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History and Culture

Boarding Schools

The boarding school experience for Indian children began in 1860 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the first boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. These schools were part of a plan devised by well-intentioned, eastern reformers led by Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast who also helped establish organizations such as the Board of Indian Commissioners, the Boston Indian Citizenship Association and the Women’s National Indian Association.

The goal of these reformers was to use education as a tool to “assimilate” Indian tribes into the mainstream of the “American way of life;” the Protestant Republican ideology of the mid-19th century. Indian people would be taught the importance of private property, material wealth and monogamous nuclear families. The reformers assumed that it was necessary to “civilize” Indian people, make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems.

Schools were the ideal instrument for absorbing people and ideologies that stood in the way of republican millennial destiny. Schools would be able to quickly assimilate Indian youth. The first priority of the boarding schools would be to provide the rudiments of academic education: reading, writing and speaking of the English language. Arithmetic, science, history and the arts would be added to open the possibility of discovering the “self directing power of thought.” Indian youth would be individualized. Religious training in Christianity would be taught. The principles of democratic society, institutions and the political structure would give the students citizenship training. The goal was to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture. By the 1880s there were 60 schools with 6,200 Indian students in the United States. There were two forms of schools on the reservation: the reservation day school and the reservation boarding school. The reservation day school had the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and caused the least opposition from parents. The reservation boarding school spent one-half day teaching English and academics and a half-day was given over to industrial training. However, it was felt that reservation schools were not sufficiently removed from the influences of tribal life. The non-reservation boarding school would be, in the eyes of the assimilationists, the best school for changing Indian children into members of the white society.

The most well known of all the non-reservation boarding schools was the school established in Carlisle, Pennsylvania by Col. Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. His goal was complete assimilation. Headmaster of the Carlisle Indian School for twenty-five years, he was the single most important figure in Indian education during his time. His motto was, “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

Pratt believed that off-reservation schools established in white communities could accomplish this task. By immersing Indians into the mainstream of American life, the “outing” system created by Pratt, had students live among white families during the summer. He hoped to have Indian youths not return to the reservations, but become part of the white community. Carlisle was the only off-reservation boarding school built in the East, all others were built in the West.

Carlisle as well as other non-reservation boarding school instituted their assault on the cultural identity by first doing away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. Boys had their long hair cut. All children were given standard uniforms to wear. They received new “white” names, including surnames which it was felt would help when property was inherited. Traditional Indian foods were abandoned and students had to acquire the food rites of white society, including knives, forks, spoons, napkins and tablecloths. Regimentation was the order of the day and students spent endless hours marching to and from classes, meals and dormitories. Order, discipline and self-restraint were all prized values of white society.

Discipline, which varied at different schools, consisted of confinement, deprivation of privileges, threat of corporal punishment or restriction of diet. In addition to coping with the severe discipline, Indian students were ravaged by disease at boarding schools. Tuberculosis and trachoma, “sore eyes,” were the greatest threats. In December of 1899 measles broke out at the Phoenix Indian School. By January it had reached epidemic proportions. Before it ended 325 cases of measles, 60 cases of pneumonia, and nine deaths had been recorded within a 10-day period.

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, 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, while at other schools the method of teaching English, showing students an object card such as CAT, shown, written, pronounced and traced did not produce the comprehension for those words which had no equivalent in their native tongue.

The schools hoped to produce students who were economically self-sufficient by teaching work skills and instill values and beliefs of possessive individualism, meaning that you care about yourself and what you as a person own. This opposed the basic Indian belief of communal ownership, the land was for all people.

Half of each school day was given over to industrial training. Girls learned to cook, clean, sew and care for poultry. Boys learned industrial skills such as blacksmithing, shoemaking or performed manual labor such as farming. Since the schools were required to be as self-sufficient as possible, students did the majority of the work. Boys farmed and raised food, girls made clothes, cooked, served meals and did the laundry for the entire institution. By 1900 practicality became the goal and schools moved even further toward industrial training while academics languished.

The “outing” program developed at Carlisle placed Indian students in the community during the summer. The program took three forms: summer months only, one year at a time, with children placed , in urban and industrial settings, where they could learn skills other than farming. While monitored carefully at Carlisle, other outing programs were often exploitive. In Phoenix girls became the major source of domestic labor for white families. Boys were usually only able to obtain jobs as seasonal harvest workers or take jobs that neither white or even immigrant labor wanted. In Phoenix the children were not well supervised and learned very little from their outing experience.

Conversion to Christianity was deemed essential. Schools were expected to develop programs of religious instruction. Emphasis was placed on the Ten Commandments, the beatitudes and psalms. Implanting ideas of sin and a sense of guilt were part of Sunday schools. Christianity governed gender relations at the schools and most schools invested their energy in keeping the sexes apart, in some cases endangering the lives of the students, by locking girls in their dormitories at night, so that they might not get out, even in the case of fire. There were, however, ritualized social activities such as dances and promenades.

Carlisle had a football team, coached by “Pop” Warner, Phoenix also had football that played against other local white schools. Phoenix also had a band that performed all during the summer at various festivals and parades. Both activities were meant to support the idea that Indian people were capable of competing with whites.

The schools taught history with a definite white bias. Indian students were taught that Columbus Day was not only a banner day in history but also a beneficent development in their own race’s fortune. Only after discovery did Indians enter the stream of history. Thanksgiving was a holiday to celebrate “good” Indians having aided the brave pilgrim fathers. New Year’s was a reminder of how white people kept track of time and Washington’s birthday served as a reminder of the “great white father.” On Memorial Day some students at off-reservation schools were made to decorate the graves of soldiers sent to kill their fathers.

Indian people resisted these schools in various ways. Sometimes entire villages refused schooling. When they refused to enroll their children in white men’s schools, Indian agents on the reservations normally resorted to withholding rations or sending in agency police. In some cases police were sent onto reservations to seize children, whether they were willing or not. The police continued to take children until the school was filled, so sometimes orphans were offered and in other cases families would bargain, negotiating a family quota. Navajo policemen avoided taking “prime” children and would take less intelligent or physically impaired children or those not well cared for.

Parents would band together to withdraw the students en masse, encourage runaways and undermine the schools influence during vacations. In 1893 the U.S. courts said that parents had a legal right to deny their children’s transfer to off-reservation schools. Once the courts ruled in the parents favor, some families used this right keep their children on the reservation. Some parents saw white education for what it was the total destruction of Indian culture. Others objected to specific aspects of the education system, the manner of discipline, the drilling. Still others were concerned for their children’s health. They associated the schools with death. Resentment of the boarding schools was most severe because the schools broke the most fundamental of human ties, the parent child bond.


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