As a historian, and as a descendant of Ojibwe grandparents who attended these schools at the height of the assimilation movement, I have had many conversations with my community and students about this complex period. Recently, a reporter asked me if the United States needs a truth and reconciliation commission to address this history. The discovery of mass graves of children in Canada has shocked many non-Indians. For them, boarding schools are a distant and relatively unknown chapter. They may wonder what will be uncovered here — what the country has collectively forgotten or failed to learn. (American Indian scholars, including me, have spent decades researching and calling attention to students’ deaths from tuberculosis and the influenza pandemic of 1918, documented in records of the former schools.)
Indian education in the United States and Canada originated in the same colonial project — one that imposed private property rights and Christianity on Indigenous people at a time when their lands and resources were viewed as ripe for plunder. But it’s important to note that the two school systems differed in design and scope. Canada farmed out Indian education to organizations like the Catholic and Anglican churches. Here, the federal government ran Indian boarding schools, employing teachers and staff from the Indian School Service, some of whom were American Indians. In Canada, residential schools continued for a half-century after their assimilation-model counterparts in the United States began to shutter in 1933.
This is because the U.S. schools had a very specific purpose: They helped the government acquire Indian lands. Beginning with Carlisle in Pennsylvania in 1879 and ending with the Sherman Institute in California in 1903, the U.S. government operated 25 off-reservation boarding schools. (Some religious denominations also opened their own mission schools.) At the same time, a massive dispossession took place in the form of the General Allotment Act, which authorized the president to survey and divide Indian lands. Boarding schools, designed to reeducate Indian youth who would no longer have a tribal homeland, went hand in hand with this genocidal policy.
Though the schools were motivated by greed, humanitarian language about assimilating Indians ran deep. Politicians claimed that tribal life was obsolete and that our ancestors needed U.S. citizenship and American values of individualism. Young people were trained as agricultural or industrial workers as their homelands were being carved up and sold. Like most boarding school girls, my grandmother was sent out to work as a domestic servant in a White household. Boarding schools were English-only environments, damaging our languages as well as our cultural institutions.
By the 1930s, the United States had accomplished what it set out to do at the beginning of the assimilation era: control reservation properties and turn them over to White landowners. Twice dispossessed, my grandfather was forced from his home on the Mille Lacs Reservation to White Earth, where the state of Minnesota illegally took his and other allotments, allowing timber companies to clear-cut the white pine forests.
With dispossession and impoverishment complete, it was no longer necessary to keep Indians in segregated schools. Progressive educators suddenly found little resistance to integration. By the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, even bureaucrats disparaged the boarding schools: Roosevelt’s commissioner of Indian affairs, John Collier, referred to them as “medieval” institutions. Most of them closed, though some, including the Sherman Institute in California, remained open largely to offset the poverty of Indian families during the Great Depression, providing regular meals, clothing and housing for children. Though these often-underfunded schools continued to exploit student labor — which included farm work, baking, sewing and laundry, tasks that allowed the schools to operate — they adopted modern education policies not from the assimilation model, encouraging students to visit home during holidays and summer vacations.
The boarding school system yielded a surprising continuum of experiences among the students. Some were clearly abused, and suffered. Some tolerated school or even found happiness and refuge there: George White Bull, for example, describes being impatient to enroll as a fifth-grader in 1913 and join the school band. My grandmother told me stories of the times she was rebellious at school, and the friendships she made there; she also talked about how she re-embraced her culture and language upon returning home to her family. She and other students, most of whom I encountered in documents and letters, made it impossible for me to view this history as one of simple victimization. Students, even young children, resisted school policies by running away, burning down buildings and staging protests. And families, even from hundreds of miles away, parented as best as they could, keeping in close communication with officials to challenge school policies or to check on their children’s well-being and classwork. After reading hundreds of boarding school letters, I have learned never to underestimate American Indian families.
These experiences are complex and wide-ranging, and impossible to reduce to a single, universal narrative. Understandably, though, many American Indian people invoke the broad concept of the boarding school as a way to build a shared past, linking tribal people of diverse backgrounds to a devastating common history. Perhaps, like the Trail of Tears or Wounded Knee, the boarding school is symbolic of American colonialism at its most genocidal: The system’s start coincided with the end of the Indian Wars; the oldest and best-known school, Carlisle, was once a military establishment. Boarding schools aligned federal authority with the zealotry of religious missions. They depended on national and local authorities, including police, to abduct and remove children from their parents. They suppressed Indian cultures while opening the door to alienation from land and the extension of Anglo-American culture into the lives and souls of Indian people. Boarding school, with its links to all of these institutions and abuses, functions as a potent political metaphor for colonialism itself.
The Interior Department’s investigation may lead to a long-delayed public reckoning, prompting the question: How can the United States make amends for a half-century of boarding schools? The boarding school era stripped American Indian landowners of 90 million acres; we have never recovered. My own tribe in northern Minnesota has been asking for the return of a portion of Upper Red Lake that was illegally taken from us after 1887. The Lakotas have pursued a land settlement in the Black Hills of South Dakota for generations, rejecting a monetary payment favored by U.S. courts. Americans are about to confront a horrific history they never learned. Perhaps this will lead them to confront another buried truth, about the loss the boarding schools were designed to abet: the largest dispossession of land in American history.