange land in the western U.S. for some tribes’ ancestral homelands in the east. But despite brokering more than 350 treaties with Native tribes, the U.S. did not fulfill its promises. Instead of allowing Native people to establish permanent homes in the west, it pushed them onto government-assigned reservations.

At first, education was in the hands of missionaries, some of whom set up schools on and near the new reservations. But as white settlers flooded into the western U.S. in the mid 19th century, forced assimilation became a federal priority. The government started to invest in mission schools and day schools. But over time, writes historian Ronald C. Naugle, “The reservation environment, to which the child returned daily, undermined the process of assimilation.”

Instead, the U.S. turned to the idea of off-reservation boarding schools. It found a blueprint in the work of Army General Richard Henry Pratt, who oversaw the education of a group of Native American prisoners of war in Fort Marion, Florida. Pratt’s philosophy was what he called “kill the Indian, and save the man.” He was convinced that if Native children were removed from their Native context and placed in an Anglo one, they would assimilate within a generation.

Pratt convinced the federal government to invest in a pricey experiment: a boarding school in Pennsylvania that educated Native children far from home. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which Pratt opened in 1879, would become the most prominent of the 25 federally funded off-reservation boarding schools that would open over the next few decades. (More than 300 other day and on-reservation boarding schools received federal funding as well.)

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School was upheld as a model throughout the nation. Its influence didn’t end there: In 1879, the Canadian government sent lawyer Nicholas Flood Davin to the U.S. on a fact-finding mission. Davin visited the Carlisle school and other institutions and returned to Canada with a glowing review of the new educational system. Davin recommended the government create its own residential school system as soon as possible.

Abuse in the name of assimilation

At the federal boarding schools, which were located in white communities, children were given Anglo names. Their native languages and cultural practices were forbidden. Their strict educations included language lessons and studies in subjects like manual labor, housekeeping, and farming, and students were usually required to help keep the school self-sufficient by laboring there when they were not in the classroom.

For many, the schools were hotbeds of humiliation, abuse, and victimization. They were also dangerous. Unsanitary conditions and overcrowding fueled communicable diseases such as tuberculosis, influenza, and smallpox, especially among students weakened by trauma and meager rations. Schools had their own cemeteries—and students often built their classmates’ coffins.

Other children died by suicide or ran away. The practice was so common that some schools offered bounties for runaways. “The temptation to return to their wild life, with the savage influences surrounding them, is no doubt very strong,” wrote one newspaper reporter in a lengthy article about life at White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana, the school Zitkála-Šá attended.

Yet the U.S. government considered the schools a success—so much so that in 1891, it passed a federal law that made attendance compulsory for Native children. The Bureau of Indian Affairs—the federal agency tasked with distributing food, land, and other provisions included in treaties with Native tribes—withheld food and other goods from those who refused to send their children to the schools, and even sent officers to forcibly take children from the reservation. It was “civilization by kidnapping,” said one Native American advocate at a 1927 Congressional hearing.

Earlier generations of Native Americans had suffered the loss of nearly all of their lands. Now, the boarding schools broke up their family units and endangered their languages and cultural practices.

But many Native parents did not part from their children without a fight. One memorable act of protest occurred in 1894, when a group of Hopi men in Arizona refused to send their children to residential schools. Nineteen of them were taken to Alcatraz Island in California, about a thousand miles away from their families, and imprisoned for a year.

The fight to close the boarding schools

At the beginning of the 20th century, however, enthusiasm for the system dwindled and the schools floundered. In 1928, the U.S. government commissioned what is now known as the Meriam Report, a comprehensive update on the state of Native American affairs. Its authors criticized everything from the schools’ deteriorating conditions to the often heavy manual labor the children were forced to perform, and pointed out that the schools relied on long outdated teaching techniques like rote learning and recitation. Students were stiff, hungry, sick, and demoralized, they wrote, and were subjected to harsh physical punishments.

The report resulted in some immediate changes—among them, the emergency allocation of funds for better food and clothing in the schools. But even though the report recommended dismantling the boarding school system in favor of day schools, the schools persisted.

Meanwhile, the fractures they had introduced into Native culture widened. Native languages began to die out, fueled by children’s absence from the reservation and their forced use of English. Traditional parenting skills were not passed on to younger generations. And over the years, children at the schools reported widespread neglect and physical and sexual abuse.

“The most debilitating message was one of self-hatred,” writes Mending the Sacred Hoop, a Native-owned nonprofit that works to end violence against Native women. In a 2003 report on the boarding school experience, the nonprofit traced violence in Native American communities—which experience an order of magnitude more violence than their majority white counterparts—to the abuse and trauma many children suffered during their educations.

Native Americans continued to fight to close down the schools. Self-determined education was a priority for the burgeoning pan-Indian movement in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1975, Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which granted tribes the ability to assume responsibility for programs that had been administered by the federal government. (The radical history of the Red Power movement’s fight for Native American sovereignty.)

It was the death knell for most residential schools, but a few remain. Today, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education still directly operates four off-reservation boarding schools in Oklahoma, California, Oregon, and South Dakota. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), a Native-run nonprofit, 15 boarding schools and 73 total schools with federal funding remain open as of 2021.

Reckoning with the past

In the late 20th century, the federal government began to acknowledge the schools’ grisly legacy. In 2009, Congress passed a joint resolution of apology to Native Americans that included a reference to “the forcible removal of Native children from their families to faraway boarding schools where their Native practices and languages were degraded and forbidden.” In 2016, the U.S. Army began repatriating the remains of some of the bodies buried at the Carlisle Indian School to their tribes and bands. It is the only known effort to do so in the United States; repatriation is ongoing.

The number of children who were sent to off-reservation residential boarding schools over their century-long history is unclear. But the scars remain—and intergenerational wounds were reopened with recent reports of the unmarked graves in Canada. In response, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, announced the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a program designed to review the schools’ histories and legacy. The program will investigate known and suspected burial sites.

The Native American boarding school coalition applauded the initiative. “We have a right to know what happened to the children who never returned home from Indian boarding schools,” the NABS said in a release. “The time is now for truth and healing.”

Read This Next

An icy world is in meltdown, amid penguin population shifts
This sacred valley could become the next national monument
This 50-year project is tracking the Cascades' melting glaciers

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet