Cultural Genocide at Indian Boarding Schools


Students at Carlisle Indian School

More than 700 unmarked graves found at a former residential school in Canada A headline that is horrifying, but not entirely surprising if you know much about the history of the residential boarding school program. Designed to “civilize” indigenous people through education, the residential schools were a way of killing a culture rather than continuing to fight the Indian Wars.

(A brief note about my qualifications and my lack there of: I did my dissertation on school girl narratives and cultural citizenship in American literature. I did research for a chapter to be focused on the Native American boarding schools in the U.S., but the chapter ended up getting scrapped for various reasons. I am not, however, an Indigenous person so there are naturally limits to what I can say with authority. There are excellent sources about the boarding schools. Please see the list below.)

The residential schools were abusive at best. There’s no way around it. As Dr. Heather Cox Richardson pointed out in a recent history chat on the topic, the people who set up the schools believed they were doing good, saving souls. The process, however, was traumatic from top to bottom, built on a paternalistic belief that white people’s culture and white people’s systems were better for indigenous children than their own communities could offer. Children were essentially stolen from their families, treated harshly, not allowed to speak their own languages, and punished for practicing their own cultures. Over and over in the literature about the residential schools, there are violent scenes of the children’s hair being cut off. In many Native American cultures a person’s hair is sacred, an important marker of their identity.

I say this with all due respect to the survivors: these schools were designed to be Genocide Lite.

So now that the mass graves are being discovered, we really shouldn’t be shocked.

Education is a form of “soft power,” a way to push an agenda, build a culture, and mold citizens into what the dominant voices think a citizen should be. These residential schools, however, were not the same thing as sending Native American kids to a public school where they would be forced to pledge allegiance to the flag or play pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving. They were a hostage situation. Children regularly disappeared after trying to run back to their families. They were a means of kidnapping the future of a civilization.

“Kill the Indian, and Save the Man” was the slogan put forth by Cpt. Richard Pratt, a key figure in the founding of the Carlisle Indian School. Genocide with the thinnest veneer of good intentions.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of the Interior (the department that houses Indian Affairs), the first Indigenous person to serve as a secretary in the Cabinet, announced earlier this week that her department would launch an investigation in the the residential schools in the U.S. She said, “The interior department will address the inter-generational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be. I know that this process will be long and difficult. I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”

It would be naive to think that the investigation will not uncover tragedies as horrifying as those being unearthed in Canada.

As I said, I do not have personal experience with the trauma of these schools, but I have created a brief list of sources if you would like to learn about this chapter in U.S. history.

Books About Indian Residential Schools

They Called It Prairie Light : The Story of Chilocco Indian School

Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940

Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors

Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School


American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many (NPR)

U.S. Indian Boarding School History

Death by Civilization (The Atlantic)

History and Culture: Boarding Schools (Northern Plains Reservation Aid)

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