Indian Boarding Schools: Tools of Forced Assimilations, 1870 to the 1960s


Carlisle Boarding School photo


Introduction for the Teacher

This 2-4 day lesson addresses the history of the boarding school experience which between 1870 and the 1970s, forced Indian children to leave their families and homes and live under the control of the federal government. You will note as you review the lesson that there is a great deal of political history about how and why boarding schools became part of Federal Indian Policy and how such schools evolved (see especially the content at the end of Day One and all of Day Three). You may wish to omit this part of the lesson and focus instead on the experiences of students in boarding schools (Day 4).


Grade Level and Standards: The lesson is especially focused on high school topics related to the 11th and 12th grade California standards. (See Standards listed at the end of this guide). The contents can be adapted for middle and elementary school students.


Objectives: The student will be able to
    1. Understand the goals and consequences of Federal Indian Policies related to the creation of boarding schools for American Indian children.
    2. Examine and analyze primary documents related to boarding schools: articles written by children in boarding school; photographs; and articles written by those who designed and operated boarding schools.
    3. Discuss whether or not the forcible taking of Indian children from their families consituted an act of cultural genoicide.


Academic Language (words or phrases with which students should be familiar: civilization, savage, ethnocentric, assimilation, subsidize, Indian boarding schools, genocide


Day 1 Lesson Content - Early Efforts in Indian Education


Introduction: Today we begin to study policies that the United States government used in the late 19th Century to accomplish a goal - the civilization of American Indian children.


Hook: Have the following quote up on an overhead, power point slide, or written on the board:


"As a savage, we cannot tolerate him any more than as a half-civilized parasite, wanderer or vagabond. The only alternative left is to fit him by education for civilized life. The Indian, though a simple child of nature with mental facilities dwarfed and shriveled, while groping his way for generations in the darkness of barbarism, already sees the importance of education..." (Board of Indian Commissioners, 1880; as quoted in Prucha, 1978:194.)


Ask your students to spend ten minutes reading the quote and responding in their journals to the following questions: Who do you believe the authors of this quote would consider to be civilized? Who do they believe is uncivilized? What do they think is the key to civilizing those who are uncivilized?Before and After photograph of Tom Torino at Carlisle Indian School


When students are done writing, open the classroom up for discussion:

  • What does it mean to be civilized? How are civilized persons different from uncivilized persons?
  • Who decides who is civilized and who is not?
  • From what you know about the Indians living in North America before the Europeans arrived, were they civilized? By whose standards?
  • Show this "before and after" photo of Tom Torino. Tom was a Navajo youth who entered Carlisle Boarding School. Ask the students if you think Tom is more civilized in the "after" photo. Why or why not?


Transition to Content. When this discussion is finished, explain that the question of civilizing Indians was one that 19th Century Euro-American policy makers struggled with for decades. One of their answers was Indian boarding schools - the subject of this lesson.

Lesson Content

Beginning in the 1870s, many Indian reform organizations and individual reformers were committed to creating a new system of Indian education - the Indian boarding school - which would bring "the gift of civilization" to "savages" who resolutely clung to their cultural and religious traditions.


The Indian boarding school was another in a long line of attempts by the federal government to "civilize" and indoctrinate American Indian children. For the next several days, we will explore this historical dedication to Americanizing Indian people through the use of education by

  • tracing the history of colonial involvement in Indian education from the 1600s through the end of the Revolutionary War;
  • discussing the growth of federal involvement in Indian education during the eras of the new republic and of manifest destiny;
  • examining in more detail the federal government's use of the Indian boarding school as a tool of forced assimilation with particular attention focused on two case studies - The Carlisle Indian Industrial School and the Phoenix Indian Industrial School


Indian Education in the American Colonies


Before we examine the ways that colonial Americans sought to educate Indians, it is important to note that Indian nations had their own educational systems firmly in place by the time Columbus landed in Hispaniola. While such efforts were both formal and informal, both were deliberate, systematic, and sustained education endeavors that tribal elders designed to reflect the social, cultural, political, and economic needs of their tribe. Indeed, as Dr. Henrietta Whiteman-Mann wrote hundreds of years later:


“Contrary to popular belief, education, the transmission and acquisition of knowledge and skills – did not come to the North American continent on the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. We Native Americans have educated our youth through a rich and oral tradition…”


Nonetheless, in each of the colonies, Euro-American created a plan for formal Indian schooling that centered around two beliefs:

  • Any schooling must Christianize and civilize Native Peoples. Thus, the primary teachers and promoters of Indian education were to be white missionaries and pious laypersons.
  • Indians must be persuaded to send their children to school. Thus, while most parents would resist sending their children to school, missionaries must be trained to convince families that free room and board in a charity school was the key to their child's survival in an increasingly hostile colonial environment.


These two beliefs formed the foundations for many Indian education experiments. Some of the best-known include:

  • In 1636, Harvard College opened and one of its missions was to provide for "the education of English and Indian knowledge and godliness."
  • In 1693, William and Mary College opened and one of its missions was "that the Christian faith may be propagated amongst the Western Indians." In 1723, the College opened a special house for Indian students.
  • In the mid-1700s, some white families from Upper State New York tried to convince the Iroquois Indians to turn over their sons so they could be taught "in the best manner." Yet the Iroquois declined, saying that this had been tried before but the young men had come home "absolutely good for nothing, being neither acquainted with the true methods of killing deer, catching beaver, or surprising an enemy." (Nabakov:214.)
  • In 1769, Dartmouth opened with a mission to offer "all parts of learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and Christianizing children of pagans." In fact, Dartmouth's early logo, seen below, shows two Native Americans holding a giant book. They are walking out of the forest toward a two-story building topped by a Christian cross.Logo Dartmouth University Indian School

Clearly, the colonists sought to use education to both civilize and Christianize American Indian children. That they largely failed is evident upon examining the colonial enrollment records at all three institutions. Indeed, few Indians attended and even fewer graduated; only one Indian received a degree from Harvard, while an average of 8-10 Indian students were enrolled at William and Mary each year. (Nabokov, 1991:213-215; Szasz, 1988:68.)


In short, Euro-Americans were unable to create viable educational institutions for Indians in the colonies. Despite the few accomplishments of some institutions and a few Indian individuals, most educational endeavors were short-lived and served very few students. The reasons for such failure are, in retrospect, quite obvious.

    • Missionaries who taught in Indian schools had no comprehension of the complexity and sophistication of traditional Native educational, social, and cultural systems.
    • Religious zeal to Christianize and ethnocentric attitudes prohibited the missionaries from understanding why Indian students held onto their cultural and spiritual values with such tenacity.
    • Missionaries harbored deep prejudices against the Indians which dissuaded most students from any previous attraction they may have had to Euro-American society, and led many Indians to return to their own people where they would not be scorned

Although these colonial schools failed to attract the vast majority of Indian children, their supporters had successfully created the foundation upon which the future of Indian education would rest. Thereafter, future Indian schooling efforts would be characterized by the desire to persuade Indian parents that their children needed to attend Euro-American schools where they could be Christianized and "civilized".


Indian Education in the New Republic and in the Era of Manifest Destiny, 1800 - 1870

Even before the Declaration of Independence was signed, in 1775 the Continental Congress approved $500 to educate Indians at Dartmouth College. Once the new nation came into being, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson began formulating policies that would promote the "civilizing process" among American Indians - a process that would help Indian people learn, appreciate, and practice Euro-American cultural, social, economic, and political traditions. Thus, within 20 years after the Constitution was signed, two separate systems of Indian education had developed: tribal education organized and operated by various Indian nations; and federally-subsidized education organized and operated primarily by Euro-American Christian organizations.


Tribal Education. In the early 1800s, several nations established sophisticated school systems for their children. The Cherokee and Choctaw created an education network which included over 200 classrooms. Among the Cherokee, tribal literacy and journalism flourished as newspapers were published in both Cherokee and English languages. Their motive was clear, according to a Cherokee elder's advice to younger tribal members,


"Remember that the whites are near us. With them we have constant intercourse, and you must be sensible, that unless you can speak their language, read and write as they do, they will be able to cheat you and trample on your rights." (As quoted in Nabokov, 1991:215.)



  • According to the Cherokee elder, what was the goal of tribal educational systems? ( Such tribal educational systems were founded upon the belief that if Indian children learned more about the white man's customs and language, they would have a better chance of maintaining tribal sovereignty and rights.)
  • Do you think that Euro-Americans and the federal government shared the same goal? (No, the Indian belief ran counter to the Euro-American traditions already set in motion during colonization - that the primary goals for educating Indians was to Christianize and "civilize" them.)Photograph of the Cherokee Female Seminary


In 1851, the Cherokee National Council created the Cherokee National Female Seminary that was operated by the Cherokee Nation, not the federal government. At the Seminary, Cherokee girls took courses in Latin, French, trigonometry, political economy, and literary criticism. They also staged dramatic productions, held music recitals and published their own newsletter. Despite the fact that over 3,000 women had received a robust academic education by 1905, the seminary staff responded to criticisms that their students were ill prepared to take their places as farmers’ wives, the curriculum shifted to classes in "domestic science" that taught cooking and cleaning skills.


So, despite Indian interest in education that could help tribal members cope with the endless flow of Euro-Americans into tribal lands, the federal government took an entirely different path.


Federally-subsidized education. As early as 1802, Congress passed an Act to “promote civilization among the savages.” The following year, Congress passed another act to “civilize and educate the heathens.” But it was not until 1819 that the U.S. government made its first direct financial commitment to educate Indian children by creating a "Civilization Fund" to subsidize religious schools. The Act authorized $10,000:

"For the purpose of providing against the further decline and final extinction of the Indian tribes, adjoining the frontier settlements of the United States, and for introducing among them the habits and arts of civilization, the President of the United States shall be, and he is hereby authorized . . . to employ capable persons of good moral character, to instruct them in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation; and for teaching their children in reading, writing and arithmetic...." (U.S. Statutes at Large, 3:516-17.


By 1838, about 3,000 Indian students were enrolled in over 80 government boarding schools in the eastern United States. (Nabakov, 1991:215.) By 1842, the federal overnment had allocated $214,000 to missionary organizations at 37 schools. (Lomawaima, 1994:2.) While most schools were operated by Christian groups, some were influenced by the new teaching methodology of Colonel Richard M. Johnson, a veteran of many Indian wars. In 1837, Johnson established a "Choctaw Academy" in Indian Territory in which students wore military-like uniforms, were governed by military discipline, and were taught practical manual laboring skills. The students who attended this school primarily did so of their own volition, or because a zealous educator had persuaded their parents to believe that education under white tutelage was advantageous.


Education, however, largely took a back seat to the other federal Indian policies that were formulated during the era of Manifest Destiny. It was not until after reservations were created for the Plains Indians - and after reservation life failed to adequately assimilate Indians into the Euro-American social, economic, and political traditions - that the federal government turned to a more formalized program to educate Indian children. Tomorrow, we will begin to explore these more formal policies.


Conclusions: Today we learned that during the years of Euro-American colonization as well as the first 80 years the United States developed as a nation, many American policy makers believed that the Federal goverment should be involved in educating American Indian children. So, let's see how much we learned:


  • What were the goals of policy makers who wanted to educate Indian children?
  • Were these goals consistent with those of Indian people who had been educating their children for thousands of years?
  • What direction do you think the federal government will take as they begin to formalize a system of Indian education?


Day 2 Lesson Content - The History of Federally-Supported Indian Boarding Schools


Introduction. Yesterday we learned about how colonial governments and the newly-created U.S. government created various efforts to educate Indian children. Their goals were largely to civilize and Christianize Indian children so that they could better accept Euro-American cultural, economic, social, political, and spiritual beliefs. They sought what Richard Henry Pratt claimed was the most important point of Indian education - "To kill the Indian, save the man." Today we are going to explore how that belief influenced federal policies that forced Indian children to attend boarding schools.


Hook. Show the 4-1/2 minute video "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" at Then engage the students in the following questions:

  • Why do you think the narrator wrote this poem and created this digital video clip?
  • Do you think the experiences explained in this video clip were effective in "civilizing" Indian people? Why or why not?
  • What did you learn about Indian boarding schools?

As we learn about formal federal policies that created Indian boarding school that were designed to "kill the Indian and sve the man," it is important to keep the words and images of this video close in your thoughts.


Transition to the Content: Today's lesson provides a detailed analysis of the evolution of federal policies that supported boarding schools that Indian children were forced to attend for several generations. (Note to the teacher: If you are not interested in tracing the changing philosophies of federal policy makers, you may wish to only use the first part of this discussion and then move on to the sections providing a case study of Carlisle and Phoenix and the sections on the experiences of students in boarding school.)


Lesson Content

By the late 1870s, the federal government began to create a coordinated, national system of Indian education. Encouraged by the 1867-68 recommendations of the Indian Peace Commission and new congressional appropriations for religious schools involved in Indian education, reformers began to champion the cause of a comprehensive federal education program in which children would be sent to boarding schools and separated from their families, culture, and religious activities and retrained in a teaching environment firmly orchestrated by Christian Euro-Americans.


Within a decade, the goals and composition of the large non-reservation schools attended by Indian children from across the nation were clearly articulated by formrer Indian fighter, Colonel Richard H. Pratt:Photo of Richard Henry Pratt 1879

"I believe that the system of removing them from their tribes and placing them under continuous training in the midst of civilization is far better than any other method... I am sure that if we could bring to bear such training as this upon all our Indian children for only three years, that savagery among the Indians in this country would be at an end... The end to be the complete civilization of the Indian and his absorption into our national life, [for] the Indian to lose his identity as such, to give up his tribal relations and to be made to feel that he is an American citizen....The sooner all tribal relations are broken up, the sooner the Indian loses all his Indian ways, even his language, the better it will be for him and for the government and the greater will be the economy to both." (Pratt, 1964:260, 265.)



  • What is a non-reservation school and why did Pratt and his federal followers think it was the best way to "civilize" Indian children?
  • What was Pratt's goal? (The purposes of these federally-financed boarding schools were to remove Indians from the reservation where their cultural, lingual, and spiritual traditions were reinforced; to "civilize" Indians by teaching them English and Christianity; and most importantly, to forcibly assimilate them into American society by showing them how to become productive laborers within a capitalistic economic system.)
  • What is assimilation?
  • Do you think that by committing federal funds to Christians to educate and convert Indian children was a violation of the Constitutional protection of freedom of religion? Why or why not?


In 1879 Pratt created the first large, federally funded Indian academy in the nation - the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The success of Pratt's civilization plan was measured by a series of "before and after" photographs which contrasted the uncivilized nature of Indians when they arrived at Carlisle in their native clothing with their civilized nature after several months in the boarding school.


Photo of Lakota boys at Carlisle, before and afterCongress liked Pratt's idea so in 1980, it appropriated $150,000 for Indian education; within seven years, the federal government's commitment had soared to $1 million. By the 1890s, an elaborate federal administrative structure had been created to supervise Indian education. At the top was the Indian Office located within the Department of the Interior and administered by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Indian Office field supervisors inspected schools and reported problems, a Superintendent of Indian Schools was responsible to the Commissioner, and inspectors provided supplemental advice and guidance which they reported directly to the Secretary of the Interior.


While school attendance was initially voluntary at such schools, the federal government soon took steps that required attendance. Beginning in 1880, the Secretary of Interior issued "Civilization Regulations" making it an Indian offense with imprisonment and starvation penalties for a "so-called" medicine man to interfer with Indian children being taken away to boarding schools. By 1891, Indian attendance at school became mandatory when Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to make and enforce rules and regulations that would guarantee attendance at either a reservation or non-reservation school. In 1893, Congress authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to withhold annuities and rations from parents who refused to send their children to school. Some children were forcible hauled off to school by Indian police or Army soldiers. According to one federal Indian Agent from the Mescalero Apache agency:


Poster of "THe Only Good Indian" movie"Everything in the way of persuasion and arguments having failed, it became necessary to visit the camps unexpectedly with a detachment of police, and seize such children as were proper and take them away to school, willing or unwilling. Some hurried their children off to the mountains or hid them away in camp, and the police had to chase and capture them like so many wild rabbits. This unusual proceeding created quite an outcry. The men were sullen and muttering, the women loud in their lamentations, and the children almost out of their wits with fright." (As quoted in Adams, 1995:23.)


Note to the Teacher: At this point, you may want to show the 2:38 trailer for the movie The Only Good Indian available via YouTube at The clip shows Indian children being kidnapped from their parents, forcibly taken to boarding school, and their reception at boarding school as their schoolmasters set out to civilize them. (You may also want to give students extra credit for watching this film at home or with friends.) After watching the trailer, ask the following discussion questions:


    • What sort of emotions did you experience when watching this video?
    • In 1892, Colonel Pratt made the following speech: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. 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." Given your understanding of this quote, do you think the "The Only Good Indian" is an appropriate title for this movie?

From 1889 to 1893, Indian education was believed to be "...a cheap method of converting aliens, enemies, savages into citizens, friends, and honorable intelligent men and women." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:22.) To that end, forced assimilation and conversion to Christianity were the two guiding tenants of this first generation of boarding schools, as illustrated in this photograph below from Phoenix Indian School, Photo of children praying at Phoenix Indian Schooland exemplified by the experience at Carlisle Indian Industrial School.


By the mid-1890s, the federal government planned to create more boarding schools in the Western United States. Under the leadership of a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, William A. Jones (1897-1904), these schools were shaped by a newer philosophy. Commissioner Jones and his colleagues doubted that Indians could fully assimilate into white society or that they could compete with whites in commercial and mechanical skills. Instead, they believed Indians were better suited for a life of manual labor. Thus, the second generation of non-reservation boarding schools were characterized by the following:

  • Indian children were assigned menial labor tasks which gave them very little reason to expect economic or social advancement or equality. The Indian Office was clear that " Indian boy or girl will have to make their living by the 'sweat of their brow,' and not their brains." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:47.)
  • Vocational education received greater emphasis while religious assimilation and education became de-emphasized. All religious instruction that remained was to be strictly non-denominational.

Sketch of Indian boys working at Chemawa Indian School near Salem OregonSketch of Indian girls working at Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Oregon

  • Academic curriculum all but disappeared. The situation at Phoenix Indian Industrial School was typical: the school had up-to-date machinery, but no library; vocational programs were well-funded and much-praised, while academic programs received little money and even less interest; boys from the first graduating class were praised by Superintendent McCowan when they had "ambition enough to become more than an ordinary breadwinner," while an academically bright young man was degraded for having the "indolence peculiar to his tribe" and told he would probably become "a degenerate blanket Indian." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:70.)

Upon graduation, Indian children were encouraged to either return home to the reservation where they were to lead their people into a more civilized life, or to find menial employment in white society. This emphasis on training Indians to become general laborers was intensified under the leadership of Frances E. Leupp, Commissioner of Indian Affairs beginning in 1905. Indeed, Leupp remarked shortly after assuming his position:


"Now, if anyone can show me what advantage will come to this large body of manual workers from being able to read off the names of the mountains of Asia, or extract the cube root of 123456789, I shall be deeply grateful." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:95.)


Photo of Apache children before attending Phoenix Indian SchoolPhoto of Apache Children after attending Phoenix Indian School



  • What do the two photographs above tell you about the assimilation of Indian children at boarding school? (The first photo is of Apache children when they arrived at Phoenix Indian School and the second photo is of the same children after several months at Phoenix Indian School.)
  • Why do you think the Commissioner of Indian Affairs emphasized a vocational rather than an intellectual education for American Indian children in boarding schools?
  • Do you think that training American Indians to prepare for labor and other vocational jobs will help them assimilate into white society? Why or why not?
  • What do you think happened to Indian children after they graduated from boarding schools and returned home to their reservations?


This non-academic emphasis continued until 1913 until the appointment of a new Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Cato Sells. Sells announced that Indian schools would thereafter be devoted to standardizing school curriculum in order to "provide a safe and substantial passage from school life to success in real life." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:156.) Under this standardized system, the first six years of Indian schooling would incorporate "essential academic work" in reservation schools; grades seven through ten would include vocational experience to be taught in non-reservation schools.


The effort to standardize reflected a growing federal concern that Indian education had failed to meet assimilationist goals. Their beliefs were validated after an investigation released by the Board of Indian Commissioners in 1917 which found, in part, that:


"For some years we have been painfully impressed with the large proportion of boys and girls who, after returning to their reservations from Indian schools, fail to put into practice what they were taught at the schools. In too many cases these so-called 'returned students' not only do not show any progress, but actually go backward." (U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1917:12.)


The report led to a demand from reformers - a demand that had been growing for almost two decades - to modify or end non-reservation Indian education. In addition to dwindling federal appropriations for these schools, Carlisle was closed in September 1918. For the next ten years, proponents of the boarding schools fought a downhill battle as more and more evidence indicated that the schools had done little to assimilate the Indians. In the 1920s, two federal forces were at work, both of which served to dramatically revise Indian education:


  • Charles H. Burke, Indian Commissioner from 1921 to 1929, promoted his strong ethnocentric beliefs, as well as strengthened support for forced assimilation. During his tenure, he supported the non-reservation schools as the backbone of the government's assimilationist effort, but failed to allocate the necessary funds to bring needed repairs and better teaching to such institutions.
  • John Collier, a rising new spokesperson for Indian reformers, launched a nationwide crusade against the forced assimilationist approach to Indian education. To Collier and his colleagues, the non-reservation boarding school became symbolic of all the evils contained in the federal Indian education system.


In 1926, Collier and Wisconsin Congressman James A. Frear took an auto tour of the western Indian schools, both reservation and non-reservation. After the tour, they issued a stinging critique that Indian schools kidnapped children, operated in overcrowded and unhealthy facilities, and destroyed the heritage of Indian children. Shortly thereafter, Department of Interior Secretary Hubert Work launched an investigation of the Indian Office. Completed in February 1928, the result of that investigation, the Meriam Report, presented the nation with a comprehensive evaluation of the American Indian population and federal Indian policies. The section on education began as follows:


"The most fundamental need in Indian education is a change in point of view. Whatever may have been the official government attitude, education for the Indian in the past has proceeded largely on the theory that it is necessary to remove the Indian child as far as possible from his home environment; whereas the modern point of view in education and social work lays stress on upbringing in the natural setting of home and family life." (Meriam, 1928:84.)


The section continued with major criticisms of the boarding schools, leaving no doubt that boarding school education and its philosophy of forced assimilation had been nothing short of a total disaster. The report recommended that non-reservation schools be reserved only for older children of high school age, that military drill and regimentation be abandoned, that certain schools specialize in vocational education best suited to the abilities of that region, and that the system be more student-oriented. Non-reservation schools were expected to become "vocational high schools devoid of the regimentation and cultural immersion that had once been their trademark." (Trennert, 1988:186.)


The Indian Commissioner from 1929-1934, Charles J. Rhoads, directed all boarding schools to phase out their first through third grade schooling programs, to improve the quality of instruction in their vocational classes, and to restore the balance between vocational and academic education. While his efforts did much to begin some of the reforms suggested in the Meriam Report, it was not until Franklin Roosevelt's 1933 appointment of John Collier as Commissioner of Indian Affairs that significant changes occurred in the federal boarding schools.


While Collier did not close the boarding schools, he did revise them by de-emphasizing their importance to Indian education, requiring individual schools to provide students with more personalized attention and to secure qualified teachers, and introducing more academics into the entire federal system. Additionally, he encouraged schools to pay more attention to the heritage of their Indian students. Collier issued a directive in 1934 that the schools and all of the BIA would disregard the "Civilization Regulations" because they violated the Indians' First Amendment rights, and the Interior Secretary formally withdrew the rules in 1936. Thus, forced assimilation in the old sense of the practice was discarded. A revised approach to assimilation was undertaken from 1934 through the 1970s when the last of the old-style Indian boarding schools closed down; in these federally-supported endeavors, all Indians were still expected to fit into white America, but they were also expected to learn to how to maintain a balance between their newly-Americanized attributes and their unique cultural traditions.


Photo Thomas Indian School 1890sDespite the end of forced assimilation, the scars of the boarding school experience continue to run deep within Indian Country. Survivors of the residential boarding schools - Thomas Indian School (shown to the left) in Western New York and the Mohawk Institute in Ontario, Canada - shared their memories in the 2009 documentary Unseen Tears: The Impact of Native American Residential Boarding Schools in Western New York. And in

2008, several survivors who lived in boarding schools shared their experiences on National Public Radio. Let's listen to this broadcast and see what these survivors have to say.



  • How has the victimization of boarding schools influenced the next generation of Indian children?
  • So you think everyone had bad experiences in boarding school? What types of things might lead to a better experience?
  • Let's look at some of the reports from the Commission of Indian Affairs in the late 19th Century (also available at the National Public Radio site) to compare and contrast the experiences of the Indian Children with the report of the Commissioners.

Today only eight federal non-reservation boarding schools remain: In Wahpeton, Pierre, and Flandreau, South Dakota.; Talequah and Anadarko, Oklahoma; Salem, Oregon; Riverside, California; and Santa Fe, New Mexico. Student attendance at these schools is strictly voluntary. In addition to the eight non-reservation schools, 52 federal boarding schools also exist - 35 are on the vast Navajo reservation that includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah; 9 schools are on other reservations in South Dakota, Arizona, Washington and Mississippi.


To better understand both the federal policies that fueled widespread support for the fundamental belief in forced assimilation around which the first boarding schools were created, tomorrow we will examine two of the most well-known that operated during the late 19th Century: Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania - the first national non-reservation Indian boarding school; and the Phoenix Indian Industrial School in Phoenix, Arizona - a regional non-reservation boarding school.


Day 3 Lesson Content: Two Case Studies - Carlisle Indian Industrial School and Phoenix Indian Industrial School


Introduction. Now that we have a good idea of why the federal government adopted policies that required Indian children to attend schools designed to civilize them, it is important to get a better picture of the boarding school experience. Today, we are going to look at two schools - Carlisle in Pennyslvania and Phoenix in Arizona.


Carlisle Indian Industrial School. In 1879, a former Indian fighter, Colonel Richard Pratt helped push a bill through Girls at boarding schoolCongress that transferred the old cavalry barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from the Department of War to the Department of the Interior. Later that year, the barracks housed an experimental school based upon Pratt's belief that Indians were capable of shedding "savagery" and becoming productive citizens if they received opportunities equal to those of white Americans. Pratt immediately set out to make such opportunities available. Indeed, during its first year of operation, Pratt's school enrolled over 200 Indian students from about a dozen tribes. By the time it closed its doors 39 years later in 1918, over 12,000 Indian children had attended Carlisle.


A significant number of Pratt's first Carlisle students were recruited directly from the Sioux nations - specifically from the Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. The Secretary of the Interior made it clear to Pratt that the Sioux children would be held "hostages for the good behavior of their people." (Pratt, 1964:220.) At first Pratt had very little luck with Spotted Tail, leader of the Rosebud reservation, who responded that "The white people are all thieves and liars. We do not want our children to learn such things." (Pratt, 1964:222.) Pratt persuaded him to change his mind by arguing:


"Cannot you see it is far, far better for you to have your children educated and trained as our children are so that they can speak the English language, write letters, and do the things which bring to the white man such prosperity, and each of them be able to stand for their rights as the white man stands for his? Cannot you see that they will be of great value to you if after a few years they come back from school with the ability to read and write letters for you, interpret for you, and help look after your business affairs in Washington? I am your friend, Spotted Tail...You may want something done in Washington and I might be able to help you. You want to write me about it, but you must get this interpreter or the missionary to write your letter. When I get the letter I shall know it was written by someone else and will not feel sure that it tells me exactly what you meant it to tell me...Then this or some other interpreter has to tell you what I say. You cannot be entirely sure he tells you exactly what I say. Cannot you see, Spotted Tail, what a disadvantage you and your people are under?...The Secretary of the Interior told me to come to you first, that he wanted you and Red Cloud to have the first chance to send children to this new school...As your friend, Spotted Tail, I urge you to send your children with me to this Carlisle school and I will do everything I can to advance them in intelligence and industry in order that they may come back and help you." (Pratt, 1964:223-34.)



  • Colonel Pratt was a military man and a former Indian fighter. How and why do you think these characteristics made him qualified to create the first Indian boarding school?
  • In your opinion, was Pratt's argument persuasive? Why or why not? Why do you think Spotted Tail was persuaded to change his mind?


Carlisle Indian Boarding School in 1892Pratt, however, was not being honest with Spotted Tail. The Rosebud reservation had not been targeted as an honor, but because it had been especially troublesome for the federal government. As the Secretary had told Pratt, if the Sioux continued to be a "problem," their children enrolled at Carlisle would be held hostage by the federal government. Further, if we examine what children encountered at Carlisle, it becomes clear that Pratt had no intention of helping Indians "stand for their rights" or helping them learn how to "look after your business affairs." Rather, it was believed that once they became civilized at Carlisle, Indian children would lose interest in Indian "rights" and "business affairs" and instead happily assimilate into American society. Again, Pratt's words are instructive about the real intentions of Carlisle, as shown in this response to a letter in the local school paper asking for Indian stories:


"The author of the letter evidently has the idea of Indians that Buffalo Bill and other showmen keep alive, by hiring the reservation wild man to dress in his most hideous costume of feathers, paint, moccasins, blanket, leggins, and scalp-lock, and to display his savagery, by hair lifting war-whoops made those who pay to see him, think he is a blood-thirsty creature ready to devour people alive. It is this nature in our red brother that is better dead than alive, and when we agree with the oft-repeated sentiment that the only good Indian is a dead one, we mean this characteristic of the Indian. Carlisle's mission is to kill THIS Indian, as we build up the better man. We give the rising Indian something nobler and higher to think about and do, and he comes out a young man with the ambitions and aspirations of his more favored white brother. We do not like to keep alive the stories of his past, hence deal more with his present and his future". (Carlisle Indian Industrial School History).


And what awaited the Indian children upon their arrival at Carlisle?
  • The teachers spent the first few days forcing the children to discard their Indian ways and adopt American ways: children were forbidden to speak their native language, often under threat of physical punishment; their long hair was clipped to the skull, sometimes as part of a public ritual in which the child was forced to renounce his or her Indian origins; their comfortable, loose-fitting clothing was taken away and burned - boys were given military uniforms and girls were forced to wear tight-fitting, Victorian-style dresses and both boys and girls were required to wear shoes rather than their traditional loose-fitting moccasins. We can witness the consequences of such actions in these two photographs of Chiricahua Apaches when they arrived in Carlilsle in 1887 and after the assmimilation process began to take hold.
  • The children were told never to use their Indian names and were given an American name instead. One young man who was named Tae-noo-ga-wa-zhe became Philip Sheridan.
  • The children were forbidden to practice any cultural or religious rituals, usually under threat of punishment, and were instead told that they would be expected to become devout Christians.

Once the rules were clear, then children became involved in the daily routine which was defined by military drill and structure.

  • Children marched to and from all classes and meals.
  • Children attended school one half of each day, and the other half was spent in training for several skills - mechanics, printing, agriculture.


  • How were these new rules and lifestyles different from what Indian children experienced when living with their families?
  • How do you think the Indian children adjusted to these new rules and lifestyles? (Some children did quite well and became well-known persons within both American Indian and non-Indian society. One example is Jim Thorpe - shown at Carlisle in 1909 in the photograph below. Photo of Jim Thorpe at Carlisle in 1909Does anyone know who he was? Others, however, could not adjust and tried to run away - but were usually captured. Still others become only half-indoctrinated. Others became so well indoctrinated that they were unable to adjust to life on the reservation once out of school.)
      • What do you think this Iroquois elder meant when he greeted the children who had come back from school, "What have we here? You are neither a white man nor an Indian. For heaven's sake, tell us, what are you?"


Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Indian who first attended Carlisle in 1879, noted the following about his experience:


"Never, no matter what our philosophy or spiritual quality, could we be civilized while wearing the moccasin and blanket. The task before us was not only that of accepting new ideas and adopting new manners, but actual physical changes and discomfort has to be borne uncomplainingly until the body adjusted itself to new tastes and habits. Our accustomed dress was taken and replaced with clothing that felt cumbersome and awkward. Against trousers and handkerchiefs we had a distinct feeling - they were unsanitary and the trousers kept us from breathing well. High collars, stiff-bosomed shirts, and suspenders fully three inches in width were uncomfortable, while leather boots caused actual suffering. We longed to go barefoot, but were told that the dew on the grass would give us colds....Then, red flannel undergarments were given us for winter wear, and for me at least, discomfort grew into actual torture. I used to endure it as long as possible, then run upstairs and quickly take off the flannel garments and hide them. When inspection time came, I ran and put them on again, for I knew that if I were found disobeying the orders of the school I should be punished...Almost immediately our names were changed to those in common use in the English language...I was told to take a pointer and select a name for myself from the list written on the blackboard. I did, and since one was just as good as another, as I could not distinguish any difference in them, I placed the pointer on the name Luther." (Standing Bear, 1933:233.)


The children lived in dormitories and attended classes daily. School was structured with academic subjects for half the day - usually reading, writing and arithmetic - and industrial trades the other half - blacksmithing, carpentry, and tinsmithing for the boys, and cooking, sewing, laundry, and other domestic arts for the girls. Pratt envisioned that with at least three years of schooling, his students would have the equivalent of an eighth grade education and then would be prepared to either work in the white man's world, or to go on for further education in white public schools.


Phoenix students in uniformsGirls sewing at Phoenix Indian School


School life was patterned after military life. The boys wore uniforms and girls wore foreign dresses. Boys were organized via ranks into companies with officers who took charge of regular drill practice. The children marched to and from their classes and to the dining hall for each meal. Military-style discipline was strictly enforced and a hierarchical style of military justice was established. Students determined the consequences for offenses, the most serious being confinement to the guardhouse for several weeks. The most common offenses were running away and using forbidden native languages or practices.


Pratt's "Outing System" of free labor became one of the most celebrated practices of the non-reservation boarding schools. Indian children who attended Carlisle spent their summer hired out to non-Indian families where they would live with white people as their servants. This was also a source of low or no-cost labor for local farmers, businessmen, and craftsmen. Through this system, as well as through their training at Carlisle, Pratt hoped that his students would adopt the Anglo work ethic, desire to live more like their white neighbors, and ultimately, find a job in the larger Euro-American society. His optimistic outlook for the outing system is clear in this quote:


“One of the most useful features of our work has been the placing of our boys and girls in private families, principally among farmers, where they perform the same kind of labor and are subjected to the same home and labor influences that white children of their own ages receive. This has the most beneficial results. The children take on English speaking and the industries of civilized life very speedily. During vacation we place out all we can spare from our own work, and during the winter we allow a considerable number to remain and attend the public schools in the several neighborhoods, they being required do such work mornings and evening as they are capable of and so pay for their board and clothes.”


Phoenix Indian Industrial Boarding School. In September 1891, the Phoenix Indian Industrial School opened with 31 boys from the Pima reservation and 10 from the Maricopa. By 1899, it was the second largest Indian boarding school in the nation. From the beginning, this school shared many of the same goals as Carlisle: removing Indian children from their traditional environment, annihilating their cultural and spiritual traditions, and civilizing them by indoctrination with white, middle-class American values. One of its most popular slogans was "Be a Phoenix student, not a reservation bum." To reinforce this attitude, Superintendent Wellington Rich wrote in 1893:


"In order to civilize, to make good citizens of Indian youth, it is absolutely necessary that they be inspired with a strong desire for better homes, better food, better clothing, etc., than they enjoy in their natural state, and that they be qualified to obtain these things by their own exertions. Hence each one should be taught an industry or trained for a calling which he can utilize, by means of which he can earn a good living and accumulate property after leaving school." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:34-35.)


But he believed that Indian youth could not be expected "to compete successfully with white youth of the community in any of the mechanic arts, mercantile pursuits, or professions." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:35.) Thus, while philosophically similar to Carlisle, the Phoenix Indian School was also distinctly different for several reasons.

  • Forced assimilation - rather than being a tool to help Indian students blend into white, middle-class society - was redefined to mean that once Indian children were "civilized," they would return to the reservation to further the civilizing process among their own people. Indeed, Superintendent Rich assured the citizens of Phoenix, "I have no sympathy with the scheme of diffusing the educated Indian youth among the whites." Instead, he believed that should become "civilized" and then, "They should as a rule...return to their people and assist in the civilization of the latter." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:31.)
  • The outing system segregated them from the larger community and transformed them into cheap farm and household laborers.

Thus, Phoenix was shaped by its leaders' beliefs that Indian children were destined to become menial laborers and, as such, their education should focus on vocational training. Boys took classes in farming, carpentry, blacksmithing, tailoring, shoemaking, and harness making. When they left Phoenix, it was expected that they would return home, start a farm, and live on it as white people lived in their surroundings. The girls learned to cook, sew, set a table, and clean and manage a house. Additionally, they made, washed, and ironed their own clothes; dusted, swept, and scrubbed the buildings; and prepared and served all the food. They were expected to become efficient housekeepers when they returned to the reservations and got married. Indeed, Superintendent Hall proclaimed that such work would transform them from "...slouchy, dissatisfied girls," into "neat, ladylike, agreeable young ladies, who are proud of exhibiting their achievements, and who...have made great strides toward civilization and the higher aim in life." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:47.)


Military organization was standard. Soliders at Phoenix Indian School 1930As Hall and his predecessors felt, "Too much praise cannot be given to the merits of military organization, drill and routine in connection with the discipline of the school; every good end is obtained thereby. It teaches patriotism, obedience, courage, courtesy, promptness, and constancy." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:48.)


Punishments for using Native languages or breaking a rule were most often in the form of paddling, ridicule, or work assignments, and sometimes confinement to the school jail. Punishment was most severe for running away. Various headmasters were consistent in their belief that if escapees were not apprehended and publicly punished, student discipline would break down. Thus, school authorities deliberately created an atmosphere of fear when runaways returned and subjected them to great humiliation in front of their peers. Girls might be forced to cut the grass with scissors while wearing a sign saying "I ran away," or prohibited from attending various social or sports events. Boys were usually jailed and those who ran away repeatedly had their hair cut off and were forced to wear dresses.


All student activities were closely supervised and student freedom was severely restricted. Because most students were teenagers - who often would be married if they still lived with their families - contact between the sexes was strictly limited. The staff at Phoenix, like their counterparts at all Indian schools, generally assumed Indians were "immoral" by nature and were, as Indian Commissioner Cato Sells told Phoenix Superintendent Brown, "only a short way removed from the wild freedom of the forest and of the plains." (As quoted in Trennert, 1988:133.)


Such characteristics that emphasized forced assimilation generally pervaded the lives of students who attended Phoenix during its first 44 years of operation and before the arrival of John Collier at the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And how did such an experience effect the students at Phoenix? Most of the Indian children learned to speak English and became skilled enough at some mechanical tasks or domestic chores. In their uniforms and calico dresses, they looked like they had taken the white man's road and that the Indian "problem" had been solved. But from the opening of Phoenix in 1891 through 1934, the failures - at least in terms of how success and failure were defined by the federal government - were apparent:

  • Most students dropped out of school before completing the entire program.
  • Few students actually were able to find a permanent job.
  • Most students returned to their reservations where they reintegrated into Indian culture and rarely practiced what they had learned at school.

Forced assimilation, then, had failed. Indeed, by the early 1930s, the school had reached the end of an era. Thereafter, a standard high school curriculum was offered in addition to the traditional vocational program; Indian weavers and potters taught traditional basketmaking and pottery skills; compulsory attendance at religious services was eliminated; military regimentation gradually was phased out; and more social activities were introduced into the school setting. As Robert Trennert's history of Phoenix Indian Industrial School concludes, "Assimilationist education, in the sense envisioned by Thomas Morgan and the superintendents who ruled at Phoenix from 1891 to 1931, was gone forever." (Trennert, 1988:205.) Nonetheless, the school did not close its doors until the late 1970s.



  • Why do you think forced assimilation through boarding schools failed? Is it likely that any person's cultural background can be totally erased?
  • How do you think education in boarding schools differed from public education received by non-Indian children in the late-19th and early-20th centuries?
  • What other types of educational experiences do you think policy makers might have considered for American Indian children?
  • You have seen several photographs taken of children in Indian boarding schools. But there are many things that photographs of the boarding schools do not tell us. For instance: Who was taking the pictures and for what reason(s)? How does the photographer's agenda affect what we can learn about the schools?

Day 4 Lesson Content: The Boarding School Experience


Introduction. Yesterday we focused on the educational philosophies of two Indian Boarding Schools and the ways in which their assimilation goals were and were not met. Today, we are going to learn more about the experiences of Indian children who attended boarding schools.

Hook: Show the YouTube video, Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School which features an interview with Andrew WindyBoy, a Chipawa/Cree Indian who attended two boarding schools in the 1960s and 1970s. (Video is 5:28 minutes and can be accessed at



  • What new information about the boarding school experience did you learn from Andrew WindyBoy?
  • How does Andrew WindyBoy's experiences in the 1960s and 1970s in boarding school compare and contrast with the experiences you have already learned about in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
  • If you could meet with Andrew WindyBoy, what questions would you ask him about his experience in boarding schools? About his attitudes about education?


Today we are going to read other experiences from those who attended Indian boarding schools.


Lesson Content. At least two types of first-hand accounts have been used to document the student experiences of attending Indian boarding schools: those published in boarding school newspapers and yearbooks and heavily edited by school personnel and which tended to be favorable to the experience; and those written after the boarding school experience by former students, which tended to be quite critical of the experience.


Note to the Teacher: You may wish to make all of the quotes available to students so that they can read along with you. This can be easily accommodated by making an overhead, some power point slides, or a handout. Regardless of the method, it is important that the students both hear and read the words of those who experienced boarding schools.


In these writings, we see the tremendous difficulties all the students faced when they were taken from their parents, often under military escort, and transported to a school where everything was foreign. As Helen Sekaquaptewa, a Hopi Indian, recalled:


"It was after dark when we reached the Keams Canyon boarding school and were unloaded and taken into the big dormitory, lighted with electricity. I had never seen so much light at night...Evenings we would gather in a corner and cry softly so the matron would not hear and scold or spank us...I can still hear the plaintive little voices saying, 'I want to go home. I want my mother.'" We didn't understand a word of English and didn't know what to say or do...We were a group of homesick, lonesome, little girls..." (Sekaquaptewa, 1969:92-93, 96.)


These experiences continued during the first several days in boarding schools. One of the most poignant of these experiences is written by Zitkala-Sa, a Dakota Sioux whose picture is shown below. Zitkala Sa recorded the following about her experience in boarding school: Photograph of Zitkala Sa


"The first day...was a bitter cold one... Late in the morning, my friend Judewin gave me a terrible warning. Judewin knew a few words of English; and she had overheard the paleface woman talk about cutting our long, heavy hair. Our mothers had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards!...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. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was singled like a coward's! In my anguish, I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder." (Zitkala-Sa.)


Sun Elk, from the pueblo of Taos, recorded this experience at Carlisle:


"They told us that Indian ways were bad. They said we must get civilized. I remember that word too. It means "be like the white man." I am willing to be like the white man, but I did not believe Indian ways were wrong. But they kept teaching us for seven years. And the books told how bad the Indians had been to the white men - burning their towns and killing their women and children. But I had seen white men do that to Indians. We all wore white man's clothes and ate white man's food and went to white man's churches and spoke white man's talk. And so after a while we also began to say Indians were bad. We laughed at our own people and their blankets and cooking pots and sacred societies and dances." (As quoted in Nabokov, 1991:222.)


Lone Wolf, a Blackfoot Indian, shared a story of loneliness and fear:


"If we thought that the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This was the time when real loneliness set in, for it was then we knew that we were all alone. Many ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad but most of them were caught and brought back by the police. We were told never to talk Indian and if we were caught, we got a strapping with a leather belt. I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge of us pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt, and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar-bone was broken. The boy's father, an old warrior, came to the school. He told the instructor that among his people, children were never punished by striking them. That was no way to teach children; kind words and good examples were much better. Then he added, 'Had I been there when that fellow hit my son, I would have killed him.' Before the instructor could stop the old warrior he took his boy and left". (As quoted in Nabokov, 1991:220.)


Others recalled the indignities of punishment:


"I remember my brother, my younger brother - he would get into fights. He would never have any hair and his head would always by shaved and I was always wondering why his head was always shaved and he said because he got into a fight! In all the four years that he was there, he never had any hair, they shaved his head all the time! Then, a couple of time, he got handcuffed to hot water pipes downstairs in the basement of his dorm and they fed him cheese sandwiches all the time he was handcuffed." (Darlene Wall, former student at Carlisle; oral Interview with Jennifer Ferguson, Feb. 1997)


But the consequences of boarding school became even more severe for many Indians when they returned to their reservations. As Robert Utley notes, the students who left Carlisle found that "they either existed in a shadow world neither Indian nor white, with acceptance denied by both worlds, or they cast off the veneer of Carlisle and again became Indians." (Utley, 1987:xvi.) Those who maintained their white-oriented values usually alienated their family and friends. Tribal elders and parents often pressured the returning children to resume their old ways.

Sun Elk, who attended Carlisle for seven years, faced a similar experience when he returned home.


"It was a warm summer evening when I got off the train at Taos station. The first Indian I met, I asked him to run out to the pueblo and tell my family I was home. The Indian couldn't speak English, and I had forgotten all my Pueblo language. But after a while he learned what I meant and started running to tell my father, 'Tulto is back...' We chattered and cried, and I began to remember many Indian words...I went home with my family. And next morning the governor of the pueblo and the two war chiefs and many of the priest chiefs came into my father's house. They did not talk to me; they did not even look at me. When they were all assembled they talked to my father. The chiefs said to my father, 'Your son who calls himself Rafael has lived with the white man. He has been far away from the pueblo. He had not lived in the kiva nor learned the things that Indian boys should learn. He has no hair. He has not blankets. He cannot even speak our language and he has a strange smell. He is not one of us.' The chiefs got up and walked out...And I walked out of my father's house and out of the pueblo...I walked until I came to the white man's town. I found work setting type in a printing shop. Later I went to Durango and other towns in Wyoming and Colorado, printing and making a good living...All this time I was a white man. I wore white man's clothes and kept my hair cut. I was not very happy. I made money and I kept a little of it and after many years I came back to Taos. My father gave me some land from the pueblo fields...I built a house just outside the pueblo...My father brought me a girl to marry...When we were married, I became an Indian again. I let my hair grow, I put on blankets, and I cut the seat out of my pants." (In Nabokov, 1991:223-224.)


Some Indian students have shared ambivalent feelings about their boarding school experiences. Luther Standing Bear, a Lakota Sioux who attended the first class at Carlisle, was able to adjust to white society for five years before returning to his reservation. However, he also found that many of his people were not so fortunate.


"I was now 'civilized' enough to go to work in John Wanamaker's fine store in Philadelphia...Outwardly, I lived the life of the white man, yet all the while I kept in direct contact with tribal life. While I had learned all that I could of the white man's culture, I never forgot that of my people. I kept the language, tribal manners and usages, sang the songs and danced the dances. I still listened to and respected the advice of the older people of the tribe. I did not become so 'progressive' that I could not speak the language of my father and mother...But I soon began to see a sad sight, so common today, of returned students who could not speak their native tongue, or, worse yet, some who pretended they could no longer converse in the mother tongue. They had become ashamed and this led them into deception and trickery... (Standing Bear, 1933.) Before and After Wedding photo


Some boarding school graduates, like Luther Standing Bear, were successful as they were able to combine the best of both Western and traditional education systems in a way that allowed them to adapt to both worlds. Anna Moore Shaw, a Pima who was the first Indian woman to graduate from high school in Arizona, wrote that her generation was "the first to be educated in two cultures, the Pima and white. Sometimes the values were in conflict, but we were learning to put them together to make a way of life different from anything the early Pimas every dreamed of." (As quoted in Bataille and Sands, 1984:84.)


Indeed, recent scholarship based upon oral interviews and primary documents from Indian students and their parents indicate that in some non-reservation boarding schools, students made the best of their limited educational choices and used the school to pursue their own educational and personal goals. Many other alumni returned to the reservations - and sometimes the boarding schools - to become teachers; some went on to become articulate champions of Indian rights; others pursued advanced degrees and became scholars (Francis LaFleshe), physicians (Susan LaFlesche and Charles Eastman), and journalists (Zitkala Sa); others became well-known athletes (Jim Thorpe and Louis Sockalexis).


In the past several decades, a great deal of debate has arisen about whether or not the boarding schools as a carefully-created Federal Indian Policy could be classified as genocidal. According to the United Nations, genocide involves actions committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial, religious, political, or economic group. Such actions against a group include:

  • killing its members;
  • causing serious bodily or mental harm to members;
  • deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the groups' physical destruction in whole or in part;
  • imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and
  • forcibly transferring its children to another group.

The United Nations defines cultural genocide as an official government sanction of removal and/or repression of a particular group that subsequently eliminates and/or weakens parts of that group.



  • What role does the word "intent" have in the definition?
  • Given the above definitions, do you think Indian boarding schools were part of an intentional genocidal policy? Why or why not?
  • Do you think the boarding schools could be considered an act of cultural genocide? Why or why not?


Note to the Teacher: If time and interest allows, you might want to extend the lesson into either a discussion about or an assignment focusing on the issue of genocide. After defining the term, it would be useful to look at the research about American Indian genocide as well as the discussion among academics about whether or not federal Indian policies were genocidal in intent and/or in consequence. To assist you with this discussion, you may want to consult the following resources: The American Indian Genocide Museum at; American Indian Holocaust video at (skip the first 1:25 minutes and go directly to the movie); and the article by Guenter Lewy, "Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?" at


Because many Indian and non-Indian people do consider the 19th Century Federal Indian Policies - especially boarding schools - as an act of genocide, there has been recent conversation about an apology from the United States Government. The closest official apology occurred in September 2000 by Kevin Gover, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The apology was only endorsed by Gover and the BIA; it was never endorsed by the US government.


More recently, some 21st century experts have noted the troubling evidence of historical trauma in Indian Country. According to Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Braveheart, historical trauma is the "cumuluativ emotional and psychological wounding over one's lifetime and from generation to generation following loss of lives, land and vital aspects of culture." American Indians, she argues, have been victimized by Federal Indian Policies that continue to haunt the lives of Indian people living in the 21st Century.



  • After reading Kevin Gover's apology, do you think the United States government should issue a formal apology? How and why?
  • Why do you think we have not apologized, while the Canadian government issued an apology in 2008?
  • What evidence can you provide from our study of Indian boarding schools that such schools may have contributed to the evidence of historical trauma in Indian Country today?



  1. As soon as white Europeans landed in North America, many were compelled to educate Indian children. Many colonists felt it was their duty to civilize and Christianize the savage and heathen Native Peoples. Thus, civilizing and converting the Indians became the assimilationist goals of most Euro-Americans. After the Constitution was signed, the goals remained unchanged as the U.S. government began to offer financial support to religious organizations that were eager to proselytize. For about 100 years, haphazard educational efforts were financed by both public and private agencies who hoped to "save" the Indians from themselves.
  2. With the opening of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879, the federal government adopted a more formal method of assimilation. For the next 55 years, boarding schools became one of the federal government's chief agents of forced assimilation. During this time, Indian children were forced to attend schools - some of which were boarding schools - where they were forcibly subjected to rigid assimilationist rules, especially the destruction of their traditional clothing and hair styles which were replaced by military uniforms and Victorian-style tight-fitting clothes; the prohibition of Native languages, as well as the exercise of cultural and spiritual traditions; and punishment if such alien new rules were broken.
  3. It was not until the early 1930s, shortly after John Collier became Commissioner of Indian Affairs, that forcible assimilationist educational tactics were revised. From 1935 through the 1970s when most non-reservation boarding schools were closed, assimilation became less coercive, the schools were slightly more accepting of Indian heritage, military discipline was abandoned, and the curriculum became less focused on menial labor and more balanced between academic and vocational training. After a 1969 congressional report declared Indian education "a national tragedy," Indian nations got more say in their schools and began introducing aspects of tribal culture into the classrooms.
  4. Stereotyping played a huge role in the efforts to assimilate Indian people into white, Euro-American society. White, Euro-Americans stereotyped Indian people as heathen, savage, and uncivilized. At the same time, white Euro-Americans wanted Indian people to act like stereotypical white Americans who were civilized, Christian farmers.
  5. Such stereotyping governed the beliefs of American leaders who planned and created Indian boarding schools. Indian boarding schools were yet another of many short-sighted and ill-conceived federal Indian policies implemented in the 19th Century. They were planned by people who had standard, stereotypical beliefs about Indian people and whose goals for Indian education were based on the historical Euro-American desires to civilize and Christianize heathen savages, and who had no understanding of just how important traditional cultural and spiritual beliefs and practices were to the American Indian Peoples.
  6. The goals of such schools were to “Kill the Indian and save the man” – to assimilate American Indians into white, Euro-American society.
  7. The Indian boarding school goal of assimilation was never fully achieved – as this 1917 report from the Commissioner of Indian Affairs indicates: “For some years we have been painfully impressed with the large proportion of boys and girls who, after returning to their reservations from Indian schools, fail to put into practice what they were taught at the schools. In too many cases these so-called 'returned students' not only do not show any progress, but actually go backward."
  8. One of the short-term consequences of Indian boarding schools was that the “assimilated” Indians were caught between two worlds – being integrated and accepted into neither the Euro-American nor the Indian world.
  9. The long-term consequences of Indian boarding schools are more complex: boarding school policies that victimized Indian children were genocidal and modern day evidence of historical trauma is directly related to 19th Century federal Indian policies.
  10. Many Indian people consciously refused to be assimilated into the white, Euro-American world and instead, remained committed to their traditional cultural, spiritual, political, and economic traditions. In so doing, they are not only victims of the destructive forces of Indian boarding schools, they are also brave and courageous survivors.




  • Do you think boarding schools were a good solution to the "Indian Problem" in America? Why or why not?
  • Although some Indians who attended boarding schools felt they were a "success," whose success did they actually feel - their success or success as defined by Euro-American policy makers?
  • Why is it important to examine both the reactions of US policymakers who designed and supported the boarding schools and the reactions of American Indians who attended the schools?
  • What do you think Zitkala Sa meant when she wrote that when she left boarding school, she was "neither a wild Indian, nor a tame one" in her article, "Impressions of an Indian Childhood." Do you think this was typical or atypical of most students? How and why?
  • What role did stereotyping play in the creation and implementation of Federal Indian Policies?
  • What do you think have been the long-term consequences of Indian boarding schools on the lives of American Indians in the 20th and 21st centuries?



Selected Bibliography


_____, "Brainwashing and Boarding Schools: Undoing the Shameful Legacy" at


_____, "Native American Education: Documents from the 19th Century" at


_____, "Photographs from Indian Boarding Schools at


Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1895-1928. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1995.


Bataille, Gretchen M. and Kathleen Mullen Sands. American Indian Women: Telling Their Lives. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.


Bonnell, Sonciray. Chemawa Indian Boarding School: The First One Hundred Years, 1880 to 1980. Master's Thesis: Dartmouth College, 1997.


Carlisle Indian Industrial School History at


Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. They Called It Prarie Light: The Story of Chiocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.


Meriam, Lewis, et. al. The Problem of Indian Administration. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1928.


Nabokov, Peter (ed.), Native American Testimony: A Chronicle of Indian-White Relations from Prophecy to the Present. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.


Pratt, Richard. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.


Prucha, Francis Paul (ed.) Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the "Friends of the Indian," 1880-1920. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1978.


Rimey, Scott. The Rapid City Indian School, 1898-1933. University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.


Standing Bear, Luther. Land of the Spotted Eagle. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1933.


Sekaquaptewa, Helen. Me and Mine: The Life Story of Helene as Told to Louis Udall. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1969.


Szasz, Margaret Connell. Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.


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Utley, Robert, "Introduction" in Richard Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867-1904. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1964.


Zitkala-Sa, "The School Days of an Indian Girl." The Online Archive of Nineteenth-Century Women's Writers. Glynis Carr (ed.) Posted Winter 1999 at


California Social Science Standards addressed in this lesson


Eleventh Grade
  • 11.3 Students analyze the role religion played in the founding of America, its lasting moral, social, and political impacts, and issues regarding religious liberty.
  • 11.5 Students analyze the major political, social, economic, technological, and cultural developments of the 1920s.
  • 11.6 Students analyze the different explanations for the Great Depression and how the New Deal fundamentally changed the role of the federal government.

Twelfth Grade

  • 12.2 Students evaluate and take and defend positions on the scope and limits of rights and obligations as democratic citizens, the relationships among them and how they are secured...

  • 12.3 Students evaluate and take and defend positions on what the fundamental values and principles of civil society are (i.e. the autonomous sphere of voluntary personal, social, and economic relations that are not part of government), their interdependence, and the meaning and importance of those values and principles for a free society... .