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Examining the Painful Legacy of Native American Boarding Schools in the U.S.

The recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at Indigenous residential schools in Canada has helped draw more attention to the troubling legacy of similar institutions in California and elsewhere in the United States.

In June, the U.S. launched its own investigation into the long history of abuse and loss of life at hundreds of boarding schools for Native American children run by the federal government from the mid-1800s through much of the 20th century. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, said she wants the investigation to focus particular attention on cemeteries and possible burial sites.

For more than 100 years, the U.S. government forcibly relocated tens of thousands of Native American children to boarding schools under an assimilation program meant to suppress their languages, beliefs and identities.

Historians estimate that by the early 20th century, more than three-quarters of all Native children attended one of more than 350 re-education schools, including an estimated 10 in California.

Lauren Peters, a Native American Studies doctoral student at UC Davis, and a member of the Agdaagux Tribe in the Unangax̂ Nation in Alaska, learned that a relative — her great, great aunt Sophia — was one of 14 Alaskan Native children buried at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.

Sophia, Peters learned, was sent to the Carlisle school in 1901 and is believed to have died from tuberculosis in 1906.

In July, Peters’ family was able to bring Sophia’s remains back to Alaska.

“She was sung into the grave, in Unangam Tunuu, which is our language,” she said. “And I really felt that she was at peace at that point.”

It was a relief, Peters said, that Sophia was in a marked grave and there were documents to prove her identity.

“We’re 99% sure that this is Sophia. And we felt really good about that. I felt like, there’s one less child in that cemetery and that’s a good thing,” said Peters.

Unfortunately, Peters said, there are many other children buried across the U.S. and Canada in unmarked graves and it’s unclear whether their identities will ever be known to families.

KQED spoke with Peters and two other experts to discuss the painful history of Native American boarding schools.

Lauren Peters, a member of the Agdaagux tribe in Alaska and a doctoral student at UC Davis who’s been working to find and document Alaska native children who are buried in Native American boarding school cemeteries. William Bauer, American Indian history professor, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and enrolled tribal member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes in northern Mendocino County Lindsay Montgomery, assistant professor of anthropology and co-author of “Objects of Survivance: A Material History of the American Indian School Experience”, University of Arizona

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Help me understand the genesis of these schools in the 1800s. What ideology informed them? What was behind their creation?Lindsay Montgomery: The schools became a key part of the federal government’s approach to the “Indian problem,” as it was called at the time during the 1870s under the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. Grant is saying to himself, and other Christian-minded folks, that we need to come up with a better way to deal with the remaining Native population.

What he comes up with is what’s called the Grant Peace Policy. And education was a fundamental part of that policy because it was believed that education was this humane way of assimilating Native people into the larger American society and making them self-sufficient citizens who wouldn’t need government funding to be able to thrive within the dominant white society.

What was life like for children at some of these schools?Lindsay Montgomery: Richard Henry ​​Pratt [who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania and once ignominiously announced, “Kill the Indian, and save the man”] was one of the innovators of the outing program. The outing program happened primarily during the summer months where students would be sent out to live in white homes to work as domestic laborers. During the 10-month school year, they followed a regimented curriculum. They had to do daily chores. They had to do daily drills, in military style. They had to have regular classes and things like reading, writing and arithmetic. They also had a daily prayer. They had to do daily Bible readings. They went to church and they also did a lot of physical labor.

Native children at Carlisle Indian Industrial School. From 1879 until 1918, over 10,000 Native American children from 140 tribes attended the school. (Courtesy Cumberland County Historical Society)

In very rural reservations, where a lot of these boarding schools were, students would be doing metalworking, they would be out harvesting crops, women would be learning how to needlepoint, or what was called domestic arts.

Probably the most traumatic moment for many students was their first entry into these boarding schools, where they were systematically stripped of all outward appearances of “Indianness.” Their hair was cut. They were given a new outfit. They were made to take baths. They were given new clothes. Often their shoes or clothes were too small and they couldn’t fit in them properly. There’s many stories from these boarding schools of students who were permanently disfigured, had disfigured feet, because they were made to wear these small shoes.

What were the schools in California like?William Bauer: So there were two sets of boarding schools in California: the on and off-reservation boarding school. One [of the latter] was the Sherman Indian Institute, which is located in Riverside, California. There was also a boarding school located on our reservation in Mendocino County. There was another boarding school up on the Hoopa Valley Reservation as well.

Class photo of graduating seniors at the Sherman Institute, 1919. (Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library)

The Sherman Institute was kind of modeled after the Carlisle model: when students came to school, they might have their hair cut. They were often dressed in military uniforms and then asked to do military drills around the school grounds. There was an emphasis on English-only instruction.

And there was an outing program, where in the summer, students would go work throughout Southern California. Many boys would spend their summers working on citrus farms in and around Riverside. Girls would be domestic servants for people in Anaheim and other cities.

Why did children die at these schools?Lindsay Montgomery: Unfortunately, in boarding schools like Carlisle, students would die for various reasons. A lot of it was associated with tuberculosis and other infectious diseases like cholera. Influenza was a common cause of death. A lot of it also stemmed from long-term malnutrition. Students often had very meager meals.

There’s a variety of reasons why we know only a fraction of how many Native youth actually passed away in these boarding schools. One is that many students were sent home if they began to show symptoms of sickness like tuberculosis or influenza. And so many of these students would die either in transit back to their home communities or soon after they arrived.

Some people saw the schools as an opportunity to learn English. Could you talk a little bit about the complexity of this legacy?

William Bauer: This is not to minimize or downplay the trauma, the deaths that are associated with [the schools], but some people were able to at least try to get what they wanted out of the school experience. When the off-reservation boarding schools were created, Native leaders, especially those from the Great Plains, wanted children to go to these off-reservation boarding schools where they could learn to read and write in English.

One of the most important reasons for that is that they wanted people to be able to read and write the treaties with the United States. The United States has a long history of defrauding and violating treaties that they have with Indigenous nations.Native leaders understood that if they could have children read English, they could have their own people reading treaties and help defend themselves. And some Native people saw these schools as opportunities to get skills.

There was a shift in the 1920s and 1930s away from the purely vocational training to other types of education, like training Native people to go into clerical work, what we would consider to be white-collar work. Native people saw, especially in the mid-20th century, that these schools were a place to gain skills that they otherwise couldn’t get in rural reservation schools in the United States.

Some of these schools are still open, right?Lindsay Montgomery: Today there are several boarding schools that remain open. There’s about 73 boarding schools that are open today. Fifteen of them are still actual boarding schools. But their curriculums are really different now. Now they follow a classic public school curriculum. They actually have programs that are oriented towards supporting Native culture and the expression of Native beliefs and languages.

What should California and the rest of the U.S. do in terms of understanding the legacy of these schools? What kind of accounting do you think still needs to take place here?William Bauer: I think this is going to be a difficult thing. And I think it’s going to be hard for tribal nations in California and the rest of the United States to figure this out. In the past, the United States has often tried to offer financial or monetary compensation for things like lost lands and treaty violations and that sort of thing. And it’s almost like wiping one’s hands clean. [But] I don’t know how to compensate people for the loss of our ancestors. I don’t know how to compensate for the loss of language. And I don’t know how to compensate for the pain and trauma that our communities currently have. And I think that’s going to be a hard conversation between the United States, the state of California and tribal nations.

Copyright 2021 KQED