American Indian Boarding Schools: How and Why



Beginning with Pequots in 1636 and ending on January 15, 1891 when the last Lakota warriors surrendered and the Indian wars concluded, American Indians across the country fought against having their lives, culture and lands taken from them.  Once the Indian Wars were over, however, the "Indian problem" still remained.  

To understand what the federal government meant by the phrase the "Indian problem," we have to look all the way back to the arrival of the first colonists.  Contrary to what most of us have learned in our U.S. History texts, the Americas were populated with people living in established communities and cultures for years prior to the landing of Columbus.  The colonists came seeking not to immigrate, but to overtake these established cultures.  Once the American Indian realized the nature of the presence of the colonists, many of them began to push back.  The Pequots were the first to violently reject the ways and the religion of the colonists. (See Student Workbook for references.)

As the Colonies became the United States, the quest for more and more land became its consuming objective.  North America, blessed with amazing natural resources and beauty, was to the European eye, unsettled and wide-open for claiming.  Opportunity abounded and our country began to rocket towards becoming a world power.  This rise, however, did not occur without considerable challenges: the moral compass of who was and wasn't a human being was yet to be set.  In addition to this, the presence of the American Indian on the land the federal government wanted to consume and develop posed a constant battle both on the land and even in the Supreme Court.  Andrew Jackson defied a U.S. Supreme Court ruling when he proceeded with the Indian Removal Act.

To understand the American Indian Industrial Boarding schools, we must learn of the context of its conception.  We have to follow the tracks of the American Indians as they were forced from their ancestral lands and ways of life.  We have to understand the conflicts that led to the federal idea of reservations before we can understand its idea of "assimilation through education."  Under the concept of Manifest Destiny, the "Indian problem" was the fact that the American Indian existed on land that God had intended for the new nation to occupy and to develop.  Religious and cultural conversion, trades, treaties and outright human slaughter were attempted or put into place in order to reconcile the American Indian living on what the new nation felt was rightfully its land.

By the end of the 1800's, military violence against the American Indian fell out of public grace.  The federal government had to come up with another way to deal with the American Indian.  A former civil war officer came up with a solution.

Lieutenant Richard Pratt, a former Civil War officer, introduced the idea of forced cultural assimilation.  He proposed to "kill the Indian and save the man" through education.  In 1891, he founded the Carlisle American Indian Industrial Board Schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.  It was the first of many non-reservation schools where American Indian children were forced to leave their homes and families in order to strip them of their language, their spirituality, their ways of life and their families.  This killing of the Indian tried forced American Indian children to accept the white culture in order to become good citizens.  The initiative failed and left thousands of wounded children and fractured families.  By 1934, the Howard-Wheeler Act was passed, redirecting federal Indian policy.    


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  • Kevin Gover's Apology, Bureau of Indian Affairs
    Description: While the United States federal government has never apologized for its role in destroying "all things Indian," Kevin Gover, now leader of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, offers a sincere apology for the Bureau's historical conduct.

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  • Chain of Sorrow
    Description: WDET 2011 Wayne State University's public radio station's interview of Curt Guyette, author of Chain of Sorrow, and Edith Young, survivor of an American Indian Boarding School.

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