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. 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, 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.
What was the purpose of Native American boarding schools?
Indian boarding schools were founded to eliminate traditional American Indian ways of life and replace them with mainstream American culture. The first boarding schools were set up starting in the mid-nineteenth century either by the government or Christian missionaries. Initially, the government forced many Indian families to send their children to boarding schools. Later, Indian families chose to send their children to boarding schools because there were no other schools available.
At boarding schools, Indian children were separated from their families and cultural ways for long periods, sometimes four or more years. The children were forced to cut their hair and give up their traditional clothing. They had to give up their meaningful Native names and take English ones. They were not only taught to speak English but were punished for speaking their own languages. Their own traditional religious practices were forcibly replaced with Christianity. They were taught that their cultures were inferior. Some teachers ridiculed and made fun of the students’ traditions. These lessons humiliated the students and taught them to be ashamed of being American Indian. The boarding schools had a bad effect on the self-esteem of Indian students and on the wellbeing of Native languages and cultures.
However, not all boarding school experiences were negative. Many of the Indian students had some good memories of their school days and made friends for life. They also acquired knowledge and learned useful skills that helped them later in life.
What was life like in Native American boarding schools?
The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for American Indians, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. Lomawaima says that’s not the only reason families let their children go.
“For many communities, for a variety of reasons, federal school was the only option,” she says. “Public schools were closed to Indians because of racism.”
At boarding schools, the curriculum focused mostly on trades, such as carpentry for boys and housekeeping for girls.
And for decades, there were reports that students in the boarding schools were abused. Children were beaten, malnourished and forced to do heavy labor. In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing American Indian students, not educating them. The report said the schools still had a “major emphasis on discipline and punishment.”
Not all American Indians had negative experiences at boarding schools. Some have fond memories of meeting spouses and making lifelong friends. But scathing government reports led to the closure of most of the boarding schools.
One school that remains is Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif. — the same boarding school Toledo attended.
Hershel Martinez, a Navajo student, gathers with a group of friends in a school hallway to form a drum circle. The school encourages cultural activities like this. That’s one reason Martinez feels more comfortable here than at his former public school in Los Angeles.
How long did Native American boarding schools last?
Naturally, Indian people resisted the schools in various ways. Sometimes entire villages refused to enroll their children in white men’s schools. Indian agents on the reservations normally resorted to withholding rations or sending in agency police to enforce the school policy. In some cases, police were sent onto the reservations to seize children from their parents, whether willing or not. The police would continue to take children until the school was filled, so sometimes orphans were offered up or families would negotiate a family quota. Navajo police officers avoided taking “prime” children and would take children assumed to be less intelligent, those not well cared for or those physically impaired.
Indian parents also banded together to withdraw their children en masse, encouraging runaways and undermining the schools’ influence during summer and school breaks. An 1893 court ruling increased pressure to keep Indian children in Boarding schools. It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.
Some Native American parents saw boarding school education for what it was intended to be — the total destruction of Indian culture. Others objected to specific aspects of the education system, the manner of discipline and the drilling. Still others were concerned for their children’s health and associated the schools with death. Resentment of the boarding schools was most severe because the schools broke the most sacred and fundamental of all human ties, the parent-child bond.
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