Prompted by the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of former Indigenous residential schools in Canada, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced that her department will take steps to "reconcile the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies." Like me, Haaland has relatives who attended an American Indian government boarding school.
As a historian, I have been troubled by misinformation in regional and national media about the history of government boarding schools. Uncertainty exists over how long the boarding school era lasted, the ages of students, and how much coercion was used to make Indians attend the schools. Further, because some American Indians attended mission schools, which were separate institutions, the federal boarding school story gets mixed up in that history.
Secretary Haaland dates the boarding school era from 1819, probably because the U.S. funded missionaries in the early 19th century. In 1819, Minnesota was a Dakota and Ojibwe homeland, and they were the superpowers of the region, not the U.S. The few European settlers integrated into our communities and began speaking the dominant language, Dakota or Ojibwe.
The true boarding school era began in 1879 with the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and ended when public schools came to dominate Indian education, which was in the 1930s. So the government boarding school era lasted for about 50 years.
I offer up Boarding School 101, with an emphasis on Minnesota, to clarify the largest misconceptions.
Why did boarding schools exist?
Boarding schools were a counterpart to the land policies of the late 19th century, motivated by the allotment of Indian reservations.
A massive dispossession took place when the government privatized reservations and allowed U.S. citizens to plunder land that tribes had held in common. This is when White Earth lost over 90% of its reservation. The goal of boarding schools was to retrain young Indians for a new future, one in which they no longer needed a tribal homeland.
How many off-reservation government boarding schools were in Minnesota and the U.S.?
In Minnesota, one. The MNOPEDIA site counts 17, but this is mixing together government and mission schools. There was one off-reservation government boarding school, at Pipestone. There was also a school at Morris operated by the Catholic Church, and by the U.S. for a decade.
Nationally, there were 25 off-reservation boarding schools. Carlisle was established in 1879 at the end of the Indian Wars. The children of the American Indian prisoners of war, including incarcerated Apache families, were sent to Carlisle. They were the first boarding school generation. Some students at Carlisle were surprisingly old, like the famous athlete Jim Thorpe. Compulsory attendance laws passed in the 1890s made school attendance mandatory.
Boarding schools primarily educated children and youth over the age of 12, who had already attended an on-reservation school. All schools, including public schools, demanded English language education, contributing to the language decline and cultural loss we face today.
When did the boarding school era end?
The short answer is that since Franklin Roosevelt's administration, Indians have gone to public schools. Carlisle closed in 1918. The last such school built was the Sherman Institute in Riverside, Calif., in 1902.
Significant political and educational reforms culminated in new policies under FDR. The U.S. moved toward public school integration for American Indians. It is ironic, then, that the decade of highest boarding school enrollment was the 1930s. This came largely at the request of American Indian families, who used boarding schools as a form of poverty relief during the Great Depression. Some boarding schools continued, but with different policies from their predecessors.
Did children die and were they buried at school?
Yes. During this half century a tuberculosis epidemic plagued the U.S. The communal environment of boarding schools spread tuberculosis and trachoma, an eye disease. Some schools, like Flandreau, maintained a hospital, while Haskell had a school cemetery.
Illness and deaths at boarding schools are documented in letters, as the heads of schools wrote to parents, and parents wrote back to schools concerned about their children. Correspondence abounds; this is not an unknown history. Boarding school records show students being transferred to tuberculosis sanitariums, and others who became gravely ill, who were usually sent home. The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 also contributed to boarding school deaths.
Were boarding schools genocidal?
Yes. One way U.S. leaders envisioned the disappearance of American Indians was through "civilizing" and "assimilating" their young people into American society. Boarding schools existed to accomplish this self-serving goal, and to bolster land policies that resulted in Indian dispossession and impoverishment.
How were U.S. boarding schools different from Canada's residential schools?
There were two major ways in which Canada's residential schools were unlike those in the U.S. First, the U.S. did not farm out Indian education to the Catholic and Anglican churches. In Canada, the churches ran residential schools. As we have learned from Canada, church-run schools located at a distance from the protection of the Indian community left students vulnerable to sexual abuse, violence and death.
Second, once the impoverishment and dispossession of American Indians was complete, it was no longer necessary in the U.S. to keep Indians in segregated schools. Progressive educators found little resistance to public school integration. By the 1930s, they even disparaged the boarding schools as "medieval institutions." Residential schools continued for another 50 years in Canada.
How do we remember boarding school today?
Boarding school remains a burning historical memory for Indians. Like the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee, boarding school is symbolic of American colonialism at its most genocidal. American Indians today often use boarding school as a metaphor for what I would call "colonialism."
It is a tribute to our ancestors when we get their history right. There is no single boarding school narrative. As we take time to remember those students who died, we must also be mindful of resistance and resilience in the historical records of American Indian students who survived an education for assimilation.
Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Ojibwe) is Northrop professor of American Studies and American Indian Studies at the University of Minnesota; the author of "Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940," and a contributor to the exhibit "Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories," the Heard Museum, Phoenix.