Ethnic Studies. American Indian Boarding School

The American Indian boarding school experience is one that has been deeply associated with political and socio-cultural domination of the American Indians by the whites. The history of these boarding schools begins with Richard Henry Pratt, who had initially served in the Civil War, in the Tenth Cavalry Regiment of Buffalo Soldier, in the southern plains of America. The prisoners of war were taken to reserve camps and the Florida Prisoners of War camps. The programs that were being carried out in these camps were aimed at attaining forced civilizations and involved the forceful teaching of English until 1878, when this program was stopped, with attention being shifted to schools.

Pratt and his proteges, in the quest to realize the eradication of the native American Indians’ cultural observations and practices, and to instead inculcate Americanism, were supported by humanitarians, idealists, and church leaders. This team had an ideological explanation behind its effort, the ideology having the motto, “Save the man, kill the Indian.” These antagonists maintained that the domestication of wild turkeys was analogous to this effort. The illustration given was that it was possible for wild turkey eggs to be mothered by a domesticated hen to have well domesticated turkeys. The then psychologists branded this as the tinkering of kind treatment with civilized life to produce a socially refined society (Katanski, 2007 pp. 75).

The efforts, in a nutshell, were aimed at totally uprooting the tribal past and culture of the native American Indians so as to obtain from them full participation. This demanded the strict eradication of any traces of any native American custom, religious beliefs, language, and culture- a feat that was much achievable when carried out at the pristine times of personal development; hence, the American Indian boarding schools were opened.

The recruitment of pupils

First and foremost, the methodologies that were used in the conscription of children into these schools at first included the use of cultural neo-colonial propaganda. For instance, the elderly native Indians were told that they lost their land to the Washichu (white men) because they (the Indians) were not learned back then. In the same vein, the natives failed to protect themselves due to a lack of education. The result of this was that there were cases of voluntary sending of the native American Indian children to these industrial boarding schools initially. The first pockets to be sent to these schools were the descendants of the Red Cloud and the Spotted Tails (Ibid, pp 106).

After these developments, there were cases of resistance against these programs by the native American Indians, a situation which led to the inception of new coercive approaches by the whites on the native Americans. For instance, it is reported that the then Commissioner of Indian affairs, Morgan Thomas Jefferson, could use the police force to instill brutality against these dissidents (Trafzer, 2006 pp. 84). To further entrench more formability to this end, it was not seldom for the Commissioner to ratify the cutting of supplies (food, water, medical services, and clothes) to the adults. In desperate situations, there could also be the dispatching of the military personnel into the program.

In the same wavelength, there were also myriads of cases of confiscation of properties and their subsequent incineration. Some of these properties that were subjected to this undertaking included personal effects and properties, some of which were sacred material cultures such as the medicine bags, the buckskin clothes, and braids. While the immediate goal was aimed at demoralizing the fighting spirit of the native American Indians, it is also true that this was also aimed at producing the long-term effect of cultural assimilation and domination of the same. This is evidently seen in the fact that the personal effects that had been burnt were forcefully replaced with the white man’s clothes.

In some places such as Alcatraz, parents who stood in the way of the recruitment programs were incarcerated, with the majority of the victims to this undertaking being the Hopi nation, where the native American Indian people were arrested and jailed by their tens of thousands.

The state of affairs in the American Indian boarding schools

Almost without any exception, the American Indian boarding schools were characterized with preponderant cases of children and human rights abuse which touched on all spheres of personal development. These are discussed forthwith.

Beatings and physical abuse

In order to inculcate cultural domination in the children, the use of the mother tongue was proscribed. The penalty that was to be meted out on a dissident entailed thorough beatings. Some of these spates of beatings did cost the children their lives. One of the sociologists in the US, and a former student in these schools, Wright, accounts how his colleague had his head burst agape in the Steward Industrial School in Nevada. To hide the whole truth, Wright, a witness to this incident, was ordered to remain silent on the issue, or else the same fate was to follow him (Child, 1998 pp. 129).

These children would, in most cases, be subjected to intense manual labor. The situation was bad such that children aged 10- 12 years could spend four hours on the farm, industrial, laundry, or kitchen work (Coontz et al., 1998 pp. 450). If not any of the above, then there were still shops to take care of. This practice had been made legit by the educational programs and was christened “the half a day program.” This program intimated that these American Indian boarding schools were financially distressed, and therefore could not afford essentials such as soap and victuals. To reverse this situation, the administrators of these schools suggested that the native American Indian children were to spend half of the day toiling and the rest of the day studying. However, educationalists have dismissed these allegations as mere artifices to undermine the native American Indians. These educationalists and activists cite the sponsoring of public schools as a contradiction to this reasoning.

In the face of all these developments, the native American Indian children were subjected to malnutrition. The children, according to the Meriam Report (Ibid, 345), sometimes went on two meals per day. In addition to this, these children were served very little morsels of food. The diet was seldom balanced and appealing. These meals were often served in unhygienic conditions given the fact that these boarding schools were understaffed, especially the kitchen department. Cases of stomach upset and digestive tract illnesses were not unique, with each school in a month registering a minimum of 217 complaints in a month (Ibid, 342).

Conversely, children who could speak English and those who were docile and learned were not spared either. On the contrary, this pocket was used by the administrators as informants. This bred internal acrimony between this group and the rest of the students. The bad blood between two rivalries, one being the minority and the other, the majority, is the last thing that was needed in an overcrowded school. Apart from these cases, these children were exposed to athletic activities too intensive for their age.


It was not uncommon in the American Indian boarding schools administration to subject the native American Indians children to torture. The Merian Report (Fixico, 2003 pp. 212), which harshly criticized the government as the initiator of this program, pointed out that, for instance, in the Carlisle Boarding school, children were forced to eat Lye soap as part of the punishment. Bill Wright, a Pattwin Indian, also gave accounts on how in the Stewart Indian School of Nevada, children were bathed in kerosene and then forcefully shaved off their hair (Stromberg, 2006, 219).


Apart from the Merian Report, the Kennedy Report (Klug, 2002 pp. 299) also divulges how the physical conditions surrounding the schools were dilapidated and with no proper sanitation. In most cases, the toilets were too few for the high student population. Both The rooms and the entire schools were too small, with the former being all too few. Because of these prospects, there were familiar cases of overcrowding. The children also were subjected to the very short circulation of towels and soaps in a very academically sterile and impersonal environment. The rules, conditions, and the environment were too rigid for the academic and social development of the children, not to mention the lack of privacy which made unique these overcrowded American Indian boarding schools.

Emotional abuse

The native American Indian children, while in these American Indian boarding schools, were subjected to cases of emotional and psychological torment. All these children were subjected to cases of homesickness due to the fact that most of these children had been forcefully taken to these schools. Floyd Red Crow, the late Indian activist, and actor, 60 years after the forceful admission into one of these schools, was able to recall vividly how he left the neighborhood with virtually all mothers therein crying for their children (Katanski, 2007 pp. 43). The children were further exposed to more confusion as those who displayed homesickness were ridiculed and denigrated.

It is also sure that massive cases of alienation were bound to follow due to the fact that most petitions by these children to be allowed some few days off to be with parents were turned down by the administration. This matter was made worse by the fact that 90% of these schools (an example being the Flandreau Industrial school ) exercised heavy drilling programs, which carried out 3- 4 years of assimilation programs (Child, 1998 pp. 112). This meant that in some of these institutions, children were taking more than three years before reuniting with their parents. Cases are preponderant with a unique theme of the native American Indians going back home after these educational boarding school programs, only to encounter communication breakdown and no common topic of discussion to engage their relatives and neighbors in.

Emotional abuse also stemmed from the fact that the native American Indians were being forced to go to these schools, yet, they were not being allowed to attend public schools. This was because public schools were considered exclusive reservations for white children.

This means that these American Indian boarding schools were subjected to stigmatization, being branded as the reserves for the inferior and the poor.

The effects stemming from these forms of psychological torments translated into confusion ( a case which was vividly portrayed in the form of nightmares) and resentment. Resentments among these children are clearly displayed by the children coining insulting epithets to teachers, writing to the administrators manipulative anonymous letters, fighting off one another, and the setting of schools on fire, as was evident in Chiloco Indian School (Trafzer, 2006 pp. 23). The main point of concern for psychologists and sociologists is the fear that the victims of these ordeals may inadvertently translate this form of harshness into their homes. Sociologists and psychologists maintain that a child who is exposed to any condition (irrespective of the goodness or badness of that condition) will in turn consciously or subconsciously display the conditions through behavior on becoming adults. This agrees in totality with the personality theory of Behaviorism.

Exposure to harsh military training

The Kennedy Report maintains that over 95% (Klug, 2002 pp. 259) of these boarding schools subjected the children to very harsh military exercises. The report goes on to state how the militaristic regimentation exercises and disciplines were carried out. In most cases, for instance, in the Carlisle and in the Minnesota Ojibwe Boarding Schools, the native American Indian children were denied enough sleep, courtesy of the fact that they were woken up as early as 05: 00 AM. for military training. Accompanying this undertaking was a rigorous athletic activity that entailed the children covering at least 2 kilometers, their age differences notwithstanding. In the same wavelength, both sexes were lined up for the same military exercises. No segregations were observed in any sense.

Cultural loss

Most sociologists, social philosophers, together with the native American Indians, have always viewed the American Indian boarding schools as tools that were used to eradicate the culture of the native American Indians and to inculcate the cultural practices of the whites. This group cites the practices that were carried out in these schools as evidence of these accusations. For instance, the long hairs that were spotted by the native American Indians were forcefully ( and sometimes brutally) cut off and then incinerated. The dressing customs of the native American Indians were not spared either: these children were forced to change their dresses for the white man’s vestments.

The native American Indians and social scientists also posit that the native American Indian children were introduced to ontological concepts of space and time that were new and unfamiliar to the native Amerindians. The system of counting seasons by using ritual observations was changed. Instead, counting of days and time was limited and attached to the counting of the calendar days, which was purely a white man’s way of quantifying time. This, in turn, ushered in the dissipation of cyclic cultural observations that led to the formation of the age-set system. In every way, this was also an artifice to weaken the military might of the native American Indians since the age sets in the native American Indian culture formed the warrior units.

In schools, the children were not allowed to use their native language or any other language save English. This helped quickly erode the culture of the American Indians due to the fact that language is the medium in which a society’s culture is preserved and relayed to successive generations. Once there is a communication barrier that touches on the use of languages, then that society’s culture is considered endangered since it cannot be passed on from one generation to the next. These cases are rife among the American Indians who underwent these programs. For instance, Wright, a sociologist, admits that as a victim, he lost both his native name and language, a development that led to a communication barrier between him and his grandmother (Child, 1998 pp. 54).

In addition to this, the native American Indian children, while in these schools, were prevailed upon by the administrators to drop their indigenous religions for Christianity. In the same vein, these children were forced to take on Christian and European names in lieu of their indigenous ones. There were no wriggling rooms here: failure to subscribe to these conditions was met with punitive measures that no dissident could withstand. These were rules that were to be followed, not recommendations.

The division of labor according to gender, otherwise known as gender roles were also changed, and these changes were instilled in the minds of these children in these schools. This happened when the children in these schools began to be taught that anyone could carry out any task. The actualization of these teaching took place when the native American Indian children were in these schools assigned roles that crossed their sex.

Recreation times were not spared these cultural blackmails either: the movies that were shown to the native American Indian children almost always had the “American cowboys and Indians” theme. In these movies, the Indians were portrayed as weak, effeminate in strength, lacking military knowledge and techniques, and socio-culturally inferior. On the other hand, the whites were depicted as superior on all these fronts, and therefore easily outwitting the American Indians in any combat.

Cultural blackmail could not get any worse than the children being taught that there were no good Indians, save one that was dead. The refining of this maxim that by the word Indian, it is meant the American Indian culture, and that a good Indian is one from whom these socio-cultural leanings have been immolated at the behest of civilization, does not placate any anger or animosity either.

Sicknesses and deaths

The native American Indian children in these institutions were attacked by illnesses that were foreign to the immune system of the native American Indians. These diseases were tuberculosis, smallpox, pneumonia, among others. These by themselves caused deaths by hundreds in the Carlisle Boarding School alone in the first year (Coontz et al., 1998 pp. 23). Other causes of death came due to the fact that the teachers, janitors, or the administrators always locked the fire emergency doors to the cubicles and never resurfaced to save the situation during fire outbreaks. Others died by the hundreds due to botched escape attempts. All these, combined with those who lost their lives during the rigorous activities and punishments in these schools, amounted to a substantial number of deaths.


The failure of these forceful American Indian boarding school educational programs can be evidently traced to the fact that there were no intentions geared towards equipping the American Indians to be self-reliant. This is testified of by the fact that the main emphasis of this program was the training of boys and girls to serve as a home or local farmhands and as frontline soldiers in the American wars. The education program was also aimed at laying off from the American Indians’ minds the beliefs on dignity, land ownership, and dignity.

To this effect, basic concepts that touched on mathematics and English were only adumbrated on, while at the same time, the whites were claiming that they were aiming at instilling self-reliance and creativity. More contradictions and insincerity are further betrayed by the fact that even as far as in the 1960s, the whites, still citing their civilizing missions, continued to mete out this punitive measure against these students. However, sociologists and child psychologists are clear this that these disciplinary measures were more of restrictive nature than developmental. Restrictive nature of discipline arrests the development of a child, while developmental discipline fosters social, psychological, and intellectual growth.

Work cited

Child, Brenda. The American Indian families: The boarding school experiences (1900- 1940). Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 1998.

Coontz, Stephanie et al. A multicultural reading on the American families. London: Routledge, 1998.

Fixico, Donald. The American Indian studies: the mind of the American Indian. London: Routledge, 2003.

Katanski, Amelia. Learning to write: Boarding school experience and the American Wars. Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.

Klug, Beverly. Relevant cultural pedagogy for the American Indian children. London: Routledge, 2002.

Stromberg, Ernest. The American Indian rhetorics: medicine and word. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh, 2006.

Trafzer, Clifford. The boarding school blues: Revisiting the Amerindian educational experiences. Nebraska: University of Nebraska, 2006.

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