Category: Education


Indian boarding schools were the phenomena that shaped modern Indian identity and had the profound impact on the educational system of native people. When talking about "Indian education" of the past two centuries, the education of Indians by others is usually meant. These could be missionaries, federal employees, or public school teachers, and all of them worked for one purpose – to make Indians similar to the colonists. White settlers started establishing boarding schools since their arrival. Formerly, these schools were designed to converse Native Americans into the Christianity. Nevertheless, during the nineteenth century, priorities changed. Finding the new resources provoked European Americans to move local people and make them work for their benefit. To avoid a war, the U.S. government chose to establish certain kind of institutions that would quickly assimilate Indians. Since 1870s, founding boarding schools became a part of governmental policy of oppression of Indians Americans. The purpose of this paper is to explore the results of such type of education, discover its positive and negative sides and to track its lasting impact on modern Native Americans.


To conduct this research, a number of researches from different periods of time were read and compared. It is worth noticing that previous researches were concentrated on an examination of the federal policies towards boarding school education, the experiences of Indian children, and the responses of their parents to school programs, policies, and curricula. Comparing to that, recent studies (David Wallace Adams, K. Lomavaima, Brenda Child, Sally Hyer and Esther Horne and Sally McBeth) pay their attention to the meaning of boarding schools. Thus, the most important sources for the research were the most recent studies to find out what were the impacts of Indian boarding schools education. Luckily, there is one of the “primary sources” meaning one of the few magazines about Indian education. It is published since 1959 and is called the Journal of American Indian Education.

It remains today one of the very few journals solely devoted to publishing information and research on Indian education. No less important are the sources by American Indians themselves. Written during the 20th century, these ones reflect the boarding school experience of Native Americans. Thus, it helped me to receive the complete picture of the boarding school phenomena.


The terminology used within this paper needs to be clarified. The term “Indian boarding school” means those schools where Indian children were studying and living during certain period of time. This type of school was established during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The purpose of these schools was to educate Native American children according to Euro-American standards. The term “Indian boarding school” encompasses different types of boarding schools. It includes first schools established by Christian missionaries on reservations, governmental schools since 1870s and additional schools founded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. As the first boarding schools established by missionaries had little impact on the Indian children, there will be only a brief overview of them in my research. The period that generates interest mostly is the 1870s-1930s because in this time, the first governmental off-reservation boarding schools were established. In 1934, according to Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganization Act, many of the federal off-reservation boarding schools were closed. Their impact was more important and more noticeable because they were more isolated and because the power structures were involved there. To avoid any kinds of misunderstandings, one should not identify boarding schools of that time with the contemporary ones. The difference is the boarding schools of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were meant to promote American values and governmental purposes only. They were not designed to give the Indian children all the knowledge needed, nor could they prepare children to get a higher education afterwards. At these schools, Indian children were learning how to be obedient citizens of America and how to become good farmers. Thus, they are also quite different from the schools founded by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This term is important, as well. Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824 and is the oldest bureau among the U.S. government agencies of a kind. It is responsible nowadays for around 1.9 million American Indians. Its mission is to raise the quality of life, support economic opportunities, protect the property of American Indians and Indian tribes.

At this stage, the historical experiences of Indian education prior to European contact need to be explored. Native people have always valued education. The educational systems intended to pass on tribal knowledge over the centuries were well-organized thought systems that valued student initiative and intellectual engagement. However, tribal people understood the importance of colonial education as a testing area for successful relations with Europe-American governments and people. Indians taught their children how to become useful members of tribes. It was something that was not taught at schools. Indian education was about practical skills their children would need to survive. From the parents, Indian boys usually received the knowledge how to become good runners, survive in the woods, be able to beat cold and hunger, know how to build a cabin, hunt a deer, and kill an enemy. They were taught how to become hunters, warriors or counselors. They were taught how to make themselves useful to their own society (Reyhner 36). Meanwhile, Indian girls were taught basketry, sewing, netting, reed work, and weaving. Generations of Indian women were doing it and learning it from their mothers (Lomavaima).

Indians had also a different vision of child-rearing practices.They did not accept punishments, scolding and beating the children as the disciplinary instruments. They did not prohibit their children to play as the colonists did. Europeans believed that the Indians suffered from the lack of discipline, but it was not so. Indian Americans used a number of methods to ensure the proper behavior of their children, however, physical (corporate) punishment was judged inappropriate as their children needed to learn to endure pain and hardship with courage (Reyhner 36).

The American approach was completely different. Nobody cared about child’s interest in Indian boarding schools run by the U.S. government. Founding boarding schools was a part of a governmental plan to assimilate the Native American children from 140 tribes into a mainstream. Children had to attend school as soon as they reached the age of seven. At schools, children were not allowed to speak their own language, they could only speak English. They had to dress, speak and be named as white Americans. Children were getting used to avoid any displays of their native culture. Students had to march, wear uniforms and be as much an American as possible.

For that, children had to read the Bible and had some lessons at schools, but it was only half of the day dedicated to this. These lessons could include the English language, basic arithmetic, geography, history and the religion of the denomination. The other half of the day was dedicated to vocational training appropriate to the gender roles. The boys learned such skills as blacksmithing, woodwork and American methods of farming (The Indians themselves were not farmers for they treated land as sacred). The girls learned the domestic arts of a civilized household such as cooking, sewing, and housekeeping. Thus, educated into the ways of Christian civilization, young Indians would return to their communities as mediators between cultures (Coleman 40).

As far as the boarding school education was so much a new experience, the first reaction for establishing Indian boarding schools was negative. It was all confusion, alienation, homesickness and resentment. On the one hand, children were enforced and sometimes even kidnapped and pulled to school. On the other hand, some children saw the benefit in studying at boarding schools, for instance, they could learn English to prevent cheating from the white men. Parents and children treated boarding schools in two opposite ways. Some of children adjusted to the cultural change quickly while others organized escapes, committed arson, and displayed their passive resistance in different ways. This type of reaction was prevalent; moreover, it was a characteristic feature of colonial education. Children’s resistance took forms of inventing insulting nicknames for teachers, writing threatening letters to school administrators, or maintaining tribal traditions behind teacher’s back. The government forced parents to send children to boarding schools through armed and police forces, prosecution and imprisonment, and blackmailing them in different spheres of life. Nevertheless, parents hid children, sheltered school runaways and delayed when enrolling or returning students to school or sent less desirable children (Davis 20). Children resisted regimentation. They passed notes, stole apples, eggs, chickens from school commissaries and were conducting secret peyote meetings to develop plans to reach independence, express individuality, develop leadership, and use their mother tongues. (Lomavaima).

No wonder that school system soon fell into decay. Children did not see the relevance of the studying programs, and they rejected to study. Government was wrong that Indian education was a good investment. It is worth mentioning that congress appropriated $100,000 in 1879 to support Indian education. By 1887, Congress was appropriating more than a million dollars annually for that purpose. Nearly half of appropriations went to missionaries who were meant to educate Indians. It wanted to make Indians proper farmers at any cost. Nevertheless, by 1900, governmental funding was ended (Reyhner 48). The government understood its mistake and lowered its expectations towards Indians. It equated Native Americans to the black people, and soon, the governmental off-reservation boarding schools were closed.

These kinds of schools influenced native people a lot. It had both positive and negative results. Boarding schools encouraged American Indians to establish their own boarding schools in answer to the policy of assimilation. The next example is very significant. In the 1830s, the Cherokees started their own educational system, which developed literacy in Cherokee, as well as English. They also published a Cherokee language newspaper. Later, other tribes established district and seminary schools, but they were all closed by the government. Colonial education established many of the patterns of Indian schooling that remained in the 20th century. Over the years, through education and other ways, Indians had been developing the core of leadership to tell the government what they want (Reyhner 54). Indians claimed their own educational system as manifestation of their self-determination. Thus, they became ready to control the education of their children. Local control over education, therefore, was a critical factor in successfully implementing tribal sovereignty (Deloria 423). Colonial education was useful for Indians because it provided successful relationships with Americans. They could learn language and have fair trade, fair treaties and so on. They learned trade there and how to use American money. Knowing the language, they could not be cheated. Boarding schools provided Indian children with new skills in language, literature, mathematics, and history that strengthened their identities as Native Americans. They preserved their culture despite the assimilation policy. Students used the potentially negative experience to produce a positive result — the preservation of Indian identity, cultures, communities, languages and peoples. They became literate and could share their experience with their people. Government boarding schools became integral components of American Indian identities and eventually led to political and cultural self-determination in the late 20th century.

In the same time, Indian boardingschools had much more negative impact on native children.Trafzer even calls them“the purgatory” in his book Boarding School Blues. The Indian boarding school system became one more acknowledgement of a destructive nature of the U.S. government’s actions. It wanted to assimilate Native Americans so much that it resulted to disappearance of a wide range of native languages and ancient traditions and rituals. Children were taught in white ways, so they became less aware of traditional techniques and customs of their people. Students grew up unconnected to their families, tribal cultures, and languages. When these children went home, Indians met them with annoyance and despise. Tribal members ridiculed their lack of language skills, dress, religious beliefs and behavior. All this meant that there was no expected cultural replacement. It was all cultural disintegration that caused much harm to local people.

Indian children also suffered from the methods of education. Many teachers saw their role as civilizing Native American students instead of educating them. Schools laid the main stress on discipline and punishment. Emotional and physical abuse was regular, and the syllabus clearly programmed students with the thought of the superiority of the dominant culture. Native traditions were considered to be inferior. It resulted in rooted feeling of shame that persecuted Indians for generations. They had been taught to feel shame about their culture, and parents had often not shared their traditional beliefs with children.

The conditions of boarding schools were stressful. Children ran away from beatings, imprisonment, psychological difficulties, poor instruction, and unhealthy conditions. Boarding school environments differed dramatically from the Native American communities children had known before their arrival. Students sometimes had to adjust to prison like environments run in a strict, military manner. Most of the schools had high fences sometimes surrounded by barbed wire, and each school had strict rules regarding the children's personal freedom. Students had to adjust to daily schedules set by bells. The marched everywhere. Because of the lack of the adequate budget, the food was poor, and the children were hungry most of the time. When nutrition declined, children became more susceptible to different diseases. Tuberculosis was the most common. Many children died of it. Each off reservation boarding school has its cemetery as a reminder of a high price some children and their families paid in the campaign to civilize, assimilate, and acculturate American Indians.

A demoralizing situation of dependency developed on many reservations that continue to this day. Indians had to replace hunting with farming to which they were not accustomed. Native people did not want to be the farmers no matter how much time and money were spent by government to make them farmers. The Native people did not trade land. It was sacred to different tribes for many reasons in many different places. They treated land as a source of life. Native People did not believe in private ownership of land as Europeans did. Land had to be respected, not owned, and spirituality was involved with any disturbance of nature. Making Indians farmers and laborers had still another impact. American Indians today do not have several generations of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, or bankers.

Many Indian governmental off-reservation schools were closed in the 1980s and early 1990s (after the  Education Assistance Act of 1975). Therefore, the students were decentralized to community schools. Today, a few off-reservation boarding schools still operate, but federal government reduced their funding. Their future is in doubt. Bureau of Indian Affairs is now funding Indian boarding schools in the United States. According to the statistics, in 2002 they house more than 10,000 American Indian children (BIA). Nearly half of these schools take children as young as six-years-old. Indian children can also study at the private and parochial Indian boarding schools, reservation community day schools, BIA postsecondary schools, and tribally controlled community colleges. Today, students go to boarding schools more enthusiastically. The government is more tolerant to Indian minorities and reservations. Society had changed a view that everybody should look alike and study alike. Now that the Indian cultural heritage is estimated at its true worth, the Indian Americans can study their culture. Most schools now cooperate with neighboring American Indian tribes and provide work for their members as staff. They do everything for their student’s benefit. Nobody makes them study something they do not need.

Nevertheless, while democracy is declared in the country, some people can abuse it. Majorities can oppress minorities in different ways from making them second class citizens with a second class education to imposing their ways through schooling. Native people continually receive a message by dominant cultures that their cultures and languages have no value in the modern world and should be forgotten. Colonial assimilation education was and continues to be a basic violation of human rights. Indians now suffer from the loss of their language. Indian children are bilingual only until about sixth grade, after which English wins out. Thus, though Indian culture had survived, it has changed forever. The worthless efforts of the reformers had mostly negative effects on the Native children. After almost 400 years of oppression, Indian people have a lot to do in the future to improve and revitalize their education.

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