The Horror of Native American Boarding Schools

In the 1870’s, The United States was still at war with the Native Americans who occupied the land before Europeans ever touched shore. In an attempt to solve the ‘Indian problem’, the United States government helped fund religious organizations who then opened religious boarding schools. These schools would heap horror upon the Native American children sent there right up till the 1980’s.

We often hear religious people spout off about how we need religion to be moral – but if these religious boarding schools are examples of religious morality, I can only hope that isn’t true.

Boarding schools were used to assimilate Native Americans and the best way to do that was to wipe out their existing culture – they separated Native American children from their families and from non-Indian students.

Richard Pratt was an army officer in 1892 and he founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879. His reasoning?

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Pratt said. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Between 1880 and 1902, about 30,000 Native American children were placed in these boarding schools, where Christian missionaries tried to simultaneously wipe out their culture and Christianize them. Christian missionaries were sent to reservations that were too far away from a boarding school to ‘educate’ them there.

The punishments meted out in these schools was extremely harsh:

At boarding schools, the curriculum focused mostly on trades, such as carpentry for boys and housekeeping for girls.

“It wasn’t really about education,” says Lucy Toledo, a Navajo who went to Sherman Institute in the 1950s. Toledo says students didn’t learn basic concepts in math or English, such as parts of speech or grammar.

She also remembers some unsettling free-time activities.

“Saturday night we had a movie,” says Toledo. “Do you know what the movie was about? Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys and Indians. Here we’re getting all our people killed, and that’s the kind of stuff they showed us.”

And for decades, there were reports that students in the boarding schools were abused. Children were beaten, malnourished and forced to do heavy labor. In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing American Indian students, not educating them. The report said the schools still had a “major emphasis on discipline and punishment.”

Wright remembers an adviser hitting a student.

“Busted his head open and blood got all over,” Wright recalls. “I had to take him to the hospital, and they told me to tell them he ran into the wall and I better not tell them what really happened.”

Imagine the idea that being ‘entertained’ meant having to watch your own people being killed on screen. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg.

These religious boarding schools weren’t just meant to civilize and Christianize Native Americans, but to create a generation that would be more willing to cooperate and sign their land away to the government. Some reservations were sitting on coal and oil reserves and the government wanted it.

These schools used brainwashing techniques in order to achieve these aims:

Indian boarding schools were blunt tools: they rank among the most heavy-handed institutions of socialization, indoctrination, and even brainwashing ever seen in North America. From the late 1800s through the twentieth century, scores of such schools throughout the western United States and Canada enrolled Indian students, generally against their will.

Scholars have described the residential boarding schools as “labor camps,” or experiments in modified slavery, run in the grueling, regimented manner of military schools. “My grandparents were taken from their homes and put in boarding schools,” says Daniel Moya, of the Pojoaque Pueblo outside Santa Fe. “Whenever they spoke their native language, they were beaten and made to eat soap.” Emotional and physical abuse was routine, and the curriculum explicitly indoctrinated students with the idea of the superiority of the dominant culture and the inferiority of native traditions.

Children were forced to cut their hair, prevented from speaking their native language or engaging in their sacred rituals, sometimes forced to wear military uniforms, beaten and sometimes raped.

In a Huffington Post article we can take a peek at what this sexual abuse entailed:

“All goes along quietly out here,” one priest wrote in 1968, with “good religious and lay faculty” at the mission. There are troublesome staffers, though, including “Chappy,” who is “fooling around with little girls — he had them down the basement of our building in the dark, where we found a pair of panties torn.” Later that year, Brother Francis Chapman was still abusing children, though by 1970, he was “a new man,” the reports say. In 1973, Chappy again “has difficulty with little girls.”

Some documents are more discreet than explicit. In 1967, two nuns at St. Paul’s Indian Mission, on the Yankton Sioux Reservation, also in South Dakota, had excessive “interest in” and “dealings with” older male students, says a report to Church higher-ups. (St. Paul’s, pictured below, was renamed MartyIndian School when the tribe took it over in 1975; 2008 graduation tipis are shown in the foreground.) Another nun has “too close a circle of friends, especially two boys.”

What ex-students describe as rampant sexual abuse in South Dakota’s half-dozen boarding schools occurred against a backdrop of extreme violence. “I’ll never forget my sister’s screams as the nuns beat her with a shovel after a pair of scissors went missing,” said Mary Jane Wanna Drum, 64, who attended a Catholic institution in Sisseton, South Dakota, for the children of her tribe, Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate.

And here is a news report that explains some of the abuse Native Americans endured under the tyrannical eye of priests, nuns and government officials:

Native American boarding schools is a modern example of cultural genocide. What happened in these institutions was pure evil.

I have heard people say that Native Americans are lazy, drunk, welfare bums who complain about past injustices. This is only a small taste of what native Americans endured. We have systematically tried to pillage, rape and destroy Native American culture with a cross in one hand and a rifle in the other. We took a proud, noble people with a unique heritage and laid waste to them. Yet, Native Americans endure and try to rebuild from the smoking ruin we visited upon them.

That isn’t lazy – that’s courageous. We should be doing more to assist rather than belittle them. We may not be able to fix past injustices – none of us own a time machine that would allow us to stop these tragedies before they happened. However, we can learn from the past and never let it happen again. We can hold our hands out in friendship to the Native Americans who survived our ancestors brutality and help them rebuild.



  1. Alot of horror stories are coming out about the boarding schools. I never knew these things existed when i was growing up – back then i thought 'boarding schools' were where rich kids were sent. It's hard for me to get a background sense about these boarding schools that native children were placed in because it seems like most of them were catholic. see this link for information!

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