Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Become a Patreon!

Article Index

II. A Brief History of Indian Boarding Schools

The Indian Boarding School era developed after the removal and reservation policy era. After American Indians had been removed to reservations, dissatisfaction that such large amounts of land were left "unused" and "undeveloped" by the Indians remained among the government and settlers who were hostile towards Indian tribes. These sentiments led the U.S. government to begin focusing its policies regarding American Indians on assimilation, a policy that essentially encompassed two major government actions.

The first significant step in the United States assimilation policy was tribal land allotment. Congress passed the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the Dawes Act, in an attempt to encourage Indians to make more "productive" use of their land, and to open up additional lands to white settlers. The Dawes Act provided that Indian reservations be divided into 160-acre plots and 80-acre plots with each head of an Indian household given a plot of land. The hope was that by having American Indians own their land individually, rather than collectively, the policy would have the effect of eliminating the American Indian cultural values of shared ownership, and would instead encourage individualism and capitalism among American Indian people. Ultimately, the policy did not change American Indian culture, but instead led to a massive loss of land and extreme fractionalization of the remaining parcels.

The second measure implemented by the U.S. government to encourage assimilation was the reformation of Indian education. The idea behind boarding schools was to teach Indian children English, as well as capitalistic values, in order to accelerate the assimilation process. The Indian Boarding School era has been described as an "ideological and psychological" war "waged against children."

The schools leave a scar. We enter them confused and bewildered and we leave them the same way. When we enter the school we at least know that we are Indians. We come out half red and half white, not knowing what we are . . . I wouldn't cooperate in the remaking of myself. I played the dumb Indian. They couldn't make me into an apple--red outside and white inside. From their point of view I was a complete failure. While the education of Indian children by non-Indians had been occurring for decades by the time the first boarding schools were opened, the boarding schools marked a clear upsurge in the government's resolve to eliminate Indian culture.

The "curriculum" and structure of Indian boarding schools was largely developed by Captain Richard Henry Pratt. Pratt had been successful in Indian assimilation during his tenure supervising a prison camp for captive Native Americans from 1875 to 1878. Pratt founded the first Indian boarding school in 1879, the Carlisle Indian School, without any official support from the U.S. government. After some initial success, Pratt successfully lobbied the federal government, and in 1891, funding for the Carlisle School and additional Indian boarding schools was granted by Congress. This marked the official entry of the U.S. government into the business of funding Indian boarding schools, and revolutionized mainstream thought on the feasibility of educating American Indians. Funding for the Indian boarding schools came in a variety of forms, including government money, but also including proceeds from the sale and lease of "surplus" land left over after allotment and from the labor of the students.

Pratt's philosophy on Indian education was the dreadful extreme of assimilation, and Pratt himself summed it up--"Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." Pratt believed that the primary way to accomplish this was to indoctrinate the Indian children into the ways of the Euro-American capitalist. Pratt believed that day schools were insufficient for this purpose, and that separation from the tribe was necessary to achieve true assimilation. In his view, the only way to educate and civilize an Indian child was to take him away from the primitive influence of his family.

A further example of the general policies regarding Indian education are the comments made by Minnesota Governor Alexander Ramsey, who was also the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. He stated, "[E]ducation and agricultural efforts can only hope for useful results when Indians are removed in pursuance of treaties . . . and when manual-labor schools" are established "to educate their rising generation in the arts, conveniences, and habits of civilization."

Boarding schools were often located a significant distance from the reservations, and predictably, Native Americans resisted having their children leave home to be educated by the white man. In order to guarantee attendance, Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to make rules to ensure attendance, and provided funding for the transportation of children from reservations to boarding schools. The policy led to practices such as "child snatching," described in one account as requiring the police "to chase or capture them [Indian children] like so many wild rabbits." Rations were intentionally withheld to force parents to choose between starvation or sending their children away to school. In some circumstances, the federal government's coercion was more subtle and was simply a result of the dire poverty that some Indian tribes faced. Often with no means of self support, some parents agreed to let their children attend boarding school in the hopes that they would learn to deal with the white man.

Unfortunately, the conditions in the boarding schools were no better than the dismal conditions on the reservations. The schools provided sub-standard living environments, including poor ventilation, exposed electrical wiring, no indoor toilets, lack of sanitary supplies, and trough-like basins for washing. Children were routinely exposed to a variety of dangers including health and fire hazards. Lack of proper nutrition was another problem, since many boarding schools fed children low-grade food and rationed the food severely. As a result of the unsanitary living conditions, labor intensive work, and poor nutrition, the children were vulnerable to death and disease. Additionally, children were subject to corporal punishment and abuse, physical and sexual, at the hands of their educators.

The first order of business when children arrived at the boarding schools was to strip them, literally, of their identity. Being told they were dirty, American Indian children were washed and their traditional clothes were replaced with government issued uniforms and shoes. The boys' hair, which was a source of cultural pride, was cut to fit their Euro-American educators' ideas of what a civilized young man should look like. Unbelievably, American-Indian children lost their names as well--school officials and classmates chose new English names for the children. Furthermore, American Indian children were forced to abandon their language and customs and were instead expected to speak English and learn from educational materials reflecting "white middle class culture." Finally, because many schools were missionary in nature, American Indian children were forced to convert to Christianity, which destroyed their own sense of spirituality and connection to their people and their culture.