Boarding Schools



Report of Forest Grove School, Oregon, 1882, “Training School for Indian Youth”        (click on this link to see the document; scroll to the bottom of the first page, which is where the document actually begins)

Carlisle Boarding School students, 1879
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Noncommercial Use)


by Stephanie Wood, University of Oregon, Honoring Tribal Legacies

Assimilation: This primary source from Oregon is hosted by the Library of Congress (LoC), where it is meant for educational use on the larger topic of “assimilation.” We are also sharing a copy of the LoC teachers’ guide (at the bottom of this web page).

Assimilation, especially “cultural assimilation,” is a topic worthy of discussion by itself, which could provide a good introduction to–or a topic for discussion after–reading the primary source under examination here.  What definitions can be found for the term assimilation?  What does assimilation usually imply for Native peoples in the context of settler colonialism, in particular?  What were the long-term effects of separating children from their families and trying to completely change Native children’s identity and self-image? The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948) mentions “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group,” as showing a commitment “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group” (see Dunbar-Ortiz, p. 8).

The boarding school was the foremost institution where settlers pressed Native peoples to accept major changes in their ways of life, failing to appreciate how indigenous cultures had developed very logical and sustainable activities in their various environments, not to mention ignoring the devastating consequences of these new coercive efforts to force children to give up their tribal lifestyles and live apart from their own families.

Historical Contextualization:  Contextualized reading assignments or videos might be given prior to approaching this primary source. Some students may already know the reputation boarding schools have for trying to erase traditional cultures, as sites of corporal punishment, the spread of diseases, and more. For other students, this may be a relatively unknown topic.  Indigenous voices must be a part of the reexamination of the boarding school experience in our shared history.

Catholic and Protestant missionaries had established boarding schools all across Indian Country by the 1870s, whether on or off reservations. Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe) notes that “Students in reservation-based day schools rarely mentioned trauma,” but “Off-reservation boarding schools, which were the hallmark of Indian education for fifty years in the United States, would dramatically alter the narrative of Indian experiences with American education,” as they had the “goal of destroying Indian culture and assimilating Indians into the great melting pot of late nineteenth-century America.”

The Native Voices website offers a bibliography with links to a number of studies about boarding schools, especially from Native points of view, and some excellent videos. (Some links are broken in that bibliography, but many works and are definitely worth visiting.)  Toward the bottom of the Native Voices bibliography page, there is a link to a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation site with “ten books about residential schools to read with your kids.” This Canadian site strives to help us understand aspects of this topic that are appropriate for different age groups or grade bands, being “mindful of what’s appropriate, emotionally and developmentally” while “opening up a space for conversation.” Those books, aimed at children, also provide for some comparisons with the experiences of tribes south of what is now the Canadian border.

One fifteen-minute video recommended on the Native Voices web page has as its focus Native experiences in boarding schools in Montana (the Montana Mosaic: Indian Boarding Schools), 2014. It refers to imported educational systems of the nineteenth century that eventually led to the removal of children far away from their families and communities, where children were coerced into adapting to new cultural ways, were taught that Native ways were negative, where children were separated from parental role models and therefore did not learn healthy parenting, but rather were subjected to patterns of neglect, physical, and sexual abuse from their schoolers.

In this Montana video, Julie Cajune (Salish, and an Honoring Tribal Legacies curriculum designer, who lives in Montana) tells us that her mother used to say that “the road to hell was paved with good intentions.” It is generous of her mother to acknowledge that the boarding school system might have had good intentions, and it would be worth giving some attention to those. Cajune also says that some elders felt that what children learned in boarding schools helped them to survive in a “rapidly changing world.” But an excellent takeaway for the future, according to Cajune, is to understand that “Indian people” should determine “what is best for them,” and not let that be determined by outsiders. The video is accompanied by pre-viewing and post-viewing discussion questions.

Another video that Native Voices recommends, Unseen Tears, is about boarding school experiences in western New York. Early in the video, a slide appears with a quote from the Commissioner of  Indian Affairs from 1889–1893. This represents a point of view not unlike the author’s point of view in the Oregon primary source of focus in our unit. For instance, the Commissioner uses the expression, “a race of barbarians and semi-savages.” In trying to examine such points of view, we cannot help but see that the colonizers were ignorant about the peoples they were trying to change.  They were “othering” them and trying to “Anglicize” them, trying to make Native people over into a closer approximation of themselves (e.g. make the men into fully sedentary farmers and skilled artisans and make the women into supportive domestic partners along the model of European-American women), which is a very ethnocentric approach.  Whereas settlers moving west once sought to kill or push Native people aside, this educational approach, as articulated by Captain Richard H. Pratt in 1892, was instead meant to “kill the Indian, but save the man.” In other words, the goal was to destroy indigenous cultures and convert Native peoples along what might be called the “white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant” model.

The personal testimonials from boarding school alumni are the major contributors to the video, Unseen Tears, extremely valuable for contextualizing material in the Oregon document with Native points of view, even if the schools discussed in the video are in the East. Some material here will be shocking and upsetting. Testimonials speak of sexual abuse, virginity inspections, circumcision, and other traumas. Native students were forced to discard their own clothing and wear military uniforms, had their traditionally long hair cut off and sometimes their heads shaved, faced harsh disciplinary and “correctional” practices, a long-term separation from beloved parents, or having their mouths washed out with soap for speaking their own indigenous languages. A lecturer explains how the boarding school experience was little changed until the 1980s. Toward the end of this video, several testimonies refer to the desire not to be negative but to understand what happened so that what was lost could be recaptured, so that people can heal, so that forgiveness might be found.


Sample “entry” questions:

What are the basic outlines of activity at this boarding school in Oregon in the 1880s?  What went on at this school, judging from what Lieutenant Wilkinson reports?

Sample “essential” questions:

How did the concept of boarding schools arise, what were the original goals, and how might those have proved detrimental to tribes?

How might a “report” on this boarding school in Oregon, if it were to be created by Native parents, have differed from this report we are reading from Lieutenant Wilkinson?

Sample “big idea”:

Educational systems that are part of colonialism will not necessarily benefit students and can indeed cause trauma and lasting harm to individuals, families, communities, and entire cultural/ethnic groups. Self-determination should guide tribal educational philosophies.

Sample “enduring understandings”:

Education should be culturally sensitive and appropriate for children.  Parents’ wishes and community values should help determine the nature of any educational system.

Place-based considerations:

Oregon, being on the Pacific Ocean, comprises part of the Northwest. Given that settler colonists were continually moving farther west, we get a glimpse here of how their occupation of Native territories, despite some 50 years and more than 2,000 miles, was not all that different from the case of Ohio.

We can see from the document under study that the boarding school described here had students who came from considerable distances away, such as part of what is now the state of Washington.  These distances made it difficult for parents to stay in close contact with their children, not so different from the case of New York that we see in the video, Unseen Tears. Brenda Child also notes how distant schools greatly complicated the seasonal economy.

A journey of healing:

Honoring Tribal Legacies strongly supports the need to find pathways to healing and suggests that the anger and desolation that can come from learning about the negative experiences will not necessarily help communities heal.  Studying history will, however, help us understand better the experiences of our ancestors, which affect our own makeup, our own identities.  So, it could be useful to discuss with students how to come away from studying documents like this one about boarding schools with a determination to protect and preserve traditional culture, to work to change older boarding school ways that might still exist, to ensure that education of Native children is supervised by the Native community (with self-determination and sovereignty reigning), to know that healing can come from rebuilding family bonds, connecting to the community, building pride, and seeking a brighter future.


Please also take a look at:

STUDY GUIDE to the Forest Grove School report of 1882.

TEACHER GUIDE from the Library of Congress.


Additional Resources

Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center.  This is a remarkable, self-reflexive boarding school museum. St. Joseph’s Indian School is still in operation.

Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experience, 1879–2000, eds. Lomawaima, K. Tsianina, Brenda J. Child, and Margaret L. Archuleta, 2000.

Bruchac, Joseph, and John Smelcer, The Boarding School Experience in American Indian Literature. Published in PDF.  The bibliography at the end is extensive and helpful.

Child, Brenda J., “Indian Education, American Education.” In Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, eds. Gerald McMaster (Plain Cree and Siksika Nation) and Clifford E. Trafzer (Wyandot), Washington D.C.: National Museum of the American Indian Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic, 2004, 161–173.

Chiricahua Apache students at Carlisle Boarding School, n.d.
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Noncommercial Reuse)