Effects of Indian Boarding Schools

By: Chloe Rickman and Hailey Hollinshead

What Caused the Boarding Schools?

The years following the Homestead Act, conflicts arose between settlers and Indians. After many of the settlers moved west, battles between the Indians and settlers became a regular occurrence. The Dawes Act of 1887 forced Indian Boarding schools to be built. The deculturalization of Native Americans began with the construction of the first Indian Boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. By the 1880s there were 60 schools built with 6,200 Indian students in attendance. The majority of the boarding schools were built by Christian missionaries and the federal government(1) . In the late nineteenth century, Indian boarding schools stripped Native Americans of their culture, therefore, having negative psychological and cultural consequences. The conditions the Boarding Schools enforced caused these negative effects.

The picture to the left shows many students outside of one of the first Indian boarding schools. C.R.

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Three Lakota boys, Carlisle, ca. 1900.

"I'll never forget. All the mothers were crying" -David Westerman

The government initially forced Native American families to send their children to the boarding schools. Later Indian families chose to send their children to the boarding schools because there were no other schools available. Many children, including David Westerman, were seized from their families and left under the impression that they were unwanted. During an interview, David told a reporter that he thought his mother was sending him away because she didn’t want him. Then he realized she was crying as he looked at her from the departing train window. "It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that," Westerman said. "I'll never forget. All the mothers were crying."(2) According to Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona,The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for American Indians, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. Lomawaima says that's not the only reason families let their children go. "For many communities, for a variety of reasons, federal school was the only option," she says. "Public schools were closed to Indians because of racism."(3) H.H.
Caption for picture below: Carlisle Superintendent, Richard H. Pratt

"Kill the Indian, Save the Man" -Richard Pratt

An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools. He based it on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison. He described his philosophy in a speech he gave in 1892. "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," Pratt said. "In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." Basically he was promoting taking away the Native heritage and replacing it with mainstream American culture. The first step at many schools was changing the names of the Indian children. Almost immediately upon the children's arrival at the schools, they were given American names and had their meaningful Native names taken away during the long time away from home. In 1945, Bill Wright, a Pattwin Indian, was sent to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada. “I remember coming home and and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her. I said “Grandma I don't understand you,’ ” Wright said. “She said, “Then who are you?” Wright said he told her his name was Billy. " 'Your name's not Billy. Your name's 'TAH-rruhm,' " she told him. "And I went, 'That's not what they told me.' "(4) H.H.

Taking Away Names and Hair


Their names were crucial to their identity but long hair was the pride of all Indians. Cutting one’s hair short is a violation of most traditional Native American beliefs. The kids, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and they had to put on the clothes of the “White Man”. The days were bad, but the nights were much worse. This was when the loneliness set in, for it was when they knew that they were all alone. Many boys ran away from the schools because the treatment was so bad, but most of them were caught and brought back by the police(5). At the age of five, Walter Littlemoon was removed from his family to attend a federal government boarding school. Littlemoon says they were also forbidden to speak their language. “The word ‘education’ there is something that my mother had agreed to,” Littlemoon recalls. “But that isn’t what we got. It was almost like a re-education camp where we were supposed to be turned into something else that we weren’t. So, we were always called being uncivilized…or we were uncivilized. We were savages. We couldn’t learn…and so they had to do these things this way in order for us to learn."(6) H.H.

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- This picture depicts the rapid change in appearance of Tom Torlino, a Carlisle school student, before and after spending time at the school. - C.R.

Speak in English or Don't Speak At All

Among other things, the students language was limited as well. Students were not allowed to speak their native languages, not even to each other. The Carlisle school rewarded those who refrained from speaking their own language, but most other schools relied on punishment. At the better non-reservation schools a reasonable degree of literacy was attained in a relatively short period of time. However, at most schools, English was taught primarily by emphasizing word call, with little attention directed toward comprehension activities. Techniques utilized included a “flash card mentality” in which students would be shown a card with the word written on it and they would be asked to copy/trace, and orally repeat the word. Additionally, many words taught had no equivalent in the students native tongue. Poor teaching methods increased the difficulty of speaking another language. If a student was caught speaking his or her native language a severe punishment was administered(7). “When we got talking, ’cause we’re not allowed to talk our tribal language and then me and my cousin, we get together and we talk in Indian we always hush up when we see a teacher or faculty coming. And then we always laughed and said, “I think they’re trying to make little white boys out of us.” —Charles Chibitty, Comanche Code Talker, National Museum of the American Indian interview, 2004(8). H.H.
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- This picture shows a group of Chiricahua Apache students on their first day of school in comparison to a picture taken four months later. - C.R.

Military Lifestyle and Inhumane Punishments

You might be wondering what everyday life was like for the attendees of the boarding schools. A military lifestyle including harsh discipline and high expectations was common. Let us take into consideration that some of the children attending these schools were as young as 5 years old. Merril Sandoval, a Navajo Code Talker, thought back to her schooling. During an interview in 2004 she said, “We even had to march to school, march to chow, march everywhere, to church. It was still kind of military basis. So when we were in the service everything just came natural, physically and morally and everything(9). For decades there were reports that students in the boarding schools were abused and subject to sexual harassment. Children were forced to do hard labor, were malnourished and beaten. “They beat you with a...like a carriage whip ...flexible end on it…hit you on the legs,” remembered Littlemoon. “And then there was a shorter…like a little horse cord…a little shorter whip. And they used that on your back or your shoulders. And the third one was what we called the ape stick. A boat paddle with holes drilled in it.” Walter Littlemoon said during an interview. Another common punishment was kneeling on pencils(10). Bill Wright, a Pattwin Indian and an attendee of Stewart Indian School in Nevada, recalls a horrifying memory concerning a teacher hitting a student. "Busted his head open and blood got all over," Wright recalls. "I had to take him to the hospital, and they told me to tell them he ran into the wall and I better not tell them what really happened." Wright says that he still has nightmares about the severe disciplinary process from his younger years. The severe punishments that the Indian children faced caused long lasting effects that have been connected with increased violence and domestic abuse. "You grow up with discipline, but when you grow up and you have families, then what happens? If you're my daughter and you leave your dress out, I'll knock you through that wall. Why? Because I'm taught discipline," Wright said(11). H.H.
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Carlisle Indian Industrial School, ca. 1890, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
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Battling the Trauma To This Day

What was the main priority shared by these schools? To assimilate the Native American traditional culture, values and beliefs through the educational system. During the process of stripping away the Indians heritage it caused many negative physiological effects. The damage from the early abuse in many Native American lives has noted as an increasing factor in illnesses that plague the tribes today. Passed from generation to generation, high rates of poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, depression and suicide have been noted by researchers(12). The legacy left behind from these schools is a tragic one with traumatic effects that are still being battled with to this day. H.H.

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