6 Boarding School Laws Still on the Books

Did you know it is still legal to withhold food and clothing from Indian children who don’t attend school? Or that Indian children can be placed in reform schools without parental consent?

While it is unlikely these laws would be enforced, these and other boarding school laws are still on the federal law books. According to Native American Rights Staff Attorney Melody McCoy, some of the laws are at least outdated, and at worst assimilationist, racist and genocidal.

As bad as some may sound, a few have actually benefitted tribes in present-day courtrooms.

McCoy and Todd County, South Dakota, School Superintendent Dr. Roger Bordeaux (Association of Tribal Schools) have looked at these laws and considered their purpose. Should the laws stand? Be removed? Are they outdated or could there still be some relevance?

Excerpts of the laws are below. To read the full law, click the links provided. Let us know what you think!

25 USC § 302, Indian Reform School—Enacted June 21, 1906

The Commissioner of Indian Affairs, under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior, is authorized and directed to . . . specifically provide an “Indian Reform School”, and to make all needful rules and regulations for its conduct, and the placing of Indian youth therein, and, “That the consent of parents, guardians, or next of kin shall not be required to place Indian youth in said school.”

In 2006, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the Winner School System, which, among other complaints, was accused of sending children to reform schools without alerting parents. This law needs to be repealed as it may have been the law that allowed that practice to occur.

McCoy called the law offensive, and said, “The federal Indian schools were already bad enough—why would the government want one that was even more penal/correctional? Also, the express provision that parental consent is NOT required to send Indian kids to reform school would—at least today—be subject to some basic due process rights (like notice and a hearing) under the U.S. Constitution.”

Bordeaux said, “This is a concept discussed as recently as 1976. Repeal.”

25 USC § 283, Regulations for withholding rations for nonattendance at schools—Enacted March 3, 1893

The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to make and enforce such rules and regulations as may be necessary to secure the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children who are wards of the Government in schools maintained for their benefit by the United States or in public schools.

According to McCoy, this law reflects the height of federal policy to assimilate or eradicate Indians. “I find it undoubtedly offensive, albeit couched in terms of it being in the ‘best interests of the Indians’ for their children to be in schools that have been overwhelmingly imposed upon them by a foreign government that invaded their lands, conquered them, and still seeks to kill or assimilate them,” she said.

Bordeaux feels, “This should be repealed.”

25 USC § 280, Patents of lands to missionary boards of religious organizations—Enacted September 21, 1922 

The Secretary of the Interior is authorized and directed to issue a patent to . . . any religious organization engaged in mission or school work on any Indian reservation” or lands considered Indian lands before September 21, 1922.

Free Thought Manifesto

Approximately 150,000 Indian children were placed in religious mission boarding schools. Lawsuits against the Catholic church have been filed by survivors of the schools, who suffered mental, physical and sexual abuse. Children as young as 5 years old were removed from their families and sent across the country, often not seeing their family again for several years.

McCoy said this law was part of the “prevailing federal policy of assimilation; with the means of accomplishing assimilation including the break-up of remaining tribal communal land bases into lands owned privately by Indians and non-Indians, and Christianizing/educating Indians.

“This law has been cited by Indian advocates as being part of the historical federal policy of assimilating Indians and suppressing tribal religions,” McCoy added.

25 USC § 282, Regulations by Secretary of the Interior to secure attendance at school—Enacted February 14, 1920 

The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to make and enforce such rules and regulations as may be necessary to secure the enrollment and regular attendance of eligible Indian children who are wards of the Government in schools maintained for their benefit by the United States or in public schools.

“To this day, this is the law by which the Bureau of Indian Education issues rules and regulations governing compulsory school attendance in BIE funded elementary and secondary schools,” McCoy said.

“In modern times, states cite this law as evidence that even though the federal government has historically provided for Indian education, it does so consistent with state public school law and regulations,” McCoy said, but added that at least one state court has said this law does not give states jurisdiction over Indian public school compulsory attendance without the consent of the tribe.

25 USC § 273, Detail of Army Officer—Enacted June 23, 1879

The Secretary of the Army shall be authorized to detail an officer of the Army, not above the rank of captain, for special duty with reference to Indian education.

McCoy said this law was passed at the height of federal policies to end tribal governments and assimilate individual Indians. “I presume the law was intended to allow the Army Department to assist in the efforts to get children of tribes who were at war with the United States into the federal Indian boarding schools,��� she said.

Bordeaux suggests repealing it.

The Wild Rivers Teaching American History Project

Colonel Richard Pratt conceived of the Indian boarding schools and began the first one in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. His goal was to “Kill the Indian, save the man.” The Carlisle School was housed on a military base, where the children were forced to live their lives in accordance with military drills.

25 USC § 277, Fort Apache military post—Enacted January 24, 1923

The Secretary of the Interior is authorized to establish and maintain the former Fort Apache military post as an Indian boarding school for the purpose of carrying out treaty obligations, to be known as the Theodore Roosevelt Indian School: Provided, That the Fort Apache military post, and land appurtenant thereto, shall remain in the possession and custody of the Secretary of the Interior so long as they shall be required for Indian school purposes.

“This law reflects that the United States’ wars with Indian tribes were largely over” and the “focus again is on education,” McCoy wrote.

This law was used to benefit tribes, as described by McCoy, who said her research showed that in the late 1990s, the White Mountain Apache Tribe sued the United States because the U.S. had violated the law by not maintaining the property before turning it over the to the tribe. The United States Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribe in U.S. v. White Mountain Apache Tribe, 537 U.S. 465 (2003).


The Army abandoned Fort Apache in 1922. In 1923 the site became the home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Theodore Roosevelt Indian Boarding School. First intended to serve Diné Navajo) children, by the 1930s a majority of students at the school were Apache. Today T.R. School continues to serve as a middle school, under the administration of a school board selected by the Tribal Council.

“The Supreme Court held that the law created a trust obligation on the part of the United States to preserve the property unless and until it turned over the property to the tribe,” McCoy wrote in an email about the laws. “The outcome of this case surprised many—it is one of a very small handful of cases that tribes have won in the Supreme Court in the last 15 years, and it is even more remarkable since the tribe won against the United States.”