Considering History: Indian Boarding Schools and the Violence of “Americanization”

In trying to impose a European American identity on Native American children, the U.S. created a system of cultural genocide targeting all Native Americans.

Pupils at an Indian Boarding School
Pupils at the Carlisle Indian School (Wikimedia Commons

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This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present. 

Last week, the Department of the Interior released an initial report on its ongoing investigation into the history of abuse and violence at Native American boarding schools. Commissioned in 2021 by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative aims not only to recover the stories of all those young Native Americans and to chart a path for formal reparations, but also to make this forgotten history more visible to all 21st century Americans.

The first boarding schools opened in the late 1870s, and over the next century more than 350 would operate around the country (with a number still in operation today). Often run by Christian organizations or other white reformers, but with consistent support and funding from the federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs, these schools removed many thousands of Native American children from their families and communities. Although their stated goal was to help those young people move toward a successful American future, their often brutally repressive practices contributed to horrific and far too often fatal conditions for the students.

Indeed, hundreds of children died at the boarding schools, a profound tragedy that is more than important enough on its own terms. But the schools also represented a purposeful form of broader violence, a system of cultural genocide targeting all Native Americans. Better remembering these histories helps us to recognize the white supremacist violence inherent in the concept of “Americanization”—and to listen to those voices that resisted and offered an alternative to that racist idea, like the talented and inspiring ZitkálaŠá.

By the late 19th century, the interconnected federal policies of Indian Removal (and the concurrent creation of the reservation system) and “Indian Wars” (particularly targeting those tribes that resisted the removal process) had reached and decimated every Native American community across the continent. Yet there remained another layer to the so-called “Indian Problem,” one fortunately not resolved by these destructive and violent policies: what would happen to the present and future generations of young Native Americans.

The answer to that question, the creation of a residential boarding school system for young Native Americans, featured a striking contradiction between sympathy and discrimination, allyship and cultural genocide. The 1879 founding of the first such school, Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, clearly reflects both ends of the spectrum. Carlisle was founded by Richard Henry Pratt, a Civil War veteran and longtime military officer who had taken part in a number of “Indian Wars” but had come to believe that neither war nor the reservation system were the answer. Pratt was a leading voice in the period’s “Friends of the Indian” movement, and Carlisle was his attempt to offer an alternative path and future for Native Americans and the nation alike.

Richard Henry Pratt
Richard Henry Pratt, 1879 (Wikimedia Commons)

Yet as famously delineated by Pratt, that path depended on a purposeful and thorough destruction of Native American identity. In a speech delivered at the 1892 National Conference of Charities and Correction in Denver, Pratt succinctly describes the goals of Carlisle and the other boarding schools that had been subsequently created as this system expanded: “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” He overtly defines these alternatives as “savagery” and “civilization”: “Transfer the infant white to the savage surroundings, he will grow to possess a savage language, superstition, and habit. Transfer the savage-born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit.”

Students at the Carlisle Indian School's music class
A music class at the Carlisle Indian School (Library of Congress)

And in a particularly striking concluding paragraph, part of an extended and troubling analogy between Native Americans and African Americans, Pratt makes clear his connection of these “civilizing” goals to the concurrent idea of “Americanization”:

Theorizing citizenship into people is a slow operation. What a farce it would be to attempt teaching American citizenship to the negroes in Africa. They could not understand it; and, if they did, in the midst of such contrary influences, they could never use it. Neither can the Indians understand or use American citizenship theoretically taught to them on Indian reservations. They must get into the swim of American citizenship. They must feel the touch of it day after day, until they become saturated with the spirit of it, and thus become equal to it.

Pratt’s association between practices of language and habit and white supremacist ideas of how to define and enact “American” identity was central to the mission and curriculum of Carlisle and all the boarding schools. The young Native American students were prohibited from speaking any language other than English and punished if they did so. Their hair was cut, their clothing changed. They were consistently and forcibly converted to Christianity. In these and many other ways, the schools imposed a profoundly European American-centered definition of identity on the students.

Native American girls with their matron at the Carlisle Indian School
A matron and her students at the Carlisle Indian School (Wikimedia Commons)

These practices of “forced assimilation” can also be linked to the era’s broader “Americanization” movement, one that often focused on immigrant arrivals to the U.S. but with very similar goals. In public schools, on the factory floor, and in the work of the Settlement Houses, reformers pushed immigrants to “Americanize” as quickly and fully as possible. Much of that effort came from a place of sympathy for immigrant arrivals, not unlike the attitudes of the Friends of the Indian toward young Native Americans; but in both cases, these ideas about a profoundly white, Christian, English-speaking vision of American identity led to a similarly narrow and all too often culturally destructive definition of the Americanization process and its desired results.

Many of those young Native Americans resisted and challenged the boarding school system’s vision of Americanization, however. One prominent such figure was Zitkála-Šá (1876-1938), who as a young girl was taken from her Yankton Dakota community to the newly opened White’s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash. In her autobiographical essays “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” and “School Days of an Indian Girl,” originally published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1900, Šá describes at length the challenges and traumas of the boarding school process and system. “The Cutting of My Long Hair,” section II of “School Days,” is a particularly painful and powerful depiction of that specific element of forced assimilation and its effects on a young person like Šá.

Zitkála-Šá circa 1900 (Wikimedia Commons)

Šá ultimately offered an impressive and important challenge to those ideas of Americanization and advocated for Native American cultures. She did so through every layer of her multi-talented professional career, from compiling such writings in a book like American Indian Stories (1921) to co-writing the first Native American opera to her activist contributions to the passage of the 1924 Indian Citizenship Act and the fight for Native American voting rights. And she even did so in the boarding schools themselves, working as a music teacher first at White’s and then at Carlisle, using those positions to open up debates over visions of Native American and American identities.

Remembering the worst of our past isn’t just a matter of focusing on the horrific histories themselves, important as that work is. It’s also a way to better understand how white supremacist ideas and visions of America have shaped every part of our story. The Indian boarding school system potently reflects that destructive influence — but it also contains within it, as our histories always do, models for resistance and for an alternative vision of an inclusive America.

Featured image: Pupils at the Carlisle Indian School (Wikimedia Commons)

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  1. Thanks for the article “Considering History: Indian Boarding Schools” It is curious, indeed, how Native Americans were alienated in their own land. Little was said of their experience in school when i was growing up, and nothing of what is accurately described as genecide. Articles like this are needed more than ever, given the voices that want to deny anything in our history that is not “sanitized.” We can’t heal the wounds if we don’t acknowledge the existence.


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