Indian Boarding Schools
Nichole Garcia at graduation from Sherman High School Nichole Garcia at graduation from Sherman
High School

For Pratt, it was an opportunity to try out his new ideas about education. He began teaching the prisoners English and, after they learned English came European ideas, particularly the concepts of civilization and Christianity. Then came lessons in agriculture and the working trades.

This experiment seemed to work. By April, 1878, 62 of the younger, more easily educated Indians joined the Hampton Institute in Virginia — a "normal school" or teacher training institute founded by abolitionists for blacks. Pratt's savage warriors were on their way to becoming teachers. Pratt publicized the success of his experiment through a series of "then-and-now" photographs showing the "savage" versus the "civilized" Indians.

In 1879, Pratt was ready to extend the experiment to other reservations. He went to the Pine Ridge and Rosebud Sioux reservations in the Dakotas and convinced parents and tribal elders to allow him to take 60 young boys and 24 girls to a new boarding school. Where the previous boarding schools had been near the reservations, this one was in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1,500 miles away. He thought this long distance would surely break the hold that tribal life had on students closer to home.

Follow the trail of these first Indian Boarding School Students on our Interactive Map.

When they got to Carlisle, the students were extremely homesick. Their long hair was cut. One boarding school student, Lone Wolf of the Blackfoot tribe, remembered:

"[Long hair] was the pride of all Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man. If we thought the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This is when the loneliness set in, for it was when we knew that we were all alone. Many boys ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad, but most of them were caught and brought back by the police."

The students were thrown into a military style regimentation of classes and activities. They were up at the call of a bugle at 5:45 a.m. with exercise and military drills following. Breakfast was at 6:45. Industrial work began at 8:00 and formal school at 9:00. After lunch there was more industrial work and school with lectures into the evening. There was less than an hour of free time during each day, and the students were in bed at 9:00 p.m.

Students were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Instead, they were supposed to converse and even think in English. If they were caught "speaking Indian" they were severely beaten with a leather belt.

Students were taught to hate who they were born to be. Ojibwe student Merta Bercier wrote:

"Did I want to be an Indian? After looking at the pictures of the Indians on the warpath — fighting, scalping women and children, and Oh! Such ugly faces. No! Indians were mean people — I'm glad I'm not an Indian, I thought."

Between 1880 and 1902, 25 off-reservation boarding schools were built and 20,000 to 30,000 Native American children went through the system. That was roughly 10 percent of the total Indian population in 1900.

By this time, 460 boarding and day schools had been built near the reservations, most run by religious organizations with government funds. All told, more than 100,000 Native Americans were forced by the U.S. government to attend Christian schools where tribal languages and cultures were replaced by English and Christianity.

Yet, despite the negative aspects of boarding schools, many students stubbornly held on to their tribal identities. Studies have shown that many students went back to their reservations and became leaders in tribal politics.

Others found that getting to know members of other tribes contributed to their sense of kinship and pan-Indian identity. That sense of identity with other tribes led directly to the American Indian Movement (AIM) activism of the late 20th Century over political and cultural self-determination.

For instance, Esther Burnett Horne was a student at the Haskell Institute boarding school. Later she became a teacher at several Indian schools. She remembers her schooling as largely positive. She gained leadership skills, experienced a sense of community, met her husband and discovered role models in Native teachers Ruth Muskrat Bronson and Ella Deloria, women who supported tribal identities. In her own teaching career, Esther worked with Ralph and Rita Erdrich, whose daughter Louise would become a major literary figure. Esther's students included Dennis Banks, George Mitchell and Leonard Peltier, all leaders of the 1960s-70s American Indian Movement.

Like it or not, the boarding school experience gave Native peoples a fundamental component of their tribal identity in 20th Century.

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