november 27: Unspoken: The Story of American’s Native Boarding Schools

The negative impact of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th century residential school system, designed to force young Native North Americans to assimilate into white/European culture, has been addressed in the context of Canada through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. (future post)

However, within the context of American history, the topic of the native boarding school is an “unspoken history.” (to watch PBS Utah’s “Unspoken: The Story of America’s Native Boarding Schools,” click here.)

An abbreviated and edited version of the online essay “Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools” which includes additional video segments/interviews follows:

The experiment in assimilation, which became the native boarding school system, roots lie in the efforts of Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt in Fort Marion, Florida. He and his unit of Buffalo Soldiers captured 72 men from several Plains nations near Oklahoma, and after transporting them to Florida, began the process of “civilizing” these “savages.” Methods included forced hair cutting, dressing in military-style uniforms, and learning (and speaking only) English. Given that the usual response to the “Indian question/problem” was forced removal or extermination (genocide), Pratt’s concept of “kill the Indian, save the Man” seemed progressive.

Underlying the native boarding school movement, was the government and society’s assumption that these “civilized” native children would either return to their tribes to perpetuate “white ways” or to resolve the need for reservations/tribal lands at all:

If [white society] can assimilate these Native Americans into the dominant culture then they have no need for reservations, they’re going to migrate into urban areas and there will be no need to maintain tribal lands, because they would have lost their culture, the language, all ties to what they held so sacred…and that was the land.

Christy Abeyta, Santa Fe Indian School, PBS Utah, “Unspoken”

The Dawes Act of 1887 was a further attempt to “civilize:” tribal/reservation land held in common was re-allotted to individual families following the “western family land” ideal of farming. However, not only was the land often unsuitable for farming, supplies such as seeds and farm implements withheld (and sold for a profit by various people within the supply chain), the Act also meant unscrupulous Indian agents – appointed by the government to oversee reservations – often sold off the best land to white homesteads, ranchers, railroad companies and land speculators. “By 1900 Indians had lost 60 million acres of reservation land.” PBS Utah, “Unspoken”

By convincing some tribal leaders of the utility of having children who could interpret and better understand treaties signed with the government, Pratt opened the Pennsylvania Carlisle Indian School in 1879 with a class of 147 children. His experiment with 72 Native Americans prisoners in Florida became the full immersion system of the Indian boarding school.

image Carlisle school: Student body assembled on the Carlisle Indian School Grounds/ Photo courtesy of and Carlisle Indian School Organization

The system was brutal forced assimilation: children were separated from siblings; hair cut; traditional clothing removed (replaced by uniforms); only English was allowed; native languages were to be “unspoken.”

Tom Torlino (Navajo) before and after (circa 1882)


PBS Utah’s “Unspoken” uses Santa Fe Indian School, founded in 1890, as a lens by which to explore the Indian boarding school system. Santa Fe, like Chemawa in Oregon, Pueblo in Colorado, and Haskell in Kansas followed the Carlisle model of eliminating all native culture, language, and influence.

Sally Hyer wrote about the students experience in her book, One House, One Voice, One Heart: Native American Education at the Santa Fe Indian School. Children experienced an overwhelming loneliness and fear in these new surroundings. While there were some benefits such as running water and new shoes, overall, their experiences were negative. Uprooted, placed in a foreign environment, forced lose all sense and knowledge of their culture, undernourished and overworked, runaways were caught and returned; boarding school life cast a long shadow on Native Americans.

[Boarding school] was very destructive. It caused historic trauma among most of our people, including myself, to this day. It was so ineffective that it did not train us to become confident in the white world, and it took us away from our own culture, so much so that we weren’t even competent as Indians anymore.

Forrest Cuch, owner of Full Circle American Indian Consulting and the former director of Indian Affairs for the state of Utah.

The Progressive Era (1890s to 1920s) was a period of social activism and social reform: “Women’s suffrage, prohibition, child labor, and health reforms on businesses were all part of the public discourse. Immigration reform and restriction were volatile issues, with the demand for ‘Americanization’ of all immigrants.” PBS Utah, “Unspoken”

Against this backdrop, the assimilation versus elimination of Native Americans continued to be debated. Some Americans were compassionate and concerned, advocating for Native American rights, and providing philanthropic assistance (even if some of their attitudes and assistance seem misguided/biased by 2020 standards.) Further attempts to “steal” native land occurred through legislation, such as the 1922 Bursum Bill.

A turning point in Native Americans education, and Native American rights developed out of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policies. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, the Indian New Deal’s was designed to give tribes more opportunity for self-governance and self-determination; reinforced the sovereignty of different nations across the country; addressed the loss of reservation land; and created a priority and more equitable hiring system within the Commission of Indian Affairs. John Collier, appointed to head the Commission of Indian Affairs by FDR, wanted to close many of the national, distant boarding schools, replacing them with regional/local ones. This also led to an increase in the number of boarding school students.

Unfortunately, problems persisted:

If you get caught talking Navajo to another student, your name is on the list. And the way they used to do it was they’d get a bar of soap, and they’d shave it off with the pocketknife, and then they mix it with water. Then that’s what you use to rinse your mouth. Don’t ever use another word of Navajo.

Roy Smith, student at the Tuba City Boarding School in the 1950s



Even prior to the government’s change in attitude towards native American education, at the Santa Fe Indian School in the 1920s, curriculum began to focus on the traditional arts. But it was the arrival of Dorothy Dunn that was more transformative:

When Dorothy Dunn established The Studio for art instruction at the Santa Fe Indian School in September 1932, she helped to bring together national and local movements that would improve Indian education, develop a new Indian painting genre, and foster a market for Indian painting. Dunn’s five years at the Santa Fe Indian School transformed Indian education from a militaristic discipline designed to suppress the children’s cultures to curricula that valued and promoted their traditional heritage. “With a View to the Southwest: Dorothy Dunn,” The Collector’s Guide

By 1945, the government shifted from strengthening tribal governance to an attitude of “integration.” One example: taking responsibility for education away from the tribes and on to the states. And, even with the Santa Fe’s school focus on traditional arts: “manual labor and trades were a primary focus of education. Much of the students’ time was spent on maintaining the schools, mending their own shoes and clothing, even firing up the boilers at 5:30 AM for heat. “Unspoken”

During the civil rights era (1960s and 1970s), Native Americans brought awareness to their issues through the Red Power Movement through  AIM (the American Indian Movement; a social justice organization), the occupation of Alcatraz and the events at Wounded Knee.


(photo ilka hartmann)

. . . the 18-month occupation of Alcatraz signaled the beginning of the Red Power movement, a name that functioned as commentary on the intertribal nature of the organizations that made up the movement. It was the natural development from the Native nationalism that had defined prior movements, and an attempt at establishing solidarity among hundreds of tribal nations. Nick Martin, “The Rebirth of Red Power”

From what I understood at the time, there were many people passionate about making a dramatic stand at Wounded Knee that would highlight everything we as Oglala Lakota and generally, Indigenous people everywhere, were suffering with and fighting against.

Grassroots Memories of a Teenage Girl 1973,  Ethleen Iron Cloud-Two Dogs.

With the passing of the Indian Civil Rights Act (1968), and the US Senate Report, Indian Education: A National Tragedy—A National Challenge (1969), Native Americans gradually wrested control of their own education system, culminating in the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act (1973) which included the development of schools on reservation lands, not in regional areas. This led to a decline in the number of boarding schools.

The legacy  of these schools can be viewed as not entirely negative:

The best thing about boarding schools is that it enabled our kids to develop relationships not only within our tribe, but inter-tribally. It created an intertribal Pan-Indian relationship across our country, enabled our people to relate to one another, and strengthened our political relationship nationally.  We have one of the strongest, oldest organizations in the country called the National Congress of American Indians, and it’s done a lot of good work.  A lot of that came about because of the boarding school intertribal relationship that developed from those schools.

Forrest Cuch

The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) closed the Santa Fe School in 1962, before reforms to the system; students were then forced to attend the faltering Albuquerque Indian Boarding School: “Studies showed that in 1975, 75% of the student population at the Albuquerque Indian School had been expelled, half the students were below grade level in reading, three quarters below grade level in math, and eleven out of 30 teaching positions were vacant.” “Unspoken”

However, as a result of other governmental changes, the All Indian Pueblo Council (1965) took control over the issues they felt were most pressing, including education. With the election of Delfin Lovato (1970) to the Council, and the hiring of Joseph Abeyta (Navajo) as school superintendent, the Albuquerque school became the first to be administered outside of the BIA.

The renaissance of the Albuquerque School made the All Pueblo Council consider reopening the Santa Fe school with a new emphasis on general education:

From my humble standpoint, that school really belongs to the Pueblos.  It was originally established to serve the area tribes, but the BIA, without any consultation, chose to establish a high school with an emphasis on art, and later changed it to an art institute.

Joseph Abeyta

The crumbling Albuquerque school was closed, students shifted to Santa Fe, and the Arts Institute was set up on a separate campus. By 1980, 450 students were in attendance. Now, the school offers college prep classes, computer programming, math and science, and language arts. There are courses in Native American history and silversmithing.

I’ve been in public schools in Albuquerque and I never had the same connection that I do with my teachers here.  I never got the attention and the assistance that I have here. . .. [Reflecting on the school’s past]: It’s definitely hard to think about boarding schools, the pain and anguish that Native Americans were put through during that time.  But I think today it’s very different, and the purpose is to nurture Native Americans, and to ultimately benefit and to support and to improve who we are as a people as a whole.

Alicea Olascoaga, Santa Fe alumni, attending Dartmouth College

Similarly, other boarding schools were closed or shifted their focus. Carlisle is a National Historic Landmark; Haskell Indian School (Lawrence, Kansas) is now Haskell Indian Nations UniversitySherman Indian High School (Riverside, California) has moved away from assimilation while maintain a military-style boarding school milieu by incorporating classes in native languages, college prep and career pathway programs.


Mission Statement

…so long as the hoop was unbroken — the people flourished.

— Black Elk, Oglala Sioux Holy Man


Haskell is a unique and diverse inter-tribal university committed to the advancement of sovereignty, self-determination, and the inherent rights of tribes.


The mission of Haskell Indian Nations University is to build the leadership capacity of our students by serving as the leading institution of academic excellence, cultural and intellectual prominence, and holistic education that addresses the needs of Indigenous communities. Haskell Indian Nations University

In 2003, the staff of the Santa Fe Indian School wrote that:

The Ideal Graduate will understand the issues facing tribes in the Southwest and will be committed to maintaining Native American cultural values. They will participate in the culture of their communities, and will have the skills to pursue the education or careers that will benefit them, their families, and their people. These skills include: Creative problem solving, using the analysis of complex problems, the synthesis of collected data, and the communication of clear solutions; Critical, confident, independent and interdependent, life-long learning; Working productively with all types of people and making good choices. Santa Fe Indian School

In a future post, I will give an overview of the Canadian residential school experience and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which sought to bring the issue forward and to help those generations affected by the system.