Show Caption
Hide Caption

US to probe Native American boarding school impact

The federal government will investigate its past oversight of Native American boarding schools, which for decades forced hundreds of thousands of children from their families and communities, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said Tuesday. (June 22)


  • The Interior Department has launched an investigation into the lasting effects of the more than 350 government-funded Indian boarding schools in the United States.
  • Using Western-style education methods to “civilize” Indians dates as far back as the pre-Revolutionary War era.
  • The Native American Rights Fund reported in 2013 that the directors of the boarding schools expected Indians to return home as capable farmers and farm wives who worshipped in Christian churches.

Rosalie Talahongva was an eighth grader when she arrived at the Phoenix Indian School in 1979. The young Hopi girl still remembers what she encountered at what was one of the country’s largest boarding schools for elementary and high school Native American students.

“The teacher put out a box of standard readers for me to read,” said Talahongva. She pulled out the eighth-grade book, but the teacher told her to start with a fifth-grade reader. “That book was just a tiny little book, and it was just a little more difficult than the Dick and Jane readers.”

After Talahongva demonstrated her reading ability, the teacher said, “’You don’t belong here; you need to find a different reading class.’’ She ended up in a senior honors class.

Talahongva, the curator of the Phoenix Indian School Visitor’s Center, said the inferior education she and other students received seemed to hearken back to the school’s original purpose as the Phoenix Indian Industrial School, when education took a back seat to learning farming or domestic chores.

“They were set up for failure,” she said.

Native boarding schools left generations of Indigenous people ill-equipped to survive in or out of their home communities. They endured poor education, severe punishment for the smallest infractions or for speaking their Native languages, disease resulting from poor sanitation and health care, abuse and the traumatic effects of ripping children as young as 5 from their homes to be sent hundreds or thousands of miles away.

Hundreds or even thousands of children died in government-funded boarding schools. 

The legacy of those schools echoed with the gruesome discovery in June of more than 1,000 remains of Native children buried in unmarked graves on the grounds of several Canadian residential schools for First Nations students. Now, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has pledged to take action. 

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo whose grandparents were subject to the boarding school system, has launched an investigation into the lasting effects of the more than 350 government-funded Indian boarding schools in the United States.

Haaland said in a statement that the primary goals of the Federal Boarding School Initiative are to identify boarding school facilities and sites, locate known and possible burial sites at the schools, and determine the identities and tribal affiliations of children who are buried in these cemeteries.

In a video provided to the National Congress of American Indians in June, Haaland referred to her own ancestors who endured assimilationist policies by the department she now leads.

Among the 51 known Indian boarding schools in Arizona, 28 are still open, and three continue to offer boarding to students. Most of them are run by the Bureau of Indian Education, an Interior Department agency. One former boarding school, Shonto Preparatory in the Navajo Nation, is managed both by the bureau and as a state charter high school. 

BIE schools: The federal government gives Native students an inadequate education and gets away with it

At least two Catholic-run schools, St. Peters Mission School in Bapchule in the Gila River Indian Community, and St. Michael Indian School in the Navajo Nation, are also still open. 

The discoveries in Canada have led to renewed calls for more investigations. Canadian news outlets reported that more than 1,000 unmarked graves and human remains of Indigenous children in at least four Canadian residential schools were found, with more inquiries at other schools in the works. The news set off a firestorm of protests across Canada, including nationwide marches on Canada Day on July 1.

Since then, several Catholic churches have been set ablaze, and statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II were toppled in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Centuries of assimilation policies to be examined

Haaland’s directive aims to shed light on the centuries-long controversy of governmental policies meant to quash tribal cultures, languages and religions and assimilate Indigenous peoples into Western society.  

Using Western-style education methods to “civilize” Indians dates as far back as the pre-Revolutionary War era. In the mid-17th century, colonists established what is now called Dartmouth College and the “Indian College” at Harvard University, among other such institutions. The first Native person to graduate from a Western-style university was Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a Wampanoag from Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. He obtained a degree from Harvard in 1665.   

Other such schools opened throughout the colonies, including Jesuit-run schools like a Catholic school that educated Native youth in St. Mary’s City, Maryland, established in 1677. 

Dig deeper on race and identity: Subscribe to This Is America, USA TODAY’s newsletter

After the founding of the United States, sentiment turned from simply inculcating Native peoples with Western ways through higher education toward a more aggressive assimilationist policy. Henry Knox, President George Washington’s Secretary of War, said it was “impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America” despite teaching farming and arts to Native people.

That sentiment led to a nearly two-century policy of assimilating Native children into Western ways. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 funded organizations, including many religious orders, to educate Indigenous children in schools in or near tribal communities.

The most well-known era of these schools started in the late 1870s, when Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt instituted military-style discipline and strict rules against practicing tribal cultures, speaking Native languages or wearing long hair or traditional clothing in Indian schools. His motto was “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Pratt’s philosophy shaped Native education for the next several decades after he founded the first off-reservation boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, in 1879.

Pratt’s model became the norm nationwide. Native children as young as 5 were forced from their families and shipped off to schools as far as 2,000 miles from home. The kids’ hair was cut. They were scrubbed down in tubs with harsh soap and given uniforms. The children learned to march everywhere. They were required to attend Christian churches. Boys were educated in industrial arts or in farming; girls in domestic duties. All students received only basic instruction in reading, writing and math.

Students in these institutions suffered not only from poor education, but from poor sanitation leading to swiftly-spreading diseases like tuberculosis and measles, which caused many deaths. Health care was sporadic and spotty. Children were forced to work hard on farms, in the laundries and in other parts of the school. Many children suffered physical and sexual abuse from teachers and caretakers. Punishment for small infractions could be severe.

When graduates of these schools returned home, they bore the physical and mental scars of their experience. The Native American Rights Fund reported in 2013 that the directors of the boarding schools expected Indians to return home as capable farmers and farm wives who worshipped in Christian churches.

Instead, unable to speak their languages, relate to their communities or conduct themselves in cultural practices and lacking parenting skills, many Native people who survived the experience suffered from the inability to thrive in either Indigenous or Western communities. This sparked an epidemic of intergenerational trauma that has lasted through the years.

“I think the initiative will be a realization that people have generational trauma from the boarding schools,” said Dakota Sioux historian Jeanne Eder Rhodes. “We have to contend with violence, sexual abuse and other traumas.

“Those kids weren’t taught to be businesspeople, entrepreneurs or doctors,” said Rhodes, the co-author of “American Indian Education: A History.” 

She said even in the 21st century, Native students aren’t surrounded with Indigenous role models like astronauts, scientists and Native people in other professions, which she attributes to past educational failures.

A campaign to destroy cultures

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition notes on its website that by 1925, more than 60,000 Indigenous children were placed in schools operated by the federal government and various churches. That accounted for nearly 83% of all Indian school-aged children, the organization said.

Although reforms were enacted beginning in the early 1930s, many schools still failed to adequately educate their Indigenous charges.

One student recounted that she sought to come to Phoenix Indian School so she could become a teacher, said Talahongva, the visitor center curator. But the education the student received at the institution was so poor that she couldn’t pass the test for admission to the Arizona Teachers’ College, now known as Arizona State University.

“She hired on with a professor as the domestic help in his house, and in the evenings he would tutor her,” said Talahongva. A year later, the girl passed the exam for the college.

“How do you graduate anywhere with honors and still not be able to pass a college entry exam?” she asked.

Talahongva, who was at Phoenix Indian School for two years, also encountered the Indian school’s military-style discipline. “We had to make our beds each day so that a quarter could be bounded off it,” she said. “If not, the inspector would rip the bedding, and sometimes the mattress, off the bed.” Each time that occurred, the student received a demerit.

“I would come back from breakfast to get my books for class and find my bed torn apart,” Talahongva said. “I had to make it back up fast so I wouldn’t get another demerit for being late.”

One Indigenous nation official said that ripping children from their families to faraway schools was just one tactic in the government’s campaign to destroy Native peoples’ cultures and nations.

“By ‘deculturing’ Indians, the government was denying their spirituality, which is the core of Indian identification,” said William Bradford, attorney general of the Chiricahua Apache Nation. The Chiricahua and Warm Springs bands were signatories to the 1852 Treaty of Santa Fe between the “Apache Nation of Indians” and the U.S. 

The Chiricahuas scattered after the Apache Wars, hunted by army troops or rounded up and marched to concentration camps, he said. Thousands fled to Mexico, while others were banished as far away as Florida. Many Chiricahua children were transported to Carlisle and other remote boarding schools in an effort to destroy the band.

“The U.S. considered Indian kids as not quite human,” said Bradford.

He thinks that the boarding school investigation will accomplish more than just its stated purpose.

“Secretary Haaland is advancing the meaning of tribal sovereignty and asking questions that are very uncomfortable,” Bradford said.

Bradford hopes the boarding school inquiry will also spark larger questions, like why the U.S. employed such methods, what should happen next, and how the federal government can address the issue of lands that were stolen from Native peoples. 

Interior Department outlines plan of action

The first order of business for the government is to focus on the schools that are or were under Department of the Interior control, said Bryan Newland, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs at the Interior Department.

“We’ll set about identifying the records and getting custody of those records from other federal agencies,” he said.

Next on Newland’s agenda: identify known and possible sites and consult with tribes on how to protect and use what they find, particularly the records and names of children who attended the schools and who may have died in them. Newland’s task force will also identify and protect burial sites at boarding schools.

“We’ll submit a report to the secretary by April 1 on what we know, what we don’t know, the work that needs to be done to better understand the records that we have and lay out a path forward,” said Newland, an Ojibwe who is a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan.

Fulfilling Haaland’s directive will be a daunting task. The Boarding School Healing Coalition has identified 367 Indian boarding schools that operated in the U.S. between approximately 1870 and 1970.

Some boarding schools, like Phoenix Indian School, closed their doors after 1970, and several are still open. The organization has located just 38% of the records from known schools. That means that the tally of Native children who attended, died or went missing from these schools is unknown. And that is what Newland is charged with learning as a first step.

Talahongva said nobody has records of how many students attended Phoenix Indian School, which operated for 99 years until 1990. It was the only off-reservation school managed by the Interior Department in Arizona.

Currently, she said, the visitor center will share a document request form with former students or their relatives.

“The feds won’t allow us total access to those records, because of privacy laws,” Talahongva said. But because the Phoenix school was the second-largest in the nation, she estimated that tens of thousands of students passed through the campus.

Many children who attended Indian boarding schools came from tribes that were never federally recognized. Some belonged to tribes whose status was terminated by the federal government in the mid-20th century. Since current federal law restricts tribal consultation to currently-recognized tribes, consultation with these survivors and their descendants will be more complicated.

Although Newland said working with people across Indian Country is filtered through the government-to-government relationship model, the boarding schools touched many Indigenous peoples’ lives. The Interior Department will have to consider how the boarding school investigation affects the BIA’s federal recognition process and other regulations, he said. 

“But our trust obligation extends to Indian people, those who came before, those who are here now and those who will come in the future,” Newland said. “This initiative is an opportunity for us to engage directly with Indian people about the legacy of the federal government’s practices and how they shape the lives of people, regardless of whether or not they are enrolled in what is now a federally recognized tribe.“

Newland also said his task force has a responsibility to boarding school survivors and their families to be aware of their well-being as they learn facts that he said could be gruesome.

“We know we have a responsibility to not add to the harm that’s already been done, so we are taking a thoughtful approach,” Newland said. “That might cause the initiative to go slower than some people would like. But doing it the right way is more important than doing it quickly.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You May Also Like

R. Kelly says prosecutors can’t claim he molested a teenage boy because jurors may be anti-LGBTQ

R. Kelly’s legal team are objecting to federal prosecutors’ plans to introduce…

The COVID culture war: At what point should personal freedom yield to the common good?

Show Caption Hide Caption COVID vaccine mandates: Could private businesses help curb…

Coinbase beats Q4 earnings estimates amid falling transaction volume

United States-based cryptocurrency exchange Coinbase has beaten revenue expectations for the fourth…

UNC journalism dean ‘unfairly blamed trustees’ for Nikole Hannah-Jones tenure row

The dean of the journalism school at North Carolina at Chapel Hill…