From Boarding School to University

When the English-speaking Europeans began their invasion of North America, they viewed Indians as “savage,” “wild,” and “barbaric.” These English-speaking Europeans viewed themselves as superior to Indians in all ways and were often astounded to find that most Indians did not want to become like them. During the nineteenth and much of the twentieth centuries, the official education policies regarding Indians called for their assimilation into American culture. Assimilation called for Indians: (1) to speak English (preferable as their only language); (2) to be Christian (preferably Protestant); (3) to wear American style clothes; (4) to wear their hair in American fashion; (5) to live in American-style houses; and (5) to work in a cash-based economy (preferably at the low end of the economic scale).  

Government educators felt that the best way to assimilate Indians was to focus on the children. If children could be removed from their homes, thus removing them from the “savage” influences of their language, religion, and community, and place them in boarding schools run by the obviously “superior” Americans, then assimilation could be accomplished. This was the philosophical and pedagogical foundation of the American Indian boarding school.

Since the federal government, and perhaps the American people, didn’t want to spend very much money for Indian education, the boarding schools were expected to be relatively self-sufficient. The students, often under the guise of “industrial education”, served as an unpaid labor pool to provide cleaning, cooking, sewing, farming, dairying, and other services. Since the American educators believed that hard work shaped character, they had justification for not paying students for their work.

Ultimately, the boarding schools were intended to destroy tribal identity. In its place, students were to gain racial awareness. American society is racist and Indians are viewed as a single racial group rather than several hundred distinct tribal or cultural entities. Boarding school students began to view themselves as Indians-a racial group-rather than as tribal members.


The Haskell Indian School (also known as the Haskell Institute, shown above) was established in 1884 in Lawrence, Kansas as one of the select schools in the Indian school system. Unlike many of the boarding schools in the system, it offered training beyond the standard eight-year program.

Like the other boarding schools of this era, Haskell trained boys for a number of trades, including tailoring, wagon making, blacksmithing, harness making, shoe making, painting, and farming. The girls were trained in cooking, sewing, and homemaking. The school had its own farm which was worked by the students and which provided the school with much of its food.

Initially, the school had 22 students, but the enrollment increased to 400 within one semester. While the school was initially named the United States Indian Industrial Training School, it was renamed the Haskell Institute in 1887 to honor Dudley Haskell, the U.S. Representative responsible for bringing the school to Lawrence.  

By 1894, the school had 606 students from 36 states. At this time, a normal school was added because teachers were needed in the home communities of the students. In 1895, a commercial department was opened with five typewriters. The first touch-typing class in Kansas seems to have been taught at Haskell.

In a 1903 address to the National Education Association, the superintendent of the Haskell Indian School claimed:

“A really civilized people cannot be found in the world except where the Bible has been sent and the gospel taught; hence we believe that the Indians must have, as an essential part of their education, Christian training.”

In 1904, Haskell sent a delegation of students to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Living in the Model Indian School built by the federal government, the boys from Haskell demonstrated building wagons and blacksmithing skills while the girls demonstrated the domestic arts of sewing, tailoring, and millinery.

While many people would like to believe that the Indian students easily adapted to the foreign way of life in the boarding schools, this was not really the case. The fact that most of the boarding schools had both cemeteries for the students who died while attending and jails for holding those who were rebellious implies that life at the schools was not always easy.  

In 1919, the students at the Haskell Indian School staged a rebellion. The students cut power to the campus just prior to an evening assembly. The students smashed light fixtures, looted the food supply, and rang the school bell. Following the rebellion nine students, four boys and five girls, were expelled.

For many of the Indian boarding schools, athletics were viewed as very important. Indian athletes competed against non-Indian athletes in many different venues. For example, in 1925 there was a football game between the American Indian Haskell Institute and the Jesuit Gonzaga College held in conjunction with the Northwest Indian Congress meeting in Spokane, Washington.

In 1926, thousands of people from many different tribes gathered to dedicate the new football stadium at the Haskell Indian School. The ceremonies included dances in which Sugar Brown, a four-year-old Otoe, was one of the featured dancers. A forty-member Blackfoot dance group which was promoting Glacier National Park, also performed. Indians dancers from 70 tribes participated in dance contests. Among those attending the dedication was Senator Charles Curtis (Kaw) who would later become Vice President. Some historians feel that this event marks the start of the modern powwow on the Southern Plains. It was not, of course, called a powwow at the time, but was considered a gathering.

A free buffalo bar-b-que was provided for the Indian participants. Four buffalo were purchased from the Rainy Mountain Game Reserve in Oklahoma. Many of the Indians in attendance had not eaten buffalo before.

From the 1900s to the 1930s, the Haskell football team played schools such as Harvard, Yale, Brown, Texas A&M, and other universities. In 1931, however, the school superintendent shifted from playing colleges to playing high schools. Football was dropped after the 1931 season and did not resume again until 2000.

 photo Haskell1914Football_zps61a0a6a1.jpg

The 1914 football team is shown above.

In 1933, Henry Roe Cloud (Winnebago) became the superintendent of the Haskell Institute, which was the largest American Indian high school in the country at this time. He was the first full-blood Indian to hold this position.

Henry Roe Cloud

Henry Roe Cloud is shown above.

One of Roe Cloud’s assignments at Haskell was to investigate the Athletic Association. The school had a huge and heavily mortgaged stadium. The Association had been active in getting contributions from oil-rich Indians, particularly children who had corrupt non-Indian guardians. While some of this money had helped finance the stadium, much of the money was unaccounted for. Roe Cloud fired the football coach.

Roe Cloud began to transform the school from one in which the primary emphasis had been on vocational training, athletics, and military instruction, to a school that would function as a leadership and cultural activism training center.

In 1965, Haskell graduated its last high school class. In 1970 the school became the Haskell Indian Junior College. By 1988, planning had begun to transform the school from a Junior College into a baccalaureate degree-granting institution. In 1993 it became the Haskell Indian Nations University and offered a four-year elementary education teacher training program. In 1998, Haskell began offering degrees in American Indian Studies, Business Administration, and Environmental Sciences.

In 2002, the Cultural Center and Museum opened on the campus of the Haskell Institute. The center features a permanent exhibit Honoring Our Children Through Seasons of Sacrifice, Survival, Change, and Celebration. Among the many artifacts from the school’s past on display is a heavy iron lock and key for the school jail, which was used for holding unruly students

The university’s current vision statement:

Haskell Indian Nations University, the premier national intertribal university, empowers American Indian and Alaska Native scholars for leadership and service to sovereign first nations and the world by virtue of its excellent academic programs and research, creative activities, and culturally diverse student experiences.

The university’s current mission statement:

The mission of Haskell Indian Nations University, a land grant institution, is to serve members of federally recognized American Indian and Alaska Native nations as authorized by Congress and in partial fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations. With student learning as its focus, Haskell embraces the principles of sovereignty and self-determination through a culturally based holistic lifelong learning environment that promotes and upholds respect, rights, and responsibility.

The Genoa Indian School

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The Genoa Industrial Indian School was started in 1884 in a one-room school that had been originally built for the Pawnee before the tribe was removed from Nebraska to Oklahoma. The school had an initial enrollment of 74 students. Over time, the school would grow to have an enrollment of nearly 600 students from 10 states and more than 20 tribes. It would grow from a one-room school to 30 buildings on a campus covering 640 acres. The Genoa Industrial Indian School was the fourth non-reservation Indian boarding school established by the Indian Office (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs).  

The school facility had been abandoned when the Pawnee were forcibly removed in 1879.  The new school found that the school building was in poor repair and not really suitable. Following the popular design standards of the 1880s, the main building for the new school was a simple three-story structure with a hipped roof. Tall windows placed in pairs helped create a balanced appearance.

As with other American Indian boarding schools in the nineteenth century, the primary focus was on teaching English. Students were discouraged from speaking their Indian languages, as speaking an Indian language was seen as a hindrance to becoming civilized.

Under the assumption that Indians had to fully assimilate into American mainstream society, the federal government required Indian students to become practicing Christians. They were taught Christian theology from a Protestant perspective and were required to attend church services.  

In addition to teaching the students English, the general goal of the school was to prepare the students to enter the labor market. There was a great emphasis on the trades. Students would spend a half-day in the classroom and then a half-day working at an assigned trade.

In order to provide the students with “practical” experience, Genoa, like other Indian boarding schools during this era, utilized an outing system. In order to make the students more familiar with the non-Indian world of work, the students were put to work as farm laborers for local non-Indian farmers and as servants in non-Indian houses. The students were not paid for their labor, but their “employers” did pay a small amount to the school. In general, the school was more focused on meeting the labor needs of non-Indians than in providing an education for the students.


Genoa Indian School is shown above.

Genoa Indian News

The Indian News (shown above) was the school newspaper. It provided programs for school events as well as accounts of life at the school, placing a strong emphasis on abandoning traditional Indian culture and adopting the cultural traits of the non-Indian world.

As the Great Depression of the 1930s worsened, Indian parents became more willing to send their children to boarding schools. In 1933, the Bureau of Indian Affairs notified Indian boarding schools to enroll only the neediest of children. Soaring enrollments, encouraged by the bad economic times of the Depression, was the reason for limiting enrollment. In 1934, the government closed the Genoa Indian School.

In 1976, the Genoa Indian School was declared a State Historical Site and in 1978 it was designated as a National Historical Site. Today the Genoa US Indian School Foundation operates the facility as the Genoa U.S. Indian School Museum. The museum attracts about 3,000 visitors annually.

The only building that remains from the school is the Manual Training building which has been restored with new windows, doors, heating and air conditioning.

As a side note, the designation “Genoa” was given to the site by the Mormons who used it as a temporary settlement along the trail to Salt Lake City, Utah. It served as a way station for the Brigham Young Express and Carrying Company. A Mormon settlement was established at the site in 1857 and it was abandoned in 1859 when it became a part of the Pawnee Indian Reservation.  

The Fort Shaw Boarding School

In 1892 the army abandoned Fort Shaw, located 24 miles west of Great Falls, Montana . The Indian Office (later known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs) took over the facility and began to convert it into the nation’s fourteenth boarding school. Fort Shaw had been established following the Civil War to protect American settlers from Blackfoot raids. The new school was intended to house 250 students. The initial survey of the structures at the fort showed that 15 of the fort’s 25 structures were judged to be in fair condition and the rest were in poor or very poor condition.  

As with other off-reservation boarding schools run by the Indian Office, discipline was seen as the key to success at the new Fort Shaw Indian School. Discipline involved military style marching: on the parade ground the students would be divided into squadrons with the boys in one squadron and the girls in another. In this formation, they would be taught the rudiments of military marching. Fort Shaw was a former military base and the new Fort Shaw Indian School, like other Indian boarding schools at this time, was run as a military school. Instilling military discipline into the boys and girls, according to the prevailing pedagogical thought regarding Indian education at this time, would instill in them the habits they would need for life outside of the reservation.

With regard to academics, one of the primary concerns was making sure that the students spoke English and only English. Speaking an Indian language was prohibited and students caught speaking Indian languages were to be severely punished.

The school’s curriculum was based on the models established by the earlier Indian boarding schools, namely Carlisle and Chemawa. The boys were to be educated to become laborers or farmers, and the girls were educated to become domestic servants or housewives.

The Indian boarding school on the Fort Peck Reservation burned down, so the government felt that it would be best to ship the students far away from the reservation and the influence of their relatives. Fort Shaw was 350 miles away and thus it was too far away to allow for regular visits by family members. The school’s isolation also discouraged runaways.

Thirty-five boys and girls travelled from Fort Peck to Fort Shaw, arriving there before the school was actually scheduled to be opened. Coming with the students was the superintendent of the Fort Peck school and his wife, both of whom joined the staff at the new Fort Shaw Indian school.

In 1893, the first students from the Blackfeet Reservation (note: Blackfeet is the American name while the elders prefer Blackfoot) arrived at the Fort Shaw Indian School. Soon three of the oldest Blackfoot students plotted their escape. Within days after arriving at the school they made their bid for freedom. Their short exposure to the harsh discipline, confinement, and regimentation at the school made it intolerable. The three escapees found that they could make the 75 miles back to the reservation in a single day and make a makeshift camp where they spent a cold night with no fire. In the morning they voluntarily returned to the school.

Three recent graduates of the Carlisle Indian School were invited to join the staff at the Fort Shaw Indian School as Indian teaching assistants. It was felt that these male and female teaching assistants would serve as role models for the other students.

In 1895, Louis Goings, a Shoshone from Wyoming, arrived at the Fort Shaw Indian School to teach the cobbler’s trade. In addition, he began to build an athletic program modeled after the one at the Carlisle Indian School.

Another addition to the Fort Shaw teaching staff in 1895 was Josephine Langley (Blackfoot) who came from the Carlisle Indian School. At Carlisle, Langley had become acquainted with the new sport of basketball and she began to teach basketball to the girls at the Fort Shaw Indian School. Her request for a regulation basketball and a pair of baskets, however, was turned down by the school’s administration.

By 1897 the Fort Shaw Indian School was now the only school in Montana-for Indians or non-Indians, college or high school-which incorporated basketball into its physical culture curriculum.

In 1900, the Fort Shaw Indian School football teams played local teams in Great Falls and Butte. In Great Falls, Fort Shaw girls led the team out onto the field with bright banners and a series of school yells, In Butte, more than 1,500 fans watched the game.

The purpose of the Indian boarding schools, such as the Fort Shaw Indian School, was to strip from their students all vestiges of their Indian-ness. Thus, when the students arrived, they were stripped, their old clothes were often burned, and they were issued military-style uniforms. The boys would have their hair cut, as long hair was seen as incompatible with learning and American civilization. However, the general public was fascinated by Indians-Indians who looked like the stereotypes fostered by the Wild West Shows. Thus, in 1902 the Fort Shaw Indian School added a new component to their exhibit at the Cascade County Fair: they displayed authentic examples of Indian ceremonial attire and traditional crafts. The exhibit drew record crowds.

Fort Shaw

Shown above is the 1903 Fort Shaw Girls Basketball team in native dress.

Fort Shaw emphasized athletics and its teams competed with a variety of non-Indian teams. However, in 1904, the state teachers’ organization formalized an interscholastic athletic association to systematize athletics. Under the new rules only accredited colleges and high schools were allowed to join. This excluded the Fort Shaw Indian School from competition.

In 1904, the Fort Shaw Girls Basketball Team was invited to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. As a part of this exposition, the Department of the Interior (of which the Indian Office is a part) built a Model Indian School to show that Indian children:

“can talk; that they can sing; that they can learn; that they are docile and obedient; that they are human.”

Students from Chilocco, Haskell, Genoa, and Sacaton Indian Schools lived at the school. About 30,000 visitors a day pased through the Model Indian School.

The Fort Shaw Indian School basketball team played against local land regional championship teams and was crowned the World’s Champion Girls Basketball Team. According to comments in the visitors’ book, the Fort Shaw Girls Basketball Team was one of the major reasons for the popularity of the Model Indian School.

Fort Shaw 1904

The 1904 Fort Shaw Girls Basketball Team is shown above.

In 1910, the Fort Shaw Indian School was closed because of declining enrollments and changes in federal policy regarding boarding schools.

For more about the 1904 Fort Shaw Girls Basketball Team, let me recommend:


2008 Full-Court Quest: The Girls from For Shaw Indian School Basketball Champions of the World. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

PBS also produced a video called “Playing for the World” which provides some additional insights.  

The Chemawa Indian School

During the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, American policies regarding Indians focused on assimilation. Under these policies, the American government sought to destroy Indian cultures: their religions, their languages, their manner of dress, their government, their traditional economies, their traditional families, and anything that might be considered Indian. Individual Indians were to assimilate into American mainstream society. One of the primary mechanisms of assimilation was the boarding school.

Chemawa 5

Inspired by the glowing success stories coming from the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the Indian Office (which would later become the Bureau of Indian Affairs) in 1879 decided that a boarding school should be established in Oregon to provide middle and high school education for the Indian nations along the Pacific Coast. In an off-reservation location, far removed from parental and tribal influences, the Indian Office felt that educators would be able to inculcate their students with the primary tenets of American society: patriotism, Christianity, the English language, and husbandry.

Initially, the location selected for the new school was Forest Grove in a site adjacent to Pacific University. It was originally named the Normal and Industrial Training School, but it would later become the Forest Grove Indian Training School, the Salem Indian Industrial School, the Harrison Institute, and finally, the Chemawa Indian Boarding School. Hereafter the school will be referred to simply as Chemawa.

Chemawa 6

The photograph above is from the Oregon State Library.

Classes at the new school began with 18 students (14 boys and 4 girls), all from the Puyallup Reservation. School superintendent Edwin Chalcraft writes:

“Chemawa was essentially a vocational school, where attention was about equally divided in training both the hand and the mind, the object being to prepare students to go forth after graduation and take their place with other citizens of our Country.”

In 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes visited Chemawa to see for himself how the government was educating Indian children. In a speech to the crowd who had come to see him, the President told them that some people in the United States had come to the conclusion that God had decreed that Indians should die off like wild animals. He went on to say:

“If they are to become extinct, we ought to leave that to Providence, and we, as good patriotic, Christian people, should do our best to improve their physical, mental, and moral condition.”

He also reminded people that the Indians had once owned America and that the Americans displaced them. He concluded by saying:

“I am glad that Oregon has taken a step in the right direction. I am glad that she is preparing Indian boys and girls to become good, law-abiding citizens.”

In 1885, fire destroyed the original school and the facility was moved to its present location just north of Salem, Oregon.

With regard to the role of Indian boarding schools, One Indian agent wrote in 1887:

“Education cuts the cord which binds them to a pagan life, places the Bible in their hands, and substitutes the true God for the false one, Christianity in place of idolatry, civilization in place of superstition, morality in place of vice, cleanliness in place of filth, industry in place of idleness, self-respect in place of servility, and, in a word, an elevated humanity in place of abject degradation.”

In 1897, Chemawa obtained a foot-power printing press and began publication of a school newspaper called the Chemawa American. School superintendent Edwin Chalcraft reports:

“The Chemawa American, issued weekly in magazine form, seven by ten inches in size, contained sixteen to twenty-four pages of reading matter, and four to six pages of advertising by Salem merchants.”

Chemawa 3

The basic concept of the American Indian boarding schools, pioneered by Carlisle and Chemawa, was that the students, under the guise of industrial education would actually underwrite a good portion of their education through their free labor. By 1921, federal funding for boarding schools was $204 per student. This compares with $360 per boy at state reform schools and $436 per girl at state schools for girls. In order for the boarding schools to operate at these costs, students were required to work for their room and board.

In 1934, federal Indian policy changed: no longer was the primary focus on assimilation, but instead the tribes were allowed more self-government. With regard to education, it was now more possible to teach Indian cultures in the boarding schools. In 1939, Chemawa began the Reservation Survey Course. This survey course was designed to teach the students about their own reservations and the surrounding areas. It was felt that this would help them to select a more useful vocational course that would offer the best chance at employment on their reservations. Homerooms were established by tribal affiliation and each had a council modeled on the tribal council. It was hoped that students would become familiar with their reservation environment and would eventually take their place in the reservation community. The course was inspired by the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act.

At the end of World War II, Indian policies once again began to change: there was pressure to return to assimilation. In 1945, Chemawa began to require a course in Ethics and Christian Doctrine for all grades:

“All students are required to attend and for this reason the ministers have been asked not to stress a particular creed but to present moral and christian [sic] doctrine such that it will be accepted by any student regardless of his chosen faith.”

When the Bureau of Indian Affairs found out about the class the school was informed that it was illegal to require a religion class.

In 1950, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs ordered classes in BIA schools to stop stressing Native culture and to prepare Indian students for off-reservation employment. This included the reinstitution of the old efforts to curb the use of Native languages

In 1956, the regular academic program at Chemawa was terminated and the focus shifted to the Navajo Special Education Program. The Navajo are a southwestern tribe, far away from Oregon. Only 150 non-Navajo students remained at the school and these were to be transferred to public schools or to other boarding schools.

By 1967 there were sufficient educational facilities on the Navajo reservation so the Bureau of Indian Affairs began phasing out the Navajo students at Chemawa. Once again education at Chemawa emphasized an academic high school program. The vocational program was reduced to a pre-vocational program that included cooking, office practice, welding, auto shop, and small engine repair.

In 1976, the Affiliated Northwest Tribes met at Chemawa and unanimously agreed that the school was

“essential for an Alternative Educational Resource for the forty-two Northwest reservations and urban areas.”

By 1977, Chemawa’s mission was to provide for the enrichment and future prosperity of all Native American peoples. In the words of one staff member:

“Its prime function is to produce and prepare Native American peoples capable of performing adequately, if not superiorly, within a world society that is economically and financially dominant without having to degrade, denounce or substitute their culture heritage or uniqueness.”

Today, Chemawa remains as one of two Indian boarding schools in the United States. It is the oldest continuously operated boarding school in the United States.

Chemawa Cem

South Dakota Kidnaps Indian Children and Sticks Them in White Foster Homes

Invisible Indians

If you find typos here, it’s because my hands are trembling in fury over the keyboard as I write this. That comes from reading Part 1 of National Public Radio’s three-part report on yet another round of cultural genocide against the Indians of South Dakota. What it amounts to is state-sanctioned kidnapping. You can read or listen to Part 1 here and, starting at 4 p.m. Pacific Time, Part 2. I hope that, after you do, you’ll take action to help bring an end to the continuing effort to separate Indian children from their families. Here are the bullet points from the kick-ass investigation Laura Sullivan and Amy Walters put together over 12 months:

• A 2005 study found that 32 states are, in various ways, failing to comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act. Congress passed that law in 1978 after a century of federal policy had forcibly removed tens of thousands of American Indian children from their families and sent them off to abusive boarding schools.

• Under the law, social services agencies are supposed to place Indian children they remove from troubled homes into Indian foster-care homes. But that requirement is being ignored. And in South Dakota, more than 700 Indian children are removed from their families each year, often under questionable circumstances. Over the years, state records show, only 13 percent of these children have gone to Indian foster parents.

• Anecdotal evidence indicates that foster-care homes  licensed to Indians are ignored by the state’s social services agency when placing children removed from their families.

• Some children are taken for legitimate reasons, but most are removed because of “neglect,” a fuzzy definition that often is arrived at because of a failure of the mostly non-Indian social-service workers to understand Indian culture. “[E]ven Native American children who grow up to become foster care success stories, living happy, productive lives, say the loss of their culture and identities leaves a deep hole they spend years trying hopelessly to fill,” NPR reports.

• While Indian children make up less than 15 percent of the state’s population, they are more than half the children in foster care. South Dakota receives thousands of dollars from the feds for every child it takes from a family, and typically gets more money if a child is Indian.

• South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugard once headed a group that was a major recipient of federal money provided for foster children. As lieutenant governor, he was on the group’s payroll when it received tens of millions of dollars in no-bid contracts, a “highly unusual relationship.”

Photo Credit: Boys at the Pine Ridge (S.D.) Reservation/Aaron Huey

“It enrages me,” says Crow Creek tribal council member Peter Lengkeek. “We’re very tight-knit families and cousins are disappearing. Family members are disappearing.”

The Crow Creek tribe has lost more than 33 children in recent years. The reservation only has 1,400 people. Last year Lengkeek asked social service officials to tell him where the children were and who they were placed with.

Seven months later, he received a list. Lengkeek says every single child was placed in a white foster home.

He says if the state had its way, “we’d still be playing cowboys and Indians. I couldn’t imagine what they tell these kids about where they come from and who they are.”

“It’s kidnapping,” he says. “That’s how we see it.”

Except for the obvious reasons, many people may wonder why this matters so much to Indians, why it arouses our fury more intensely than just about any other conflict between Indians and non-Indians in today’s world. That’s because the foster-care program contains a powerful echo. Our rage arises out of a history that is, for many of us, devastatingly personal.

For instance, among Indians who participate in the Daily Kos group Native American Netroots, at least four of us have relatives who were yanked away from their families and sent to boarding schools (aji: great-grandmother; me, grandmother and great-aunt; navajo: mother; cacamp: grandparents, parents and himself).

Some went to government-run schools; others were taken in by church operations, Catholics and Mormons being among the prominent proponents of this approach to “civilizing” us.

In addition to being physically abused and treated as sexual prey in many cases, children in the boarding schools had their language, culture and religion yanked away. That wasn’t collateral damage. It was the whole point. The concept behind the boarding schools, more than 150 of them by 1900, was “Kill the Indian…save the man,” as noted in an 1892 Denver speech by Col. Richard H Pratt, founder of the U.S. Training and Industrial School at Carlisle Barracks, Pa. In short, demolish Indians by literally stealing their children.

Apache children on arrival at the Carlisle Indian School wearing traditional clothing.
The same children at the Carlisle School four months later. Note the haircuts.
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Here’s cacamp – Carter Camp – giving the short version of his boarding school story:

I was a repeat run-away same as my Mom, so I didn’t graduate until I was 19. Mom never did because her Dad hid her from the agent after the first time. In my parents’ day the schools were run like military academies where the kids marched in formation and drilled like soldiers. They had disciplinarians and jails and ran farms, which the students worked on to feed themselves. Those were the bad old days. By the time I got there, they were more benevolent but still strict about erasing our cultures. We still had to work on the farm two hours a day and more if we got in trouble.

The Navajo had it especially rough since they were forcefully rounded up like my parents were and taken up [to] Kansas, far from home, while the rest of us were sent by our parents because of poverty. We were high school age; so were the Navajo but they hadn’t gone to any school before and most spoke no English so they had “special ed” and were segregated in different dorms. Funny thing though, we met and became friends with students from all over and later on became tribal leaders and American Indian Movement leaders who knew each other and could work together for things like tribal sovereignty.

Back then the Bureau of Indian Affairs agent stole the kids and ran roughshod over the parents and tribe. Today it’s the State and the welfare system that is doing the same thing. We call our lost children “Lost Birds” after the baby girl who survived [the] Wounded Knee [massacre of 1890] and was adopted out to a white family but finally (recently) came home to her people to be buried again at Wounded Knee.

Each year we have “lost birds” coming home who have turned 18 and come seeking their families and yearning to learn their culture. Many times they don’t even know who to ask for and sometimes they’re quite old, grown up and with their own children looking for a connection to their past. Winter Rabbit reminded me of such a lost one. The majority of the stolen kids know their families and come home ASAP, so we have a large population of Indian kids who were brought up outside the tribe and have now come home. They almost all have stories of abuse. Only a few were lucky enough to find love and stability. Most are passed around in the system and bounce from foster home to foster home. This has been going on so long that thousands of lost ones are out there from every nation in America. It needs to stop.

Aji tells the story of her great-grandmother:

[My mom’s grandmother] died without ever knowing who or what she was; it’s taken a lot of work, years later, to piece her “self” together. Initially, the family thought she was of Scots descent, not realizing that the Scottish surname was that of her by-then-widowed mother’s second husband.  Her adoptive name was English. There is no record of what her traditional name (or any surname) might have been; they were more interested in covering up the very fact of adoption than anything else.

In the 1870s, the Catholic Church in Michigan was very invested in saving Indian children from an alleged “epidemic” of illness.  What they were really doing was stealing kids and farming them out as fast as they could to reliably Catholic families who would … “save the [wo]man by killing the Indian.” No one knows how many were lost to white families via church theft. Hundreds, at a minimum. Probably thousands over the course of one generation alone. But one day in the late 1870s, a good white Catholic couple of English extraction left their home and traveled to the rez for two months, and came back bearing their new little Indian “papoose,” promptly given a white name and identity, with never a reference to be made to the adoption, much less from where.  

Ironically, when she married, her husband ran his father’s logging business, and during the summer months, he traveled around the state; in his absence, she ran the business for him. She hired and fired – you guessed it – Indian laborers, some of whom were undoubtedly relatives, but neither side ever knew it. She died thinking that 1) she was English, and 2) she was the lineal descendant of those English “parents.” To this day, I’m not sure how they explained the differences in coloring – probably via the “Gasp! That’s not discussed in polite company” method.

Also ironically, after her adoption, her new parents went on to have nine biological children of their own. You’d’ve thought they could’ve been a little less greedy about acquiring someone else’s child as a possession.

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Nobody is suggesting that the foster-case system in South Dakota is treating Indian children the way the boarding schools did back, in Carter’s words, in the “bad old days.” Or that children are being snatched in quite the same way that the churches did decades ago. But many of today’s Indian foster-kids are still losing their culture and the connection to their heritage.

Take the case of Janice Howe, one of the grandmothers that the NPR team focused on. Her four grandchildren, the children of her daughter Erin Yellow Robe, wound up in foster care despite the 1978 law.

Except rarely, that law requires that Indian children be placed with relatives, a tribal member or at the very least, another American Indian. And it requires states to do all they can to first keep a family together through services and programs. Surely, a grandmother qualifies.

But nothing Howe did over 18 months brought her grandchildren back until she told the Crow Creek tribal council that they were about to be put up for adoption. The council passed a resolution warning the state that if the Yellow Robe children were not returned, it would be charged with kidnapping and prosecuted. Nobody thought this would work, but it did.

“Antoinette came in and said ‘Grandma, Grandma. We get to stay! We get to stay!'” …

Howe thinks the babies were treated well. But Rashauna and Antoinette left a size 10 and came back a size smaller. Howe says they hoard food under their pillows and hide under the bed when a car pulls up.

“I feel like they were traumatized so much,” Howe says.

The children don’t remember their native dance, something Howe says is especially important for Antoinette, the oldest.

“We go to sweats,” Howe says. “We have ceremonies at certain times a year. She’s got to be getting ready to learn these things that she has to do in order to become a young lady. They took a year and a half away from us. How are we going to get that back?”

Among other tasks, Danny Sheehan works for the Lakota People’s law office. He has about 150 case files on removals.

“These are all the different people who had their kids taken away from their entire families. … Not one of them has had their children left with a relative of any kind.”

He hopes one day he can sue. …

“Maybe if we devoted all our resources to a particular case and said, look, we’re going to land on you like a ton of bricks [social services] and make you give this one kid back and sue you and do everything else, they would probably just turn the kid loose,” he says. “But it wouldn’t change anything. It wouldn’t stop them from doing it a hundred times again.”

But why should lawsuits be necessary? There is a law against what’s being done. It’s just not being enforced. A good deal of the reason for that is because the centuries-long efforts to make Indians disappear, to make us invisible, has succeeded. Our political clout in such matters, even in places where we can still be found in substantial numbers, is next to zero. The 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act appears to us to be just another ignored bit of paper, like hundreds of treaties, and nobody official is doing squat about it. When it comes to invisible Indians who enforces the enforcers?


Carlisle Indian School

( – promoted by navajo)

In 1871, the United States governmental policies toward American Indians changed from dealing with tribes as nations to focusing on the assimilation of individual Indians. Assimilation was, and still is, based on a viewpoint that sees immigrants coming to the United States and then become “good” Americans by learning English and adopting American customs. If others could do this, the assimilationists argued, and still argue, then American Indians should be required to do the same.

In the language of nineteenth century assimilation, Indians were viewed as “barbaric” and thus the goal of assimilation was to “civilize” them. The ideal model of “civilization” was, of course, mainstream American society. One important “civilizing” force in assimilation was education. Schools, according to this viewpoint, could mold American Indian youth into Americans in which the values of thrift, discipline, individuality, and Christianity would more closely reflect those of mainstream America.  

Writing in 1893 about the goals of Indian education, Father Palladino states: “A plain, common English education, embracing spelling, reading and writing, with the rudiments of arithmetic, is book-learning sufficient for our Indians. Anything beyond that for the present at least, in our candid opinion, would prove detrimental, rather than beneficial; since it might serve to encourage their natural indolence at the expense of what they need most, industrial education.” In explaining the need for boarding schools, Father Palladino writes: “How can you civilize these savage beings, except you withdraw them from the blighting influences that encompass them on every side?”

The model for American Indian boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian School. Founded in 1879 in an abandoned army post in Pennsylvania, the goal of Carlisle was to strip all vestiges of Indian culture from the Indian students: they were to speak only English, they were to dress in the American style, they were to eat American foods, they were to worship the Christian gods, and they were to live in American-style houses.

By locating the school far away from any reservation, it was felt that the children could be removed from the evil pagan influences of Indian life and Indian families.

The school was headed by Captain Richard H. Pratt, the former commandant of the Fort Marion Prison in Florida, which served as an Indian prison. While Pratt liked individual Indians, he had no use for Indian cultures and felt that these cultures would have to be destroyed if Indian people were to survive. Like many other Americans, Pratt felt that Indian ways were inferior in all respects to those of non-Indians. Thus the slogan for Carlisle was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

When the students first arrived at the school, they would be given Anglo-Saxon Christian names (names such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson soon became common among the Indian students), their hair would be cut, and their clothes replaced with European-style dress (their old clothes were usually burned).  To reinforce the superiority of English, they would also be forbidden to speak any Indian language.  A military model was used to instill discipline and conformity. The students wore military-style uniforms and marched to their classes.

Since men were supposed to do the farming, boys were given an agricultural education while the girls were trained in housekeeping skills. Girls were taught all of the skills-cooking, sewing, cleaning, laundry-that a housewife or a servant would need to know. The emphasis was on the skills necessary for a mythological family farm, not the reality of commercial agriculture as it existed in the late nineteenth century.

Students would spend half of the day in classes where the curriculum emphasized the English language, practical skills, and Christianity. The boys would then spend half a day working on the school farm where they raised most of the food for the school. The girls would work in the laundry where they would not only wash all of the clothes for the school, they would also do all of the mending and other “household” chores. The goal of their education was to train the boys to be farm workers and the girls to become servants.

Speaking English was an important part of not only the school curriculum, but also school life. Students who were caught speaking any Indian were severely punished. This punishment included beatings, incarcerations (the school had its own jail), and applying lye to the tongue.

Another important part of the curriculum at Carlisle was sports. The school had sports programs that included track, baseball, football, and the newly created basketball. Carlisle sports teams often competed against college and university teams and its football team had a national reputation. Among the Carlisle Indian athletes was Jim Thorpe (Sauk and Fox) who won the pentathlon and decathlon at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world,” Sweden’s King Gustav V told him. President William H. Taft said “Your victory will serve as an incentive to all to improve those qualities which characterize the best type of American citizenship.”

When students had completed their education, they were indentured to an Anglo family for three years. The government paid the family $50 per year for the stu¬dent’s medical care and clothing.

While the Carlisle Indian School was considered to be the premier boarding school in the United States, its success in actually educating Indian students and assimilating them into mainstream American culture may have been less successful. By 1899, Carlisle Indian School had graduated only 209 of the 3,800 students which had attended it.

Back on the reservations, many of the Indian agents were not enamored with the off-reservation boarding schools. In 1897, the Indian agent for the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana reported that boys returning from off-reservation boarding schools such as Carlisle Indian School can play baseball pretty well, but don’t seem to be interested in work. With regard to the women who returned from the boarding schools, he wrote: “Their whole life is made abortive and the money spent on their education wasted, by allowing them to return…In many instances the practical results of returning them to the reservation is to furnish a better class of prostitutes for the same; yes, and made prostitutes by the so-called educated young Indian men, not camp Indians, though they naturally drift to becoming their wives.”

Captain Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School, told a New York Ministers Conference in 1904: “I believe that nothing better could happen to the Indians than the complete destruction of the Bureau”  and “Better for the Indians had there never been a Bureau.” A few weeks later, Pratt was told that his services were no longer required. However, he continued to be an outspoken critic of the Indian Bureau and federal Indian policies.

The success of Carlisle’s ability to assimilate Indian students into American culture can be seen in the 1912 address to the graduating class by one of its students who will later be known as Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance, a Lumbee from North Carolina:  

“When we have gone through, for the last time as students, the brick portals of this institution, into the great world of competition, we do not wish to be designated as Cherokees, Sioux, or Pawnees, but we wish to be known as Carlisle Indians, belonging to that great universal tribe of North American Indians, speaking the same language and having the same chief — the great White Father at Washington.”

In 1918, the Carlisle Indian School was closed. Officially, the school was closed because the Secretary of War requested the property for a hospital for soldiers returning from Europe. Unofficially, it was felt that the school’s administration had angered too many people in the Bureau of Indian Affairs with his criticisms of federal Indian policies.

Ultimately, boarding schools such as the Carlisle Indian School were intended to destroy American Indian tribal identity. In its place, the students were to gain racial awareness. American society is racist and Indians are viewed as a single racial group rather than several hundred distinct tribal or cultural entities. Boarding school students began to view themselves as Indians, a racial group, rather than as tribal members.