American Indian Boarding Schools: A Legacy Of Pain Enters A Phase For Healing


“What is clear is that you cannot tell any community how to do their own healing,” an attorney with the Native American Rights Foundation tells MintPress about healing the historical trauma of boarding schools. “They must define their own process. We cannot impose it.”

BOULDER, Colorado — In the Cumberland Valley, located west of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, rows of white headstones line the green grass of a cemetery where 186 children are buried. Many of the headstones are marked “Unknown.”

“What do we need to do to get people to pay attention to this?” Don Wharton, a senior attorney with the Native American Rights Foundation (NARF) in Colorado, told MintPress News. “Indian history does not get taught in schools, but this is a shared history.”

Those buried in the Pennsylvania graveyard were students at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The school was opened in a former prison barracks by the federal government under Richard Henry Pratt, a soldier-turned educator, who coined the phrase “kill the Indian, save the man.” The first students arrived on Oct. 6, 1879, dressed in their tribal clothes. As a crowd assembled to watch them enter the school that first day, the older children sang traditional songs to bring them courage. The school took 10,000 children away from their families until it closed in 1918.

Carlisle was used as a model to shift the campaigns against Indians to assimilation, and nearly 500 similar boarding schools were eventually across the country. Communities of grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles were left bereft of 100,000 children forcibly taken from their homes and placed into boarding schools beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing into the 20th century. Thousands of the children died of disease, malnutrition, physical abuse and emotional terror. Others grew up without familial bonds.

Three generations later, the trauma has left a devastating legacy of abusive behaviors, loss of language and knowledge of traditions and tribal history, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide and suffering. The U.S. has never apologized for this, Wharton said.

“Truth-telling is always the first step toward healing and reconciliation,” said NARF attorney Brett Lee Shelton to MintPress. “That is how the victimizer shows that it is ready to take responsibility for what it did, and it is how the victim’s experience is validated instead of being ignored or brushed under the carpet.”

As a founder and legal representative of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, NARF is identifying goals and strategies that would bring about reconciliation with the U.S. as well as healing for Native individuals, communities and tribal nations victimized by U.S. boarding school practices.

 Creating a space for healing

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition developed out of a symposium held in May 2011 by NARF, the University of Colorado Law School, Boarding School Healing Project, University of Wyoming College of Law, 30 survivors of the schools, and representatives from national organizations and other professionals involved in the education and services to Native Americans.

Creating circumstances in which healing can occur will require determining how to articulate a way “to turn back institutionalized ignorance of what happened, dismantle legal blockades and begin to uncover the truth,” NARF states. “This will also allow the United States the chance to heal from the damages they caused and suffer from as well.”

A class action suit was filed against the U.S. government in 2005 over boarding school abuses, Zephier v. United States. The court dismissed the case because it had to first be filed with the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).

“Several churches have made apologies but not really tied to reparations such as UCC [United Church of Christ], UMC [United Methodist Church] and others,” said Andrea Lee Smith, U.S. Coordinator for the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians. Smith completed a 2009 report for the United Nations on Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools.

Twenty-five of the off-reservation boarding schools were under the control of the BIA and churches ran 460 government-funded churches on the reserves.

In her report for the U.N., Smith notes that indigenous groups are developing alternative models of education to work outside the mainstream models. She writes:

“They are experimenting with a variety of forms to provide the skills necessary to survive in the dominant society without erasing their own cultures and languages. But these models are part of a larger program for indigenous rights, including the right to lands, territories and resources and cultural survival.”

NARF’s Wharton says the issue of boarding schools is something Americans are familiar with. He added: “But they don’t know why it happened or how it affects them today. Until they can begin to understand the roots of this issue, that it’s not an historical artifact, but how all these people who returned to their communities carried the damage of historical trauma that we see today, there won’t be healing.”


Our shared history

The education of Indian children didn’t change until the 1974 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act authorized federally recognized tribes to administer funding to their own tribes.

The Board of Indian Commissioners was established in 1872 by Congress to Christianize American Indians. Seventy-three Indian agencies were appointed to various denominations, including Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Catholic, Baptist, Unitarian, Lutheran and Quaker. Each denomination supervised Indian boarding schools in their areas.

“In the 1870s the churches said to Congress: ‘Why not set up a board to work with Indian services?’ Grant was president at the time,” Wharton said. “‘We need to replace corrupt Indian agents with moral people and we’ll help you.’ Congress appointed church leaders who set about defining the mission for the next 10 years. The denominations carved up the reservations between them.”

They were generally well-motivated and honest people, but, he said, “What happens to a well-meaning people working in a government situation like that? They get demoralized. Supplies don’t come. They have now have institutions in place. What types this attracts showed up.”

Children were often taken hundreds of miles from their homes. Their hair was cut, and their traditional clothing replaced by European-style clothes. They were given Anglicized names and forbidden to speak their own language. Discipline was strict, including beatings, solitary confinement and sexual abuse. Instead of going home during the summer, children were leased to white homes as menial laborers and forced to do labor for the schools.

The Autry National Center, a museum in Los Angeles, produced “The Thick Dark Fog,” a documentary that chronicles the comments of survivors of the schools. Some of those comments include:

“You have a culture who survived near genocide on its knees and then you pluck a child out of this family and everything that’s kept them alive.”

“If you could destroy the Indian at its roots, which is the family, then you’ve destroyed a society.”

“You either sent your kid to school or you could find yourself in jail.”

“Like so many I have lived a life blocked by fear, led by fear, and governed by fear. It was created in those childhood days.”

“What they were trying to do was turn us into a white man, but still they couldn’t do it.”

“My own children, I’m estranged from them simply because I had never figured out how to be a father or even how to be a human being.”

The students were taught to read and write, which would help girls find domestic work and boys learn a trade. Living conditions were unhealthy and supplies and food were insufficient. Those who died were buried in mass graves, often located on school grounds.

Today, churches are being encouraged to begin truth-telling in conversation with tribes and faith communities, research their denomination’s role in the boarding school policies, and define how they can support healing relationship.

“Historically, Quakers supported the idea of putting children in schools,” Wharton said. “The Quakers were instrumental in forming the Board of Indian Commission in 1870. At a time when policy options were either genocide or assimilation.”

Today the Quakers lead the other side of this. Wharton says there’s a Quaker woman researching the Quaker role in this history and conducting seminars on why this healing is needed.

“We’d like to see the U.S. charter a study group to tell the truth of what happened,” said Shelton, the NARF attorney. “They have the archives and the ability.”

A recommendation of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is to create a study that documents the truth as a step toward healing.

Smith says that establishing truth commissions would be a step toward a larger project of reparation.



The coalition has not focused on individual causes of action as the most strategic way to seek reparation for boarding school survivors. Instead, it focuses on a collective remedy because the era is considered genocide against an entire group of people.

Smith’s report states that the continuing effects of boarding schools in communities include, “increased violence, increased suicide rates, increased substance abuse, and increased family disintegration.” Current government funding focuses on improving the criminal justice system. But, Smith says, “What if we argued instead that affordable housing and adequate employment opportunities help keep women safe?”

Indian Health Service reports lower health rates among American Indians and Alaska Natives than the rest of the population. American Indians and Alaska Natives born today have a life expectancy 4.2 years lower than the U.S. population of all races. Heart disease, suicide, diabetes, homicide and liver disease are all seen at higher rates in Native communities.

The problems are rooted in the past, but many survivors don’t want to talk about abuse, Smith says. There are also those who don’t view their experience in boarding schools as negative.

There is not a clear international legal standard for language as a right, Smith notes, but quantifying federal funding for language is more easily defined than quantifying the causal relationship between, for example, boarding schools and increased substance abuse.

“Certainly campaigns for apologies can be effective short-term strategy for public awareness in order to further a longer term goal of decolonization,” the Boarding School Healing Project report states. “But, apologies alone are insufficient and can serve to stabilize rather than challenge the status quo by rhetorically rendering injustice a problem of the past.”

That report is titled, “Reparations and American Indian Boarding Schools: A Critical Appraisal by The Boarding School Healing Project,” and was written by Smith.


“One-size-fits-all doesn’t really work”

“The Boarding School Healing Project hosted groups that engaged in action and reflection,”

Smith said. “We found one-size-fits-all doesn’t really work. For instance, at one group that focused on traditional culture revitalization, folks said, ‘We feel like we’re backing in boarding school again. Just this time, you’re telling us we have to be traditional instead of Christian.’”

Language seems to foster healing in people, according to psychologists, and it works directly to undo what was done by the boarding school program, Shelton said.

“What is clear is that you cannot tell any community how to do their own healing,” said Wharton. “They must define their own process. We cannot impose it. To set up a program with the BIA to put out grants and funding won’t be effective. It would be an insult added to injury to have to go ask for money to do what needs to be done.”

Canada framed the issue as “abuse within the schools” rather than the school system itself as a form of abuse, Smith says. Indeed, the Boarding School Healing Project report notes that in post-Apartheid South Africa, reparations were made available for specific acts of violence, but not for the crime of Apartheid itself. Likewise, reparations to Japanese concentration camp survivors in the U.S. addressed that specific policy, but did not address the underlying issue of white supremacy and imperialism.

In Canada, where victims had to testify about their experiences, “huge numbers of survivors committed suicide or began relapsing into substance abuse when they began pursuing lawsuits because there was no collective healing framework inherent in this approach,” according to the report.

Yet collective reparations risk being rejected by individual victims because they do not respond to the often intimate, individual nature of the violations and suffering.

The measures can also become confused with development policies those communities are entitled to anyway, Smith writes, noting that in Peru, where the government tried to re-label a development initiative as reparations that was already under way, victims protested that they were already entitled to development programs and the project was not designed to recognize the abuses they had suffered.

“Reparations can be a problem if they are seen as an end goal rather than as a strategy to engage in the larger struggle for decolonization,” Smith wrote in her Critical Appraisal report. “To do so, it is important to contextualize boarding schools as part of a larger struggle.”

Indeed, reparations aren’t a cure-all, the report continues: “The sovereignty of nation-states will always take precedence over the sovereignty of indigenous nations. And even when reparations are involved, they are deployed to relegate injustice to the past, thereby enabling the continuation of settler colonialism.”

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