Boarding Schools

Source: National Archives

Source: National Archives

Chiracahua Apaches upon arrival at Carlisle from Fort Marion, Florida, November 4, 1886

Chiracahua Apaches four months after arrival at Carlisle, March 1887


As Esther Attean shares in First Light (at 1 minute, 52 seconds), in the late 1800s Congress authorized funding of boarding schools for Native children who were removed from their homes and often sent thousands of miles away to make them accept white culture and Christian religious beliefs. Some say the main purpose of the schools was to civilize Native children; others contend it was to destroy Native American culture.  Eventually there were well over a hundred schools in the U.S. and attendance was compulsory. In one known case, parents who refused to allow their children to be taken by boarding school agents were imprisoned. [1]  

Upon arrival children were forbidden to speak their language or wear their hair and clothes as they wished. Some were bathed in kerosene. There were many accounts of overcrowding, beatings, malnourishment, corporal punishment, and overwork. Strict discipline was the norm and children spent more time laboring than learning. Many died, others ran away, and some eventually graduated. Often children weren’t allowed to see their families for years and those who did get home reported feeling like outcasts, no longer part of their birth culture. 

The first federal off-reservation Indian Boarding School was opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in 1879. Luther Standing Bear, an Oglala Lakota chief born on the Pine Ridge Reservation, claimed to be the first student at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. As quoted in American Indian Education: A History, he shares:

So we went to school to copy, to imitate; not to exchange languages and ideas, and not to develop the best traits that had come out of uncountable experiences of hundreds and thousands of years living upon this continent. So, while the white people had much to teach us, we had much to teach them, and what a school could have been established upon that idea! However, this was not the attitude of the day….

Zitkala-Sa, ca. 1898, photographed by Gertrude Kasebier

Zitkala-Sa, ca. 1898, photographed by Gertrude Kasebier

Another Native chronicler of the harsh boarding school experience is Zitkala-Sa, born in 1879 as Gertrude Bonnin on the Yankton Reservation in South Dakota. Raised by her Sioux mother until the age of eight, she was educated at a Quaker institute and Earlham College, and later used her considerable skills as a writer to convey the reality of boarding schools to a white audience. 

Zitkala-Sa advocated for United States citizenship for Indians and additional reforms. She and others pressed for an investigation into government treatment of Oklahoma tribes and corruption in Indian affairs, which led to the creation of the Meriam Commission. 

In the 1920s, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior commissioned the Brookings Institution to investigate the impact of Indian policy. The findings were compiled in a groundbreaking study, known as the Meriam Report, on the impact of government policies on Native peoples, including boarding schools. They were an indictment of the schools, which had done little to prepare the students academically or vocationally, and caused them great harm physically, emotionally, and with regard to their personal and cultural identity.


What role did the Indian Boarding Schools play in assimilation of Native peoples and attempted annihilation of their cultures? 



“An Indian Teacher Among Indians”


American Indian Stories


The Problem of the Indian Administration



The School Days of an Indian Girl


An Indian Teacher Among Indians


Questions & Activities

  1. Before screening First Light, look at the side-by-side photos at the top of this page. How are these photos similar? How are they different? When viewed together, what stories do the photos tell? NOTE: Read these instructions if you want to use the Question Formulation Technique as a pre-screening activity. (For more information see Right Question Institute).
  2. Read the quote from Luther Standing Bear in the summary section above. Imagine a school based on the principle of idea and knowledge exchange and describe your vision. Why did the boarding school reality turn out to be disappointing for Luther Standing Bear?
  3. Read the excerpt from Zitkala-Sa’s article, “An Indian Teacher Among Indians.” 
    • What barriers do you think she may have faced in communicating her personal experiences to a white audience? In what ways do you think she was successful?
    • To what degree was the goal of assimilation met in her case? 
  4. Read the excerpt from Zitkala-Sa’s American Indian Stories
    • What dream did she have about “Red Apple Country”?
    • How was she treated by the “palefaces” on the train? Which behaviors surprised her? Why was she surprised?
    • In what ways did Native American boarding school students resist attempts to assimilate them? 
    • Describe her feelings of marginalization and consider whether you have ever felt anything similar. 
  5. Read the excerpt from the Lewis Meriam report:
    • What story does the author tell about the Indian Boarding Schools? What rules were applied to the children? Were the children able to question those rules? Based on the evidence provided in the report, summarize the conditions in the Indian Boarding Schools. How would you define the biggest problem Native children faced in the schools? 
    • How would you describe the author’s perspective on government policy toward the Indians?

[1] In 1895 nineteen Hopi men were imprisoned on Alcatraz for refusing to allow their children to be taken to government boarding schools.