For over a century, Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools in the United States, where they were systematically stripped of their culture, language, and identity. These boarding schools, run by the federal government and various Christian denominations, aimed to “civilize” and assimilate Native American children into mainstream American culture. The legacy of these schools has been devastating and has left lasting scars on Native American communities across the country.
The boarding school era began in 1869, with the opening of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The school’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, famously declared that his goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” This philosophy was the basis for the entire boarding school system, which aimed to eradicate Native American culture and language, and replace it with European American values and beliefs.
The federal government played a significant role in the boarding school system. In 1879, Congress passed the Carlisle Indian School Act, which authorized the establishment of similar schools across the country. Over the next several decades, dozens of boarding schools were established, with an estimated 100,000 Native American children forced to attend.
Life in the boarding schools was harsh and often brutal. Children were separated from their families and communities, often forcibly, and taken to schools hundreds or even thousands of miles away. They were forbidden from speaking their own languages, practicing their own religions, or participating in cultural activities. Punishments for speaking Native languages or engaging in cultural practices ranged from public humiliation to physical abuse.
The boarding schools also had a profound impact on the mental and emotional well-being of Native American children. Many experienced severe trauma as a result of their forced separation from their families and communities, and the cultural erasure they experienced at the hands of school officials. The trauma of the boarding school era has been passed down through generations of Native American families, contributing to high rates of poverty, substance abuse, and mental health issues among Native American communities today.
Despite the profound damage caused by the boarding school era, its history has largely gone unacknowledged in mainstream American culture. Many Americans are unaware of the trauma and suffering endured by Native American children in these schools, or the lasting impact that this trauma has had on Native American communities. The recent discovery of unmarked graves at former boarding school sites in Canada has brought renewed attention to the legacy of these schools and has sparked calls for greater recognition and reparations for the harm they caused.
The boarding school era represents a dark chapter in American history, one that has had profound and lasting effects on Native American communities. It is essential that this history be acknowledged, and that efforts be made to address the ongoing trauma and intergenerational effects of this traumatic period. Only through recognition and reconciliation can we begin to move forward and build a more just and equitable society for all.