Miniature Gulags: Native American Boarding Schools in the United States

In May 2022, the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, released the first volume of an investigative report examining the complicity of hundreds of federal boarding schools in the destruction of indigenous nations. This is the perfect occasion to revisit and shed a light on one of the most shameful episodes in American history.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that after nearly a century of uninterrupted westward expansion and incremental genocide, the US government tried to assimilate rather than exterminate rebellious Indians clinging on to dwindling reservations in the late 1800s. The man who led the charge was General Richard Henry Pratt, the first superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School based in Pennsylvania.

Pratt ran Carlisle like a military boot camp. Tabatha Booth says that Indian children were strictly forbidden from speaking native languages upon entering the school. Teachers and staff ruthlessly purged any outward expressions of tribal culture by assigning English names to their students.

Yet historians K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Jeffrey Ostler emphasize that Pratt, for all his faults, at least believed that Native Americans possessed the intellectual capacities to become fully-fledged citizens of the US in the fullness of time. His contemporaries and successors, however, did not.

Alexandria Gough says Estelle Reel, the national Superintendent of Indian Schools in the early 1900s, echoed American public opinion when she declared that Indians were “too dull to excel in academics”. Vocational training and “outing programs” (exchanges that allowed Indian youths to live and work in white society) quickly superseded traditional education.

Indian boarding schools, therefore, abandoned the pretence of moulding “savages” into enlightened citizens and transformed into miniature gulags dedicated to churning out generations of unskilled laborers.

Euro-Americans have condemned indigenous peoples to toil in menial jobs since before the founding of the United States. Scholars and journalists like Margaret Newell, Brett Rushforth, and Rebecca Onion amply demonstrated that English, French, and Spanish colonists, along with their descendants, perceived Native American tribes as little more than expendable resources.

In the 1630s, New England colonists, eager to replenish a minuscule workforce, waged war against the Pequot peoples with the explicit intention of capturing Indians and turning them into slave laborers. Colonists in Massachusetts even drafted the first laws that regulated slavery on the continent in the Body of Liberties, a document which codified ownership of Native Americans and laid the groundwork for African enslavement.

When English colonists crushed Pequot resistance in Connecticut, they sold defeated Indian men to plantations in the West Indies, while captured women and children became maids and servants at the service of wealthy households in New England. French colonists yearning for domestic labor in Montreal also purchased Sioux Indians shipped over from British colonies. Rushforth estimates that 2 to 4 million indigenous peoples in North and South America suffered the indignity of slavery for centuries.

The implicit aim of seemingly benign and well-intentioned boarding school work experience programs, then, was to keep Indian children inextricably shackled to the kind of degrading labor that blighted the lives of their ancestors.

Gough’s extensive research reveals that in cities like Phoenix, which lacked large immigrant or African American communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, white middle and upper-class families often relied on Indian children or teenagers to complete backbreaking chores. As one boarding school superintendent said so cynically, “the hiring of an Indian youth is not looked upon by the people of this valley from a philanthropic standpoint. It is simply a matter of business”.

Many patrons had no qualms exploiting unsupervised and vulnerable Indian children. Irene McAfee claimed her day began at four in the morning and finished around nine at night. A young girl named Stella complained that whenever she tried to take a break from her exhausting schedule just to clean her own clothes, her patron would berate her for not ironing family clothes first.

Reports even stated that some Indian girls either quit the outing program or had to be transferred to different families because they weren’t given enough food to eat. Clara Lewis, braving loneliness and agonizing back pain during her time as a domestic in Tucson, said she never worked so hard in her life and defiantly exclaimed “I am not going to be a slave to anybody I tell you that”.

Meanwhile, Indian boys ended up as cheap labor in construction sites, mines, or farms. The Genoa School in Nebraska sent boarders to plant and harvest sugar beet in return for squalid living quarters. They also could not afford to spend more than 35 cents a day for food. Gough writes the Arizona Cotton Growers Association wanted outing students to pick at least ten acres of cotton in the summer, yet the company refused to provide Indian children with the tools or transportation required to complete the task.

In her resignation letter, one matron neatly summarized why outing programs had little pedagogical value and utterly failed to “civilize” or assimilate Indian children: “the people for whom the girls work teach them nothing, but simply pile up the hard and dirty work…”

Historian Margaret Jacobs added that many Indian women employed as domestics in the San Francisco Bay Area, most of whom graduates of the Carson Indian School in Nevada, resented having nearly every aspect of their professional and private lives closely policed by various authorities.

The few Indian women who dared speak out loudly about their inability to break free from the BIA’s (Bureau of Indian Affairs) stifling control, abysmal working conditions, overly demanding or abusive employers, restricted leisure time, or indifferent work placement staff determined to “keep Indian girls down” and forever trapped in low-paying jobs, faced dire consequences. For example, Indian women who resisted officials attempting to separate them from their children born out of wedlock risked being locked away in asylums.

Worst of all, outing programs generally did not help Indians thrive or survive in American society. Despite learning a trade and training in home economics in boarding schools, graduates still struggled to find rewarding jobs due to endemic discrimination. Upward mobility was an impossibility, and many returned to impoverished reservations bereft of modern technology or opportunities.

Nora Naranjo-Morse lamented that boarding school prepared her for a comfortable middle-class lifestyle far out of reach for most of her people: “By the time I returned to the village I could sew, but few of the people had heard of sewing machines…The machine I learned to operate as my trade could not be carried here and there…”

William Ketcham, a Catholic missionary, member of the US Board of Indian Commissioners, and friend of the Choctaw Nation concluded that outing programs were morally repugnant, irredeemably flawed, and unjustifiable. His scathing and deeply moving report to the Department of the Interior in 1919 wondered how white parents would react if the government decided to hire out their children to strangers instead.

The totalitarian discipline meted out in boarding schools, combined with arduous and occasionally dangerous year-long work experiences, left an indelible mark on countless Indian children. Tragically, as Ward Churchill observed, some victims inflicted variations of the physical and psychological torment they endured at school to their own children and grandchildren.

Scholar Kathie Bowker discovered that Lakota women who attended the St. Joseph Indian School or Our Lady of Lords School in South Dakota found parenting extremely challenging. One woman regretted growing up without a family because her alcoholic parents did not feel responsible for taking care of her or her siblings. As a result, she had great difficulty becoming a nurturing mother. Having received little love or affection in childhood meant that some Lakota women had trouble caring for others in turn.

Lydia Whirlwind Soldier also blamed her stay at the St. Francis Indian Mission in South Dakota for her disruptive behavior: “Our contemporary disrespect for elders, parents, and authority in general are the results of the treatment children received in the boarding schools”. Leaving behind highly regimented and puritanical environments encouraged certain Indians to indulge in hedonistic activities like vandalism, drug use, and unhealthy relationships.

Moreover, social worker Sharon Brunner found that brutal teaching methods and excessive negative feedback traumatized Indian children. A woman named Yulanda attended the Holy Childhood Boarding School in Michigan and avoided jobs involving numbers, budgets, or mathematics throughout her life due to her harrowing ordeals in class: “The hair was pulled out of my head. Plus they would grab you by the hair and slam you into the chalkboard.”

Extreme corporal punishment was the norm. Beatings, whippings, and floggings caused severe injuries like broken bones. Minor infractions, like wetting the bed, earned students an overnight stay in the fire exit outside—no matter the season or weather. Yet runaways would rather brave a blizzard than remain a moment longer in a boarding school, according to Maureen Smith.

Jennifer of the Ojibway tribe remembered hearing children locked in dungeons scream all night long. The Haskell Institute in Kansas even had a jail called a guard house- a stone room with no windows. Children could be imprisoned there for days.

Evidence of this appalling mistreatment rarely trickled out of school grounds. Priests and nuns, some of whom were guilty of rampant sexual abuse, forced children like Yulanda to write bland and predictable letters to parents every other week. Censors removed any mention of the sadistic cruelty and borderline torture children had to go through in the name of assimilation.

Bryan Newland’s report is a monumental achievement, but more needs to be done to make a real difference for Native Americans living in the shadow of the boarding schools. Brunner suggests social workers dealing with indigenous populations have to be aware of the symptoms of what psychologists call “residential-school syndrome”, like alcoholism, domestic violence, and child abuse, before developing treatment plans that would benefit Indian communities as a whole.

Finally, as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz mentioned previously, the US government has a legal and moral obligation to honour the numerous treaties it signed with Indian nations—treaties which guarantee the reconstruction, expansion, and preservation of sacred lands. Only then will Native Americans retrieve their stolen sovereignty and dignity.

Jean-Philippe Stone is an Irish post-graduate who recently completed a PhD in Modern History at the University of Oxford. He works as a Senior Correspondent at the Organization for World Peace. Read other articles by Jean-Philippe.