Indian Boarding Schools

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Indian Boarding Schools





In the fifty years following the American Civil War, federal Indian policymakers eagerly embraced boarding schools to assimilate Native people according to white, middle-class sensibilities. Convinced that race was not a limiting factor in the transformation of Indian culture, reformers embraced ideas that Thomas Jefferson and Albert Gallatin had articulated early in the nineteenth century, and they sought to remold Indian cultures by imposing new American models of behavior. Their optimism was short-lived, however, and the boarding schools had foundered by the turn of the twentieth century, when policymakers, politicians, and the public accepted an increasingly racialized and negative view of Indians and their cultures. The Indian school system was compromised and then largely destroyed when appeals to racialized thinking convinced policymakers that education for Native people was a waste of time, money, and effort.


The U.S. government relied on a variety of programs to remold Native cultures between 1870 and 1920, but boarding schools quickly became a key element in the era’s coercive assimilation policies. Schools could be built everywhere, they were less expensive than military action, and they were consistent with the nation’s self-professed duty to lift up the oppressed and instruct the unenlightened. As Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan put it in his 1889 annual report, schools would do for Indians “what they are so successfully doing for all the other races in this country—assimilate them” (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1889, p. 23). Another bureaucrat reminded his audience in 1901 that education and civilization were practically synonymous. Annie Beecher Scoville’s address to the Board of Indian Commissioners in the same year summed up the case for boarding schools as neatly as anyone ever had: “If there is an idol that the American people have,” she insisted, “it is the school… . It is a remedy for barbarism, we think, and so we give the dose… . The school is the slow match… . It will blow up the old life, and of its shattered pieces [we] will make good citizens” (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1901, pp. 809–810).

The belief in the power of education to reshape Indian culture rested implicitly on the assumption that race was not a barrier to transformation. As with other federal Indian policy initiatives designed to promote the acquisition of private property and to confer citizenship, many officials and reformers initially agreed that race posed no significant limitations for the educability of Indians. Morgan, for example, insisted there were “no insuperable obstacles” to the successful education and eventual absorption of Indian children (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1892, p. 55). One participant at the 1895 annual meeting of the National Education Association observed that Indian children were “just as capable as any white pupil I have ever had,” and when Richard Henry Pratt was queried as to whether the “intellectual faculties of the Indian are essentially different from those of the white race,” the famous founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian School replied that he did not think they were (Pratt 1895, p. 764).

This kind of optimism led to a flurry of building, which created an impressive array of schools in the three decades following the Civil War. Between 1877 and 1900 the number of boarding schools increased from 48 to 153 (this figure includes 24 off-reservation boarding schools that opened between 1879 and 1898), and the number of day schools rose from 102 to 154. The total number of federally supported Indian schools doubled, from 150 to 307, and by 1900 more than 21,000 Indian children attended federal Indian schools of one kind or another, including 17,708 boarding students. The Indian education budget showed similar trends when it rose from a paltry $20,000 in 1877 to nearly $4,000,000 by 1907 (Ellis 1996, p. 22), and when measured against the Indian Bureau’s other programs, the schools regularly claimed a larger share of the budget than any other item save annuities and payments required by treaties.


Although the U.S. government opened day schools and boarding schools on every reservation, boarding schools quickly became the centerpiece of the Indian assimilation system. Day schools were inexpensive to build and operate, but many educators thought them fundamentally flawed because teachers saw their students for only a portion of the day. Because boarding-school students lived on residential campuses that were isolated from their communities, they were exposed—at least in theory—to influences from which it would be difficult to escape. Committed to giving students a thorough exposure to middle-class white values in the boarding schools, many reformers agreed with Richard Henry Pratt, who famously commented that “in Indian civilization I am a Baptist because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked” (Pratt 2004, p. 335).

Whether at one of the large off-reservation campuses like Carlisle or Chemawa, or at a more modestly sized reservation boarding school, students encountered a curriculum designed to teach them gender-specific vocational skills and to expose them to a level of academic training that would prepare them for lives as independent, self-sufficient citizens. In the early decades of the school system, this meant that Indian children were expected to matriculate according to standards that reflected both the substantive and philosophical ideals that drove public school education all over the country. Thus, boarding-school students received instruction in mathematics, literature, geography, and art, in addition to working in the school’s physical plant or in one of its numerous support systems. White audiences at civic and cultural events were regaled with demonstrations by Indian students (the Carlisle band led the way across the Brooklyn Bridge when it opened, for example), commissioners of Indian Affairs extolled the virtues of an educated and assimilated rising generation of Indian youth, and bureaucrats looked forward to the day when the boarding schools would solve the Indian question once and for all.


But this optimism faded after the turn of the twentieth century, when policymakers came to believe with increasing certitude that Indians were racially backward, culturally deficient, and intellectually feeble. For example, Herbert Welsh wrote that as a race the Indian was “distinctly feebler, more juvenile than ours” (Welsh 1902, p. 178). Early-twentieth-century education expert Charles Dyke, meanwhile, struck an even more pessimistic note when he observed that the crucial issue facing Indian education was how to train the “child races” (Dyke 1909, pp. 928–932). Seized by the racial determinism of the day, policymakers, reformers, and social scientists eagerly applied new standards of racial thinking to Indians and, not surprisingly, found them wanting in every important category of thought and behavior.

The fallout was immediate. Convinced that race had trapped Indians and made them unable to understand or use education except in its most remedial forms, educators eliminated much of the academic curriculum in favor of vocational training. The point was no longer to educate and assimilate, for racial realities apparently made any significant improvement impossible. Thus, the school supervisor for the Creek Nation commented in 1902 that “we should not try to make the Indian too much of a white man” (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1902, p. 424), while federal Superintendent of Indian Education Estelle Reel observed in 1905 that it was a mistake to “attempt to make the Indian over and transform him into a white man, with the idea that this is necessary to bring him into harmony with the established order.” Educators needed to recognize the Indian’s “natural impulses,” she continued, and “not attempt anything more than is consistent with those impulses” (Reel 1905, p. 931). For his part, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells thought that racial limits had made it utterly impossible for Indians to do more than learn simple job skills, and so he ordered what he called “nonessentials” removed from the boarding school curriculum in 1918. As a result, geography, arithmetic, history, and physiology disappeared from the Indian boarding schools (Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1918, pp. 20, 26).

As Frederick Hoxie has observed in the most important work on this subject, racism and racialized policies not only emerged as the single most important factors during the early twentieth century for redefining the meaning of Indian assimilation, they also doomed the boarding schools and contributed to a legacy of racist thinking whose echoes may still be heard. Tsianina Lomawaima agrees with Hoxie. She notes that “federal boarding schools did not train Indian youth to assimilate into the American melting pot. Instead, they trained Indians to “adopt the work discipline of the Protestant ethic and accept their proper place in society as a marginal class” (Lomawaima 1993, pp. 236–237). As a result of this philosophy, the boarding school system began to be systematically dismantled by the 1910s, and many Indian communities were forced to contend with the prospect of sending their children to local white schools that often resented them and barely tolerated their presence.

SEE ALSO Cultural Racism; Native American Popular Culture and Race.


Adams, David Wallace. 1996. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Dyke, Charles Bartlett. 1909. “Essential Features in the Education of the Child Races.” Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses of the Annual Meeting of the National Educational Association: 928–932.

Ellis, Clyde. 1996. To Change Them Forever: Indian Education at the Rainy Mountain Boarding School, 1893–1920. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Hoxie, Frederick. 2001 (1984). A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. 1993. “Domesticity in the Federal Indian Schools: The Power of Authority Over Mind and Body.” American Ethnologist 20 (2): 227–240.

_____. 1994. They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Pratt, Richard Henry. 1895. “Industrial Training as Applied to Indian Schools.” Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses of the Annual Meeting of the National Educational Association: 759–764.

_____. 2004. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades with the American Indian, 1867–1904. Edited by Robert M. Utley; foreword by David Wallace Adams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Reel, Estelle. 1905. Untitled Comments and Remarks. Journal of the Proceedings and Addresses of the Annual Meeting of the National Educational Association: 931–933.

Trennert, Robert. 1988. The Phoenix Indian School: Forced Assimilation in Arizona, 1891–1935. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. 1824–1949. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Welsh, Hebert. 1902. “Comments on Thomas Morgan’s ‘Indian Education’.” Journal of Social Science 40 (December): 178.

Clyde Ellis

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Indian Boarding Schools

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