Choices and Legacies
“I didn’t feel at ease in the home of my parents now. My father and my mother, my sister and my older brother told me to take off those clothes and wear Hopi attire …. I didn’t wear them …. My mother said she was glad I was home. If I would stay there, she would not urge me to change my ways. I could wear any kind of clothes that I wanted to wear if I would just stay at home with her.”
-Helen Sekaquaptewa, returning to Hopi mesas from Phoenix Indian School, 1918
The multi-generational impact of the assimilation-period schools continue to be felt today. Separation of young children from their families and communities was traumatic and the repercussions are felt today. The attempt to eradicate Native languages and cultures was wrong. It is a part of American history that must be acknowledged. It is a testimony to the human spirit that Native cultural expressions were maintained and a sense of independence, leadership and unity developed among the students. In some cases, students felt the boarding schools reinforced their ethnic identity or “Indianness.”
Returning home to family and community was just as varied and sometimes as difficult as the boarding school experience. Students did not always fit in when back at their home community—they did not easily speak their Native language, and their hair and clothing were different. Trying to move to a city also proved difficult, with rampant discrimination and feelings of loneliness. Students had not been prepared to live successfully in either world—the world of white Americans or their home communities. Each student had to adapt to unique circumstances and forge his or her own path. Some students left school and returned to their community as teachers and leaders. Others went to live and work on other Indian lands, working for the government, or joined the military.
“I live in a white society and it wasn’t working out for me right. It wasn’t about my personality or who I was inside, it was the outside of me they judged. I felt comfortable with all these other Indians here so I stayed here. I came back every year.”
-Christine Begay (Navajo), student at Sherman Institute, 1999
She pursued a career as a teacher and early on—in the 1920s—advocated for teaching bilingually, introducing subjects to students in their native Hopi and then transitioning to English. It was not until 1940 that her methods were accepted. In fact, the Bureau of Indian Affairs asked Qöyawayma to demonstrate bilingual teaching across the U.S.
When she returned to teach school on Third Mesa, she encouraged her students to take the best of Hopi and American culture to succeed, individually. In her memoir she recalls this memory and encounter:
” ‘That is my home … in that place of ruins is the evidence of my beginning. My roots are there. A part of me is there still, in the old home of my parents, in the hill house of my grandmother, in the very dust that whispers in the streets where I played so long ago. Is that where I belong now?’ She encounters the chief of the village: ‘I am Polingaysi, of this village. Perhaps you have forgotten me. I have been away for a long time.’ He responds, ‘Polingaysi! You are the little one who wanted to be a white man.’ “
“During the time the children are away at school, learning more and more of the skills that it will take for them to live in the cities and become leaders in that world, they are learning less and less about their people and themselves. When they come back educated they are no longer the same children that we once saw leave for school. Some of them return home after so many years and are strangers to their own people. But much worse, they are strangers to themselves.”
-Yupiktak Bista, Bethel, Alaska, 1974
A Global Story
Colonizing governments in New Zealand, Australia, and North and South America have forced Indigenous peoples to attend boarding schools. Each country’s stories are distinctive, yet the Indigenous children share similar traumas.
The residential schools in Canada, which operated from the 1830s to 1996, were administered by Christian churches. The government subsidized the schools, but funding never was sufficient to cover the costs of the schools. The zeal and self-righteous character of missionaries in a colonial society, backed by the coercive powers of a government imbued in the racist philosophy of the day, fostered a culture of neglect and physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children of Canada. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was organized in 2008 with the purpose of documenting the history and impact of residential schools. Former students were provided opportunity to share their experiences in public and private meetings across Canada. The Commission spent six years collecting approximately 6,000 testimonials. Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized for the role of past governments in administration of residential schools. In 2015 the Executive Summary of the findings of the Commission included 94 “calls to action” under the categories of child welfare, education, language and culture, health and justice.
Abuses were also perpetuated within U.S. boarding schools, although some reforms took hold in the 1930s. Canadian residential schools saw few changes into the 1950s. When funding increased in the 1960s, the coercive, assimilationist residential school mission began to change, although neither the Canadian nor the U.S. systems were ever free of abuse.
“Intimidation and fear were very much present in our daily lives. For instance, we would cower from the abusive disciplinary practices of some superiors, such as the one who yanked my cousin’s ear hard enough to tear it. After a nine-year-old girl was raped in her dormitory bed during the night, we girls would be so scared that we would jump into each other’s bed as soon as the lights went out. The sustained terror in our hearts further tested our endurance, as it was better to suffer with a full bladder and be safe than to walk through the dark, seemingly endless hallway to the bathroom. When we were older, we girls anguished each time we entered the classroom of a certain male teacher who stalked and molested girls.”
-Bernice Levchuck, 1997, in Reinventing the Enemy’s Language: Contemporary Native Women’s Writings of North America
“It always seemed like every time I wanted to talk about this sexual abuse, it seemed like nobody wanted to listen … it hurts, it really hurts! It’s [a] tough thing to have to live with. I want to put it out in the open, to talk about it, ’cause I want to deal with it, I need to deal with it …. I was really scared to come out into the world, because of the way I felt, a lot of shame.”
-Ehattesaht (Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, First Nations, Canada, 1996
“I don’t believe that we can talk too harshly about what we have suffered, we Indian people have suffered from that particular point in our history, I call it… the Hiroshima, of Indian education, because it basically destroyed the fiber of our family life.”
-Rosemary Christiansen, Minnesota Public Radio, 1991
Susan Hudson, Navajo, b. 1958, The Beginning of the End, 2019. Cotton, polyester. Susan Traditional Woman Hudson’s quilts are chapters of a narrative which span generations. This quilt honors family and close friends who attended Toadlena Boarding School in Newcomb, New Mexico. Gift of the artist, 4938-1.
Jane Ash Poitras, Cree, b. 1951, Family Blackboard, 1989, Mixed-media collage. This series addresses assimilation of Native people through education. Heard Museum purchase, IAC2383
Survival and Persistence
Graduation at Santa Fe Indian School, 1984. Hollis Engley, photographer. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The boarding schools were designed to change the Indian into a “White man.” Instead, the students changed the schools into “Indian” schools. Despite the difficult history associated with the boarding schools, today generations choose to attend the schools of their parents or grandparents. The closing of the boarding schools has been met with a mixture of emotions including sadness, anger, loss and nostalgia. Many community members do not support the closures because the federal government promised to provide the tribes with education for their children in exchange for their land and the loss of other rights. For those people, the boarding schools represent the fulfillment of U.S. promises.
Today, American Indian education takes many forms, from public schools to charter schools and programs for language immersion and cultural revitalization. In 2018, the Bureau of Indian Education oversees 183 schools in 23 states, with 130 of these schools tribally controlled. The BIE oversees two post-secondary schools: Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas; and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico. There are 40 tribally controlled community colleges. Four federally operated off-reservation boarding schools are managed by the BIE: Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California; Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon; Flandreau Indian School in Flandreau, South Dakota; and Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
Physical and emotional violations that happened in boarding schools still have an impact today. As people continue learning about the impact of boarding school experiences, some boarding school survivors are seeking avenues for healing and justice. As more accounts are written and as more boarding school students speak out, we begin to see the complete picture of the importance of American Indian boarding schools in U.S. history.