Indian Boarding Schools
Prior to colonization, American Indian and Alaska Native practices and beliefs about raising a child allowed a natural system of child protections to flourish. Traditional Indian spiritual beliefs reinforce that all things have a spiritual nature that demands respect, including children. Traditionally, not only are children respected, but they are taught to respect others. Extraordinary patience and tolerance mark the methods that have been and are still used today to teach Native children self-discipline. At the heart of a natural system are beliefs, traditions, and customs involving extended family with clear roles and responsibilities. Responsibilities shared by extended family and community members make the protection of children the responsibility of all people in the community. Within the natural safety net of traditional tribal settings and beliefs, child maltreatment was rarely a problem.
Many traditional tribal child rearing practices were devalued or lost as the United States government sought to systematically assimilate Native people.
Federal Indian policy is characterized by alternating policies toward American Indian/Alaska Native tribes—on the one hand attempting forced assimilation of Native people into mainstream America and on the other hand recognizing and supporting tribal governments and distinct American Indian/Alaska Native cultures (Deloria, 1985; NCAI, 2020; O’Brien, 1989).
There are many detailed timelines of federal Indian policy. For example, see this chronological timeline by Dr. Karina Walters. Because of its significant impact on Native children and families, the federal Indian boarding school policy is widely acknowledged to be precursor to the forced removal of Native children from their families by public and private child welfare agencies, which accelerated in the 1960s as boarding schools waned. For more information about American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments and federal Indian policy, see Tribal Nations and the United States: An Introduction created by the National Congress of American Indians.
The Boarding School Era in the United States
As described in detail by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS, 2021), the federal policies that launched, grew, and sustained the Indian boarding school movement began with the Indian Civilization Fund Act (1819) and the Peace Policy (1869). According to Volume 1 of the Federal Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report produced by the U.S. Department of the Interior in May 2022, 408 federal schools in 37 states and territories operated in the United States between 1819 – 1969.
“The investigation found that the federal Indian boarding school system deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children through education, including but not limited to renaming Indian children from Indian to English names; cutting the hair of Indian children; discouraging or preventing the use of American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian languages, religions and cultural practices; and organizing Indian and Native Hawaiian children into units to perform military drills.
Despite assertions to the contrary, the investigation found that the school system largely focused on manual labor and vocational skills that left American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian graduates with employment options often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies” (DOI, 2022).
Both the Administration and Congress have roles in continuing to investigate and document this history, facilitating truth-telling, in order to provide an opportunity for healing.
In announcing the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in a press release on June 22, 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland said, “The Interior Department will address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be. I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative is proceeding in several phases with Volume 1 released on May 11, 2022. Supervised by Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, the work includes collecting records and information related to the Department of the Interior’s own oversight and implementation of the Indian boarding school program; formal consultation with tribal nations to clarify the processes and procedures for protecting identified burial sites and associated information; and the submission of a final written report on the investigation to Secretary Haaland.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative work will continue, building on the recommendations from the Volume 1 report. Secretary Haaland launched the “The Road to Healing,” a year-long tour across the country to provide an opportunity for American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian survivors of the federal Indian boarding school system to share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support, and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history.
A second volume of their report will include producing a list of marked and unmarked burial sites at federal Indian boarding schools and an approximation of the total amount of federal funding used to support the federal Indian boarding school system. They will also continue to determine the lasting impacts of the school system on American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities today.
The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative can be complemented by the creation of a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policy in the United States. Legislation to establish such a Commission was introduced in 2020 and again in 2021 when U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and U.S. Representative Sharice Davids (D-KS) introduced companion bills, S. 2907 and H.R. 5444, called the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. The legislation establishes a commission to formally document and investigate Indian boarding school policies and practices in the United States. The commission members are appointed by Senate and House of Representatives leadership and the president. The legislation also establishes an advisory committee to provide advice and recommendations to the commission that include, but are not limited to:
- National Indian organizations with expertise in child welfare, education, and boarding school issues
- Federal agencies, such as Bureau of Indian Education, Office of Indian Education in the Department of Education, and Commissioner of the Administration for Native Americans
- Members of federally recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations
- Mental health, healthcare, or Native healing practitioners that have experience working with descendants of board school students
- Family members of students that attended boarding schools, current teachers, and students that have attended a boarding school in the past or currently are attending one
The commission will hold public hearings to gather evidence and will make recommendations on how to address and heal the historical and intergenerational trauma caused by Indian boarding school policies and practices. The commission collaborates and exchanges information with the Department of Interior during the ongoing investigation. Congressional action is needed to enact the legislation, including appropriating a budget sufficient to will fund the commission’s work.
On May 12, 2022, the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States held a legislative hearing on H.R. 5444, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. Those testifying included several Indian boarding school survivors. The written testimony and a recording of the hearing are available on the Subcommittee for Indigenous Peoples of the United States hearing page of the Natural Resources Committee website.
The Canadian Experience: Residential Schools
Indian boarding school policies were not unique to the United States. The Indigenous peoples of many colonized countries, including Australia, Canada, and New Zealand were subjected to boarding schools.
Canada attempted to investigate and document Indian residential schools 15 years before the United States, and thus, has had a better grasp of the number and locations of schools, records of children who attended specific schools, records detailing the policies and treatment of children who attended those schools, and, profoundly, first-person accounts of the survivors of Indian boarding schools.
In 2007, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history, began to be implemented. One element of the agreement was the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC). The Canadian Government spent about $72 million from 2007-2015 to support the TRC’s work, including six years of travel across Canada to gather testimony from more than 6,500 witnesses and seven national events to educate the Canadian public about the history and legacy of the residential school system, and share and honor the experiences of former students and their families. The historical record of the Indian residential school system includes more than five million records provided by the Government of Canada, now housed as the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba. In December 2015, the TRC published its six-volume final report, including 94 “calls-to-action” (or recommendations) to further the reconciliation between Canadians and Indigenous peoples. At the five-year anniversary of the release of the TRC final report, many of these calls to action remain unimplemented.
In May 2021, the discovery of 215 children’s bodies buried in unmarked graves at the site of Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, shocked, horrified, and outraged people from around the world. However, the discovery was not a surprise to many Indigenous peoples because they were told about the child deaths and graves by Indian residential school survivors, most recently documented in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This was but one more example of how Indigenous peoples and communities in Canada and the U.S. still suffer from individual and collective unresolved grief and trauma related to the long history of parallel practice for over 110 years of voluntary or forced removal of Native children from their families and placement in government-funded, church-run boarding/residential schools hundreds or thousands of miles away.
Deloria Jr., V. (1985). American Indian policy in the 20th century. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
National Congress of American Indians. (2020, February). An introduction to Indian nations in the United States. Washington, DC: Author.
National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (2020, June). Healing voices volume 1: A primer on American Indian and Alaska Native boarding schools in the U.S., 2nd Edition. Minneapolis, MN: Author.
O’Brien, S. (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). (2022, May). Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative investigative report. Washington, DC: Author.
Indian boarding schools in the U.S.
- Volume 1 of the Federal Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report
- Appendix A and B
- Appendix C
- National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition
- National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition Healing Voices Volume 1: A Primer on American Indian and Alaska Native Boarding Schools in the U.S.