|Apache Boarding School students
When I began a story set in 1911 at a Navajo mission school, I imagined a day school where children came in the morning and went home each night. But I quickly discovered boarding schools formed the vast majority of mission or government schools for Native American children during the 19th and 20th centuries.
These boarding schools formed a cornerstone of the “assimilation” approach to the late 1800s so-called “Indian problem.” With the near-completion of westward expansion, the indigenous inhabitants were quickly being crowded out of their centuries-old homelands and way of life. Though armed resistance seemed mostly subdued after the 1890 tragedy at Wounded Knee, Native Americans’ traditional nomadic lifestyle seemed incompatible with white settlers’, and the United States government simply did not know what to do with them.
Some, including Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, actually advocated for “total annihilation” as a solution. The more “humane” method adopted came largely through boarding schools. By taking Native children from their families and bringing them up in conformity to the dominant culture, they would lose their “Indian-ness” and be able to assimilate into white society—or that was the hope. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” Captain Richard Pratt called it. His Carlisle Indian School, founded in 1879 in Pennsylvania, served as a model for many boarding schools to come.
|Navajo Tom - Before and after "conversion" 1882
As I learned about these schools and the children who attended them, my heart began to be broken. No doubt many of those who founded these boarding schools and advocated for this approach meant well. But when one people automatically assume their ways to be superior and more God-given than another’s, damage is done. On the Navajo reservation, at least two entire generations of children were raised in the militaristic setting of boarding school rather than by their parents. These children themselves thus never learned how to parent, leading to widely disintegrating families today. The attempt to forcibly remove culture and language has also contributed to a deep identity crisis among many Native Americans.
Not all children had a bad experience at boarding school. For some who came from poor or even abusive families, school became a refuge of safety and three meals a day. But regardless, the impact of boarding schools on Native American society has been indelible. Many of these schools still exist as mission and day schools on reservations today.