Weird History
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What Life Was Like In An Indian Boarding School

Updated September 23, 2021 21.6k views13 items

When it comes to white colonizers' treatment of First Nations Peoples — more commonly referred to as Native Americans, and previously called Indians — in North America, Indian boarding school history represented a new phase. Instead of driving Native Americans from their lands or slaughtering them on the battlefield, Indian boarding schools were developed during the mid-19th century as a means to assimilate Indian tribes into the "American way of life." Run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, boarding schools taught Native American boys and girls English reading, writing, and speaking in an attempt to erase indigenous languages and traditions. History, science, mathematics, and, perhaps most importantly, Christianity, were taught to make young Native Americans think and reason like religious-minded citizens of a democratic society.

Most Native Americans were not treated like free citizens inside or outside of the schools; daily life in a Native American boarding school could be emotionally and physically confusing, stressful, and abusive. Not all experiences were the same, however, and some students later recounted making good friends, meeting future spouses, and using school to find a way to balance Native heritage with Anglo-style education. By the time most of the boarding schools closed during the late 20th century, they'd taken on many new forms, but the "civilizing" mission that governed their creation never changed. 

  • The System Was Developed To "Kill The Indian And Save The Man"

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Army officer Richard Pratt developed his vision for Indian boarding schools while he was incarcerated by a Native American tribe. His first school, founded at Carlisle Barracks, PA, served as a model for his mandate to "kill the Indian and save the man." Pratt believed that through education and training, Native Americans could be stripped of their tribal culture and "civilized." In a speech he gave in 1892, Pratt described his philosophy:

    [Natives were] born a blank, like all the rest of us. Left in the surroundings of savagery, he grows to possess a savage language, superstition, and life. We, left in the surroundings of civilization, grow to possess a civilized language, life, and purpose. Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit. These results have been established over and over again beyond all question; and it is also well established that those advanced in life, even to maturity, of either class, lose already acquired qualities belonging to the side of their birth, and gradually take on those of the side to which they have been transferred.

  • Schools Took Many Forms, But The Mission Remained Consistent

    Photo: John K. Hillers / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    During the early and mid-19th century, the federal government founded the first schools to assimilate and educate Native Americans. Reservation schools were established on the lands inhabited by Native Americans, and day schools developed to provide a shorter, more advanced education. Because reservation schools didn't require any transportation, costs were low, but students were still kept from their families for the majority of the year. In addition to the federally-funded reservation and day schools, mission schools run by churches combined religious teachings and academic rigor for Native Americans. Some church-run institutions received federal financial support.

    Indian boarding schools established during the second half of the 19th century were both on and off-reservation institutions run directly by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, an agency of the federal government. Each school had a superintendent and adhered to the guidelines of the Bureau closely.

  • Schools Were Run With Military Precision

    Photo: George Wharton James / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Indian boarding schools were run with military-like precision. Students woke up early in the mornings, made their beds and dressed in their uniforms — no traditional clothing allowed. They then marched out to exercises or have breakfast, depending on the school. At Tulalip School in Washington state, one former student recalled that whether "it was raining, snowing or blowing, we all went outside and did what was called 'setting up exercises' for 20 minutes."

    Before the school day started, students lined up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance while saluting the American flag. As the day progressed, students were notified when it was time to eat, march, sit, stand, work, and sleep — all by the ringing of bells. There were regular dormitory inspections, drills, and competitions held to keep contraband out, emphasize the importance of discipline, and build camaraderie among the students. The overarching goal of these activities was to build relationships that transcended tribal affiliations

  • Students Could Be Separated From Their Families For Months Or Years At A Time

    Photo: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    The prevailing attitude among school administrators and government officials was that students needed to be kept from their families to prevent any regression back to tribal ways. According to one superintendent, John B. Riley:

    Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work.

    When students were sent to boarding school, it was for extended periods of time with few visits from family members. Students could go months or years without seeing their families, and even when they did have contact with parents, grandparents, or siblings, the cultural divide was clear. Bill Wright, a student at a boarding school in Nevada during the mid-20th century, recalled "coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, 'Grandma, I don't understand you'... she said, 'Then who are you?'" He told her his name was Billy, and she responded, "Your name's not Billy. Your name's 'TAH-rruhm." His reply: "That's not what they told me."