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Discussion: Indian Boarding Schools

Fact Sheet: History and Practices of Indian Boarding Schools

· Doctrine of Discovery – originated with a Papal Bull in 1452 issued by pope Nicholas V; permitted Portugal to claim and conquer lands in West Africa. A 1493 Bull aimed to justify Christian European explorer’s claims on land and waterways they “discovered.” The doctrine promoted Christian domination and superiority and led to colonization of Africa, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Americas. In 1792, U.S. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that this European Doctrine of Discovery was international law which was applicable to the new US government as well (Wikipedia).

· Johnson vs. M’Intosh – 1823 US Supreme Court Case resulting from collusive lawsuits where land speculators worked together to make claims to have a desired result; ruled that ownership of land comes into existence by virtue of discovery, a rule observed by all European countries with settlements in the New World (Wikipedia).

· Repudiations of the Doctrine of Discovery: August 2009, General Convention of the Episcopal Church; 2012 Unitarian Universalist Association; 2013 United Church of Christ; 2016 Christian Reformed Church; 2016 Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (“an example of the improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword”); 2018 Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); November 3, 2016 a group of 524 clergy burned copies the doctrine as part of the Standing Rock pipeline protests (Wikipedia).

· Rationale for Indian Boarding Schools: Education would be used as a means of “assimilating” Indian tribes into the mainstream of the “American way of life,” a Protestant ideology of the mid-19th century; teach the importance of private property, material wealth, and monogamous nuclear families. The reformers assumed it was necessary to “civilize” Indian people, make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems (

· Beginning of Boarding Schools: In 1860 the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) established the first Indian boarding school on the Yakima Indian Reservation (Washington)(Ibid).

· Episcopal Boarding Schools in South Dakota: St. Mary’s Indian School, Springfield (Rosebud); St. Elizabeth’s Mission, Wakpala (Standing Rock); St. Paul’s, Yankton; St. John’s, Ft. Bennett

· Facebook Post – Archdeacon Paul Sneve, June 12, 2021: “The members of the Niobrara Deanery know how difficult it is to be a Lakota and a Christian. It is tempting to say that the boarding school was Roman Catholic and that at Episcopalian Boarding Schools in South Dakota, abuses weren't nearly as bad. But even the best Boarding School was still an instrument of genocide. Lakota Christians understand that Jesus did not try to kill our culture and take our children but as a significant part of our Diocese, we must not hide from the sins of the church. As Lakota Christians, let us love Jesus but also call out the sin and work to heal the historic trauma of all Lakota People.”

Excerpts from (Bold print my emphasis)

Boarding schools were the ideal instrument for absorbing people and ideologies that stood in the way of manifest destiny. Schools would quickly be able to assimilate Indian youth. The first priority of the boarding schools would be to provide the rudiments of academic education: reading, writing and speaking of the English language. Arithmetic, science, history and the arts would be added to open the possibility of discovering the “self-directing power of thought.” Indian youth would be individualized. Religious training in Christianity would be taught. The principles of democratic society, institutions and the political structure would give the students citizenship training. The end goal was to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture.

By the 1880s, the U.S. operated 60 schools for 6,200 Indian students, including reservation day schools and reservation boarding schools. The reservation day school had the advantage of being relatively inexpensive and caused the least opposition from parents. The reservation boarding school spent half a day teaching English and academics and half a day on industrial training. Regimentation was the order of the day and students spent endless hours marching to and from classes, meals and dormitories. Order, discipline and self-restraint were all prized values of white society.

For Col. Richard Henry Pratt, the goal was complete assimilation. In 1879, he established the most well known of the off-reservation boarding schools, the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. As Headmaster of the school for 25 years, he was the single most impacting figure in Indian education during his time.

Pratt’s motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Pratt believed that off-reservation schools established in white communities could accomplish this task.

Carlisle and other off-reservation boarding schools instituted their assault on Native cultural identity by first doing away with all outward signs of tribal life that the children brought with them. The long braids worn by Indian boys were cut off. The children were made to wear standard uniforms. The children were given new “white” names, including surnames, as it was felt this would help when they inherited property. Traditional Native foods were abandoned, forcing students to acquire the food rites of white society, including the use of knives, forks, spoons, napkins and tablecloths. In addition, students were forbidden to speak their Native languages, even to each other. The Carlisle school rewarded those who refrained from speaking their own language; most other boarding schools relied on punishment to achieve this aim.

The Indian boarding schools taught history with a definite white bias. Columbus Day was heralded as a banner day in history and a beneficent development in their own race’s fortune, as only after discovery did Indians enter the stream of history. Thanksgiving was a holiday to celebrate “good” Indians having aided the brave Pilgrim Fathers. New Year’s was a reminder of how white people kept track of time and George Washington’s birthday served as a reminder of the Great White Father. On Memorial Day, some students at off-reservation schools were made to decorate the graves of soldiers sent to kill their fathers.

Half of each school day was spent on industrial training. Girls learned to cook, clean, sew, care for poultry and do laundry for the entire institution. Boys learned industrial skills such as blacksmithing, shoemaking or performed manual labor such as farming. Since the schools were required to be as self-sufficient as possible, students did the majority of the work. By 1900, economic practicality became the goal and school curriculum slanted even further toward industrial training while academics languished.

Conversion to Christianity was also deemed essential to the cause. Indian boarding schools were expected to develop a curriculum of religious instruction, placing emphasis on the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes and Psalms. Implanting ideas of sin and a sense of guilt were part of Sunday schools. Christianity governed gender relations at the schools and most schools invested their energy in keeping the sexes apart, in some cases endangering the lives of the students by locking girls in their dormitories at night — meaning they could not get out, even in the case of fire. There were, however, ritualized social activities such as dances and promenades.

Discipline within the Indian boarding schools was severe and generally consisted of confinement, deprivation of privileges, threat of corporal punishment or restriction of diet. In addition to coping with the severe discipline, Indian students were ravaged by disease at boarding schools. Tuberculosis and trachoma (“sore eyes”) were the greatest threats. In December of 1899, measles broke out at the Phoenix Indian School, reaching epidemic proportions by January. In its wake, 325 cases of measles, 60 cases of pneumonia, and 9 deaths were recorded in a 10-day period.

Naturally, Indian people resisted the schools in various ways. Sometimes entire villages refused to enroll their children in white men’s schools. Indian agents on the reservations normally resorted to withholding rations or sending in agency police to enforce the school policy. In some cases, police were sent onto the reservations to seize children from their parents, whether willing or not. The police would continue to take children until the school was filled, so sometimes orphans were offered up or families would negotiate a family quota. Navajo police officers avoided taking “prime” children and would take children assumed to be less intelligent, those not well cared for or those physically impaired.

It was not until 1978 with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.

Some Native American parents saw boarding school education for what it was intended to be — the total destruction of Indian culture. Others objected to specific aspects of the education system, the manner of discipline and the drilling. Still others were concerned for their children’s health and associated the schools with death. Resentment of the boarding schools was most severe because the schools broke the most sacred and fundamental of all human ties, the parent-child bond.

Personal Note: This is a rather hurried and incomplete attempt to provide some information on this topic; it is by n means complete. The above material comes from various Internet sources. In most cases, I have provided the citations. I encourage you to visit the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition ( – Fr. Larry Ort

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