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Carlisle Indian Boarding School

The U.S. History of Native American Boarding Schools

Native American Boarding Schools (also known as Indian Boarding Schools) were established by the U.S. government in the late 19th century as an effort to assimilate Indigenous youth into mainstream American culture through education. This era was part of the United States’ overall attempt to kill, annihilate, or assimilate Indigenous peoples and eradicate Indigenous culture.

The Native American assimilation era first began in 1819, when the U.S. Congress passed The Civilization Fund Act. The act encouraged American education to be provided to Indigenous societies and therefore enforced the “civilization process" and became more formalized under President Ulysses S. Grant’s Peace Policy of 1869 to 1870, to turn over the administration of Indian reservations to Christian denominations. Congress set aside funds to erect school facilities to be run by churches and missionary societies. U.S. colonists, in their attempt to end Native control over their land bases, generally came up with two policies to address the "Indian problem." Some sectors advocated outright physical extermination of Native peoples. Meanwhile, the "friends" of the Indians, such as Pratt, advocated cultural rather than physical genocide. Carl Schurz, at that time a former Commissioner of Indian Affairs, concluded that Native peoples had "this stern alternative: extermination or civilization".

The passing of this act eventually led to the creation of the federally funded Native American Boarding Schools and initiated the beginning of the Indian Boarding School era. The duration of this era ran from 1860 until 1978. Approximately 357 boarding schools operated across 30 states during this era both on and off reservations and housed over 60,000 Native American children. A third of these boarding schools were operated by Christian missionaries as well as members of the federal government. These boarding schools housed several thousand children. Attendance to the boarding schools was made mandatory by the U.S. Government regardless of whether or not Indigenous families gave their consent. Upon arrival, Native children were given Anglo-American names, bathed in kerosene, given military-style clothing in exchange for their traditional clothing, and their hair would be shaved off for the boys and cut into short bob styles for girls.

Education primarily focused on trades to make Native students marketable in American society. Male students were taught to perform manual labor such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and farming amongst other trades. On the other hand, female students were taught to cook, clean, sew, do laundry, and care for farm animals. Standard academic subjects like reading, writing, math, history, and art were also taught, however, these subjects emphasized American beliefs and values. For example, students were taught the importance of private property, materialized wealth, students were forced to convert to Christianity, and celebrate American holidays such as Columbus Day. the primary role of this education for Indian girls was to inculcate patriarchal norms and desires into Native communities, so that women would lose their places of leadership in Native communities. The rationale for choosing cultural rather than physical genocide was often economic.

Native students were not allowed to speak in their Native languages. They were only allowed to speak English regardless of their fluency and would face punishment if they didn’t. The discipline enforced at these boarding schools was severe. Punishments varied and included privilege restrictions, diet restrictions, threats of corporal punishment, and even confinement. Additionally, Native students were neglected and faced many forms of abuse including physical, sexual, cultural, and spiritual. Sexual, physical, and emotional violence was rampant. Even when teachers were charged with abuse, boarding schools refused to investigate. In the case of just one teacher, John Boone at the Hopi school, FBI investigations in 1987 found that he had sexually abused over 142 boys, but the principal of that school had not investigated any allegations of abuse (American Eagle, 1994). They were beaten, coerced into performing heavy labor. Their daily regimen consisted of several hours of marching and recreational time consisted of watching disturbing movies such as Cowboys and Indians.


Boarding schools became more susceptible to infections and diseases like tuberculosis, the flu, trachoma. Due to these conditions, Native students would become ill and die at these boarding schools often.

By the 1970s, these federal adoption and schooling programs had created what one congressional committee called a crisis of “massive proportions.” An estimated 25 to 35 percent of all Indian children were no longer living with their families but instead had been adopted or were living in institutions or foster homes, the vast majority of which were non-Indian. “The wholesale separation of Indian children from their families is perhaps the most tragic and destructive aspect of American Indian life today,” the committee wrote in a 1978 report.

Recently, the Truth Commission on Genocide in Canada issued a report that claims the involvement of mainline churches and the federal government in the murder of over 50,000 Native children through the Canadian residential school system. The list of offenses committed by church officials includes murder by beating, poisoning, hanging, starvation, strangulation, and medical experimentation. Torture was used to punish children for speaking Aboriginal languages. Children were involuntarily sterilized. In addition, the report found that church clergy, police, and business and government officials were involved in maintaining pedophile rings that used children from residential schools (Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001: 29). Charges were also raised that the grounds of several schools contained unmarked graveyards of children who were murdered, particularly those born due to the rape of Native girls by priests and other church officials at the school (Fournier, 1996).

This is how the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) was enacted. Congress enacted ICWA in 1978 to address the Federal, State, and private agency policies and practices that resulted in the ‘‘wholesale separation of Indian children from their families.’’ Congress found ‘‘that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions . . . . ’’ Although the crisis flowed from multiple causes, Congress found that non-Tribal public and private agencies had played a significant role, and that State agencies and courts had often failed to recognize the essential Tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families. To address this failure, ICWA establishes minimum Federal standards for the removal of Indian children from their families and the placement of these children in foster or adoptive homes and confirms Tribal jurisdiction over child-custody proceedings involving Indian children.

Documentary Resources:

Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding School,

Indian Child Welfare Act,

According to the National Indian Health Board, behavioral health services in Indian Country lack solid infrastructure support behavioral health challenges often encounter limited access to behavioral health services. With disproportionately high rates of depression, suicide, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse among the Native American community,387 and Native Americans and Alaska Natives experiencing some of the highest rates of psychological and behavioral health issues as compared to other racial and ethnic groups,388 there is a great need for access to services and adequate funding for quality behavioral health programs.

Compared to the general population, Native Americans experience significantly higher rates of psychological distress, mental health disorders, suicide, and alcohol and substance abuse.389 For example, in 2014, both Native American males and females had the highest suicide rates among other racial and ethnic groups at 27.4 deaths and 8.7 deaths respectively per 100,000.  Substance abuse disorder rates were found to be higher among the Native American population than among any other racial or ethnic group at 16 percent, as compared to non-Latino white people at 8 percent, non-Hispanic black people at 8.6 percent, Hispanic people at 8.5 percent, Asian people at 4.5 percent, and Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander people at 10 percent.  Additionally, the rate of alcohol-related deaths for Native Americans is six times greater than the rate for all races, at 49.6 deaths as compared to 8.0 deaths per 100,000. These behavioral health issues have a profound impact on individuals and communities in Indian Country.

NATIVE, Inc.’s after-school youth and evening family programs are designed to bring traditional healing practices and increased Indian education for the purposes of strengthening Tribal identity development and cultural connections for improved outcomes amongst Native American youth, adults and families living in the Bismarck and Fargo metropolitan areas. As a community-based organization providing many human services, this is an intentional strategy to prevent against many statistics impacting Native American populations, such as, high transiency rates, high school dropout rates, low academic scores, low school engagement levels, juvenile delinquency, criminal activity, addictions, suicide, triggers of mental health disorders, and unaddressed historical, intergenerational traumas.Instead, increase the success rates amongst Native Americans living a healthy lifestyle by being able to obtain their human needs (socially, culturally, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually) to strengthen their ability to build self-efficacy to pursue and obtaining successful life endeavors as an individual and as a family.Our strategy includes meeting the cultural connection and sense of belonging needs of Tribal and other Indigenous populations living in urban areas by providing them with a Native American community.

NATIVE, Inc. provides a community space for Native Americans to engage in and access culturally responsive programs and cultural connections to ensure their sense of belonging within mainstream communities. A culturally relevant environment with mentors and role models fosters a culture of resiliency and perseverance necessary for the development of self-efficacy amongst a population facing similar societal struggles. Culture is a protective factor to prevent suicide, anti-social and unruly behaviors, behavioral health, and health disparities. This is a safe community space for surrounding students and citizens within urban areas to access human, employment, transportation, housing, and financial services to meet the basic needs of their lives, to access educational and career opportunities, entrepreneurship, financial literacy, and leadership to improve their lives, and tribal cultural programs to develop self-esteem and cultural identities, to access Tribal, State, and local resources to supplement barriers caused by poverty and access referrals to case management services to prevent behavioral health, criminal behaviors, and homelessness.

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