American Indian boarding schools

American Indian boarding schools, also known more recently as American Indian residential schools, were established in the United States from the mid 17th to the early 20th centuries with a primary objective of "civilizing" or assimilating Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture. In the process, these schools denigrated Native American culture and made children give up their languages and religion.[1] At the same time the schools provided a basic Western education. These boarding schools were first established by Christian missionaries of various denominations. The missionaries were often approved by the federal government to start both missions and schools on reservations,[2] especially in the lightly populated areas of the West. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries especially, the government paid religious orders to provide basic education to Native American children on reservations, and later established its own schools on reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) also founded additional off-reservation boarding schools based on the assimilation model. These sometimes drew children from a variety of tribes. In addition, religious orders established off-reservation schools.

Pupils at Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Pennsylvania, c. 1900

Children were typically immersed in European-American culture. Schools forced removal of indigenous cultural signifiers: cutting the children's hair, having them wear American-style uniforms, forbidding them from speaking their indigenous languages, and replacing their tribal names with English-language names (saints names under some religious orders) for use at the schools, as part of assimilation and to "Christianize" them.[3] The schools were usually harsh, especially for younger children who had been forcibly separated from their families and forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures. Children sometimes died in the school system due to infectious disease.[3] Investigations of the later twentieth century revealed cases of sexual, manual, physical and mental abuse, occurring mostly in church-run schools.[4]

Summarizing recent scholarship from Native perspectives, Dr. Julie Davis said:

Boarding schools embodied both victimization and agency for Native people and they served as sites of both cultural loss and cultural persistence. These institutions, intended to assimilate Native people into mainstream society and eradicate Native cultures, became integral components of American Indian identities and eventually fueled the drive for political and cultural self-determination in the late 20th century.[5]

Since those years, tribal nations have carried out political activism and gained legislation and federal policy that gives them the power to decide how to use federal education funds, how they educate their children, and the authority to establish their own community-based schools. Tribes have also founded numerous tribal colleges and universities on reservations. Tribal control over their schools has been supported by federal legislation and changing practices by the BIA. By 2007, most of the boarding schools had been closed down, and the number of Native American children in boarding schools had declined to 9,500.[6]

Although there are hundreds of deceased Indigenous children yet to be found, investigations are increasing across the United States.[7]


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