History and Historiography

Erasing Native American culture

The U.S. and Canada are starting to face their history of forcing indigenous children into abusive boarding schools. Here’s everything you need to know:

What was the school’s goal?

Simply put, cultural genocide. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the U.S. government and religious leaders used compulsory boarding schools to force young Native Americans to give up the languages and cultures of their ancestors, which were considered self-evidently inferior to a Christian, Western-style upbringing. Boarding schools were made mandatory for Native American children in 1891. This often meant forced separation from their families and communities. And because these schools were underfunded, crowded, and often unsanitary, thousands of students died of disease. Canada also coerced at least 150,000 indigenous children into a network of residential schools that were mostly run by the Catholic Church; last June, researchers uncovered 1,148 unmarked graves on the grounds of three schools. U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo people whose maternal grandparents were forced to board, has opened an investigation into America’s boarding-school policy. “This attempt to wipe out Native identity, language, and culture,” she wrote in a June Washington Post article, has “never been appropriately addressed.”

Who ran boarding schools in the U.S.?

Of the 367 boarding schools for Native Americans known to have operated in the U.S., the federal government operated more than half, the Catholic Church about 100, and many others were run by various Protestant denominations. In 1879, the first off-reservation government school was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, an Army general who had overseen the education of Native American prisoners of war. The first 86 students recruited for the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were Lakota Sioux. Pratt convinced Lakota leaders that education was critical to their people’s survival, but later wrote that he had planned to make the children “hostages for the good behavior of their people.” Pratt rejected then-popular notions of white biological superiority, but he said his mission for each student was to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”


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