By K. Tsianina Lomawaima / Special To The Washington Post
After recent discoveries of unmarked and mass graves at Indian residential schools in Canada and the United States, U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland ordered an investigation of American Indian boarding schools. For generations, these schools took children from homes and demanded that they disavow their families, cultures and languages. Indeed, boarding schools targeted individuals as an integral part of the U.S. quest to deny Native sovereignty and take Native land.
This horrific damage demands a reckoning that goes beyond the trope of pity that has for too long characterized the response to this history and finally fosters the respect for Native nations’ sovereignty that has been denied for centuries.
The origin of residential schools: In 1819, the Congressional Act for Civilization allocated $10,000 annually to churches to convert and allegedly civilize American Indians as part of a broader project to destroy Native nations as independent polities and to justify U.S. claims to their lands. Legislators grounded policies in the myths that divine providence ordained conquest and that Natives would somehow naturally vanish in the face of what white Americans considered civilized “progress.” Mission schools aimed to erase and replace everything Indigenous — language, religion, family structure, economy, law, governance — with English and U.S. norms. But these early schools enrolled only a few thousand students and Native resistance thwarted rapid conversion, deculturation and land loss.
Undeterred in its mission, in 1824, the U.S. government founded the federal Indian Bureau which designed Indian schools specifically to obliterate Indianness, grease the wheels of land dispossession and produce subservient laborers. By the 1850s, heightened demand for land led to a federal system of Indian day and boarding schools devised to more quickly dispossess Native peoples.
The federal schools’ heyday spanned the 1880s through the 1930s. During that time, students experienced a half-day of minimal academics paired with a half-day of manual labor necessary to maintain underfunded schools. Staff used harsh punishment, military discipline and work drudgery to attack individuality and tribal identity. In summer months, the schools contracted boys’ labor to farms and ranches while girls cared for white households. Distance and isolation fractured family ties.
My family’s story: My dad’s stories, family photos and archival records document how these schools and policies fractured our family. On Sept. 20, 1927, a car pulled up to the Wichita Children’s Home. Probation officer A.E. Jones picked up 9-year-old Curtis Thorpe Carr and his brother, 10-year-old Robert Carlisle Carr to drive them 75 miles south to Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma. My grandmother, Cora Wynema Carr, a Mvskoke (Creek) single mother, was struggling to find work and could not support her children. Bob was expelled in 1928 while Curt remained at Chilocco until 1935. In those eight years, Curt endured the harshest school conditions and witnessed a few meager reforms.
In the 1930s, Progressive-era reformers and Roosevelt administration bureaucrats introduced a few changes into the schools to address concerns over cruel treatment. For example, disciplinarians were renamed advisers; boys and girls were allowed to sit together in the dining room; English-only and church attendance mandates were relaxed; civics classes mentioned treaties. By the late 1930s, bilingual readers were developed to speed the transition of a few communities to English. By 1950, however, aggressive deculturation agendas reemerged with Cold War xenophobia and intolerance for cultural difference. Bilingual readers were replaced by English-only scripts emphasizing hygiene and good work habits for Indians as food servers and service station attendants.
Federal Indian schools began to close after World War II as policymakers worked to dissolve Native sovereignty and transfer legal jurisdiction, education and social services to the states. Native students increasingly enrolled in sometimes hostile public schools whose courses rarely mentioned Indigenous history or culture.
Native resistance: Federal Indian schools did not disappear altogether, however. In fact, they became one way for Native activists, parents and tribal leaders to fight back and demand federal fulfillment of treaty and trust obligations as well as local control over land, resources and schools. Native resistance to abusive federal control prompted legislation such as the 1972 Indian Education Act and the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which enabled local community control of schools.
As of 2021, the Bureau of Indian Education funds 56 bureau-operated and 131 tribally controlled schools, mostly day schools incorporating Native languages and culturally grounded curriculums. A handful of boarding schools (such as Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif., and Chemawa Indian High School in Salem, Ore.) remain an option for students who choose to enroll. They are a reminder of Native resilience and that these schools did not completely succeed in destroying all Native societies and individuals.
Nevertheless, boarding schools did abundant, serious damage. Some students fell prey to disease, accidents, abuse, malnutrition; they never made it home. Among students who survived, experiences and recollections are mixed. The diversity of experiences teaches us the power of Native resilience. But one reality unites all boarding school alums: They grew up in an institution, not at home. That shaped everyone, one way or another.
Lasting scars: Childhood institutionalization certainly marked Curt’s and Bob’s lives. Curt ran away from Chilocco in 1935. For decades he harbored anger, feeling that his mother had abandoned them. Curt survived Chilocco, the Depression’s hobo road and World War II to marry our mom, Marilyn, and raise two daughters. Bob was expelled from Chilocco in 1928 for “incorrigibility”; petty thievery, mostly of food. Chilocco boys and girls were always hungry. Bob bounced in and out of reformatories until 1937, when he was sentenced to 10 to 20 years in the Kansas state penitentiary. He had stolen $30 worth of groceries from an institution, the Wichita Children’s Home, where his mother worked sporadically in the laundry. Bob died in 1938. Individual histories like Bob’s and Curt’s document the real consequences of violent policies that benefited the United States as it claimed 2 billion acres of land.
Policies, practices and public attitudes continue to fuel Indigenous poverty, poor health and trauma today. Haaland’s initiative can be a critical step forward. As we count, name and honor boarding school students, justice demands that the United States accept responsibility for the violence done to Native peoples, then and now. The Interior Department, Congress and the Supreme Court; federal policymakers and school staff; church leaders; ranchers, farmers and homemakers who benefited from student labor; all Americans who live on Native land: All are complicit.
Haaland’s initiative can be accomplished through cooperation among Native nations, federal agencies, school survivors and descendants and researchers. To fully reckon with the legacies of American Indian boarding schools, public respect for Native nations based on sovereign-to-sovereign relations is necessary. But a key barrier in the process will be story lines that only portray Indians as helpless victims. Those story lines deny Native resilience and relegate trauma to history. In those narratives, all that remains visible are the targets of violence, not the perpetrators.
Accountability — not pity — must guide U.S. reckoning with the legacies of boarding schools. Anything short of that will be a continued degradation of the Native children stolen, the survivors, the Native nations fighting to determine their futures and the democratic ideal to which the United States has so long aspired.
K. Tsianina Lomawaima is a retired professor of American Indian studies and member of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and the National Academy of Education.