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Understanding History: Indian Boarding Schools

Updated on October 31, 2011

Genesis of Indian Boarding Schools

Use of the boarding school as a tool to assimilate Native Americans in the United States was the brainchild of Lieutenant Pratt of the United States Army. These boarding schools were official U.S. government policy from the 1870s until the 1930s.

The 1870s were an explosive time in Native/non-Native relations and a number of Plains tribes conducted overt and covert warfare against the non-Natives encroaching on their homelands. Military persons therefore sought alternative ways to defeat Natives and their culture other than endless (and expensive) warfare between the opposing parties.

In 1874, a number of warriors were made POWs and sent by Lt. Pratt to an abandoned Spanish mission in St. Augustine, Florida. These warriors were stripped of their clothing and made to wear US Army uniforms. They also had their hair shorn off in the style of their captors. Educators were recruited to teach them English. They were also taught how to labor in white settlements. This became known as the "School for Savages".

Most of the graduates of this school went back home after their release, but some continued with their schooling at the Hampton Negro Industrial School, the only school that would accept them. This prompted Lieutenant. Pratt to hatch a scheme to recruit Indian children for "training". The goal of such training was to "kill the Indian and save the man"; in other words, to stamp out all traces of Native culture in the youngest generation, thereby winning the Indian wars and dominance of North America through acculturation and assimilation.

Lieutenant Pratt's plan received full support from Washington D.C. Pratt traveled to the Dakotas and petitioned Sinte Gleska (Spotted Tail) of the Sicangu Lakota band to release Lakota children to him for education at the Carlisle Indian School.

Sinte Gleska resisted at first, but was finally persuaded by promises that the children would be returned to the reservation to help their people. However, this was never the intention of the boarding schools, whose covert mission was to try and ensure that students wouldn't return home but would instead be assimilated into off-reservation cities.

The Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened its doors on November 1, 1878. After 10 years in operation, off-reservation boarding schools were thriving. Boarding schools sprung up in 13 states over the first decade of their existence. At the height of the boarding school era there were 25 schools in operation around the country.

Reuben Quick Bear at Carlisle Indian School
Reuben Quick Bear at Carlisle Indian School

The Legacy of Indian Boarding Schools

Lieutenant Pratt was a military man who modeled the discipline at the off-reservation boarding schools after that of the US Army. Students led a regimented life, as if they were military inductees. They attended classes for half the day; the rest of their time was spent learning menial labor skills such as cooking and house painting that were considered suitable to their station in life and desirable by the people who might employ them after they graduated.

Assimilation had become official US policy and Pratt's boarding school model was seen as a way to wage a "peaceful war" on the remaining Native survivors of the systematic physical destruction that was carried out against Native nations during the first three centuries after European contact.

Native children during this period were taken from their homes, families, and reservations and shipped over vast distances to the boarding schools. Attendance at such schools was required of all Native children between the ages of 10-18. Children were shorn of their identities in every way, including name, style of dress, and even personal appearance. Traditional long hair was forbidden; children's heads were shaved and they were given clothing worn by those of the dominant culture almost as soon as they entered boarding school doors. Students were punished for speaking their native languages and taught that they were inferior, and that the school was there to "raise them up" from savagery to the level of non-Natives.

When students graduated from these schools they often found themselves rejected by the non-Native culture that they had been taught to serve. Native boarding school graduates were either treated as servants, or more often, rejected outright for off-reservation jobs. Graduates often simply went home to their reservations, where they found it equally difficult to fit back into the families and cultures that they had been torn from and taught to despise as inferior.

Boarding schools created generations of confused and lonely Native children. Forced assimilation was a failed experiment. Lt. Pratt died in 1924. By the 1930s, Natives were given their own "new deal". The off-reservation boarding schools were closed, although several on-reservation schools still intent on forced assimilation continued for another generation.

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    • kjolley1962 profile image


      5 years ago


      Thank you so much for creating this compassionate tribute to the Native American children and families who endured the injustice of the Indian Boarding School movement. For the past few months I hae been doing a great deal of research on Native American issues, which started with an attempt to find out more about my great grandmother, who was possible full-blooded Cherokee or Creek. As a result of delving more into my own possible Native American heritage, I have learned so much about the magnitude of atrocities and injustices that these beautiful people endured - and how the boarding school movement was an attempt to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man" (a quote by Pratt that makes me cringe in the core of my soul)!

      I have seen the "before and after" pictures of these beautiful Indigenous their traditional Native clothing when they arrived at Carlisle and the other schools...then the pictures taken a couple of months after "assimilation". We often hear about the injustice of Native Americans losing their homelands due to colonization and expansion, but now we are finally hearing more about the deeper tragedy - loss of their culture, heritage, and Native idenity.

      Since I have a background in mental health counseling, I am very interested in how I can help Native Americans today - especially in regards to historical and transgenerational trauma, which many professionals believe stem from the boarding school movement and the forced removal from their families, as well as these children losing their right to practice their Native spirituality and traditions. I am very concerned at the rate of suicide among Native Americans - which is high among the youth as well as the adults.

      I know I am just one person, but when I see articles like yours in this lens, I know there are other people out there that I can connect with that share my same compassion for these issues of our Native American brothers and sisters. I am new to seeing your lens on the Indian Boarding School issue lets me know that Squidoo is not only a wonderful avenue for enlightening the world on these vital social and historical is also a place for me to connect with awesome advocates like you who share my same passions!

      So once again - thank you for this lens for honoring these Native American children and their families!

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Very informative article on Indian boarding schools. Boarding schools are very good option for the teenagers that want to study in a limited structure. There are so many online boarding schools are available for such juveniles.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I enjoyed reading your article and your writing style is direct and easy to follow!


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