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Cultural Genocide Veiled as Education—The Time for Healing Is Now

Like many details of U.S. historical relations with the indigenous inhabitants of this land, the story of Indian boarding schools has been left out.

Like a lot of the details of United States historical relations with the indigenous inhabitants of this land, the story of Indian boarding school policy of the United States government has largely been written out of the history books. Yet, this was a major federal policy. And it had major impacts, positive and negative, on indigenous individuals, families, and communities. These impacts are still felt to this day. In retrospect, the policy was based on flawed thinking—despite the fact that it was clothed in at least the appearance of good intention. The flawed basis of the policy was that the all-out elimination of what is uniquely “Native,” and full-scale assimilation into the dominant society of the United States, was required in order to ensure the survival of individuals of Native descent. The policy was, at its core, a policy of cultural genocide.

The negative impacts of the cultural genocide persist today. United States Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Kevin Gover, Pawnee, observed in 2000, when reflecting on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ involvement in the policy:

“The trauma of shame, fear and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country. Many of our people live lives of unrelenting tragedy as Indian families suffer the ruin of lives by alcoholism, suicides made of shame and despair, and violent death at the hands of one another.”

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School American Indian boys in school uniform exercising inside gymnasium in 1879.

Once it is admitted that the policy was flawed and harmful, steps can begin to be taken to allow for healing. In fact, there are many models and examples of how healing can be accomplished when one culture or society harms another.

Universally, those models of healing, of reconciliation, require recognition of what happened and who was responsible as a first step. In this case, the United States and major Christian church denominations are implicated as most responsible. Beyond that, however, the details remain to be sorted out, as will be explained.

Beginning to create the circumstances in which healing can occur will require the Native American Rights Fund (NARF), along with many others working in the area, to turn back institutionalized ignorance of what happened, to dismantle legal blockades constructed long ago and being constructed anew to protect individuals and institutions from legal and financial responsibility, and to simply begin to uncover the truth of what has happened. NARF is proud and excited to have recently upped its efforts in this area—creating a groundbreaking effort to create the space for our Native nations to begin to heal from the boarding school policy. As an integral part of the healing process, this will also allow the United States and others involved in implementation of the policy over the decades the chance to heal from the damages they caused and that they suffer from as well.

Native American children were forcibly abducted from their homes and put into Christian and government run boarding schools beginning in the mid 1800s and continuing into the 1950s. This was done pursuant to a federal policy designed to “civilize” Indians and to stamp out Native cultures; a deliberate policy of ethnocide and cultural genocide. Cut off from their families and culture, the children were punished for speaking their Native languages, banned from conducting traditional or cultural practices, shorn of traditional clothing and identity of their Native cultures, taught that their cultures and traditions were evil and sinful, and that they should be ashamed of being Native American. Placed often far from home, they were frequently neglected or abused physically, sexually, and psychologically. Generations of these children became the legacy of the federal boarding school policy. They returned to their communities, not as the Christianized farmers that the boarding school policy envisioned, but as deeply scarred humans lacking the skills, community, parenting, extended family, language, and cultural practices of those raised in their cultural context.

There has been scant recognition by the U.S. federal government and church denominations that initiated and carried out this policy, and no acceptance of responsibility for the indisputable fact that its purpose was cultural genocide. There are no apparent realistic legal avenues to seek redress or healing from the deep and enduring wounds inflicted both on the individuals and communities of tribal nations. Lawsuits by individuals have been turned aside, and unlike other countries that implemented similar policies—e.g. Canada, New Zealand and Australia—there has been no official U.S. proposal for healing or reconciliation.

The U.S. Boarding School Policy

The goal of “civilization” of Native people was to transform them into “Americans” by assimilating them into mainstream American culture. Reforming adults who were fully acculturated into Native ways and spiritual beliefs and practices was seen as too daunting. Transforming the children was a more promising goal.

The goal of transforming Native young people through assimilation is apparent in the earliest history of the colonies. The roots of attempted assimilation through education lie deep in the history of the Virginia Colony, sanctioned by the Anglican Church as early as 1619. William and Mary College was founded in 1693 as an Anglican school to serve the young men of the colonists and Native Americans. Dartmouth College’s earliest roots are in its Puritan founder’s desires to establish a school for local Native men.

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Before. Carlisle Indian Industrial School portrait of Timber Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear and Wounded Yellow Robe.

The federal Indian boarding school policy has been a collaboration of the Christian churches and the federal government since its earliest inception, beginning with the Indian Civilization Fund Act of March 3, 1819. Thomas Lorraine McKenney, a Quaker, served as the first Superintendent of Indian Trade starting in 1816 and was one of the key figures in the development of American Indian policy. It was McKenney who advocated for the federal policy of education and civilization through a network of schools to be run by the missionary societies under the supervision of the Superintendent of Indian Trade. He likely was the architect of the Civilization Act to “encourage activities of benevolent societies in providing schools for the Indians ... and authorized an annual ‘civilization fund’ to stimulate and promote this work.”

The thrust of “civilization” of Native Americans was to strip them of their traditions and customs and teach them the ways of the majority culture in missionary schools, i.e., transform the children into Christian farmers or laborers. The churches were funded by the federal government to accomplish this cultural genocide. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) was created in 1824 within the Department of War primarily to administer the funds to the churches from the Civilization Fund. In 1824, the Indian Civilization Fund subsidized 32 schools that enrolled more than 900 Indian children. By 1830, the Indian Civilization Fund supported 52 schools with 1,512 enrolled students. Funds from Indian treaties augmented the program, frequently without consultation with or consent of the tribe signatory to the treaty.

During the 60 years between 1819 and 1879 most of the Church-run schools were on or near the reservations or homelands of the Native American children. The children would return home either daily or on weekends to be with their families and communities. But the experience was that this resulted in children adhering to their cultural practices and beliefs. In order to eradicate these practices and beliefs it would become the policy to isolate the children from their influence. In 1886 John B. Riley, Indian School Superintendent summed it up:

“If it be admitted that education affords the true solution to the Indian problem, then it must be admitted that the boarding school is the very key to the situation. However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home—if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated.

Mere education was not enough. Separating children from their family, their tribe, their culture, and their homes on the reservation was seen as necessary to the larger goal of assimilating them into the majority culture.

image NAAINV 00606700 National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

After. Carlisle Indian Industrial School portrait of Timber Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear and Wounded Yellow Robe.

The Struggle to “Civilize” the Native People

There was a debate about whether to exterminate the “wild” tribes that had not been confined to a reservation, or to seek their conversion to a “civilized” life—by which was meant to be Christian farmers or craftsmen. The military and the frontier settlers were the primary advocates of the former, and the churches the latter. It wasn’t a serious debate in the sense of impending strategy. While there were examples of barbaric slaughter of Native people—e.g. Wounded Knee, Sand Creek, etc.—it was, in fact, simply too expensive to enter into an extended campaign of genocide on the heels of an expensive Civil War. It was estimated that the annual cost to maintain a company of United States Calvary in the field was $2 million. Whatever the standards of humanity, the economics augured for assimilation as the preferred alternative.

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School Captain Richard Pratt with Navajo girls and boys from New Mexico upon their arrival in 1880.

Among the frontier settlers, with largely squatter sensibilities and values, was the occasional person of conscience that could see past their own self- interest in acquiring land and riches—to the incredible injustices visited on the Native people in the process of their dispossession of those very same lands and riches. John Beeson, likely a Quaker, was one such person who lobbied tirelessly to expose the erroneous depiction of the Indians as the aggressors when it was the settlers who were in fact the transgressors against Indian lands and resources on the frontier. Beeson met several times with President Abraham Lincoln and pressed upon him the idea that Indians should receive instruction in every phase of the culture that was displacing their own: Anglo-American economy, democratic self-government, and the Christian religion.

A contemporary of Beeson who worked toward the same goal was Episcopal Bishop of Minnesota Henry B. Whipple. In 1860 Whipple sent a letter to President Buchannan lamenting the evils of liquor and the inability and unwillingness of the federal government to enforce the laws prohibiting its distribution among the tribes. He also observed that the federal policy of treating the tribes as self- governing nations was mistaken; it would be better to regard Indians as wards and undertake their assimilation. Once the laws were enforced, practical Christian teachers could instruct them in agriculture and other arts of civilization. More important, he decried the corrupt patronage system of appointment of Indian agents that resulted in the looting of Indian resources, fraudulent contracts and sham schools that accomplished little more than to line the pockets of the Indian Agents. He sought a system that would allow for the appointment of “a commission of men of high character, who have no political ends to subserve,” to which should be given the responsibility for devising a more perfect system for administering Indian affairs.

The Board of Indian Commissioners and the Peace Policy of 1869

The changes sought by the reformers came to fruition in the year 1869. That year marked establishment by Congress of the Board of Indian Commissioners and President Grant’s “Peace Policy,” which included a federal boarding school policy. These efforts were intended to fulfill two important goals: 1) the replacement of corrupt government officials, called the “Indian Ring,” with religious men, nominated by churches to oversee the Indian agencies on reservations; and 2) to Christianize the Native tribes and eradicate their culture and religion, primarily through removal of the children from reservation settings.

The boarding school policy authorized the voluntary and coerced removal of Native American children from their families for placement in boarding schools run by the government and Christian churches. The boarding school policy represented a shift from genocide of Indian people to a more defensible, but no less insidious, policy of cultural genocide—the systematic destruction of indigenous communities through the removal and reprogramming of their children. This approach was thought to be less costly than wars against the tribes or eradication of Native populations.

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School Teacher Miss Hunt with group of students in school uniform in 1879.

The first appointments to the Board of Indian Commissioners were male Protestants. This remained the case until two Roman Catholics were appointed in 1902 by Theodore Roosevelt. Although not appointed as representatives of their denominations, they clearly were selected by those denominations to be appointed. This was a clear and obvious violation of the principle of separation of church and state, but none of the leaders of the day believed that principle applied in matters relating to Native Americans. The Catholics, having been initially excluded from the Board, argued fervently that the children should have the freedom to choose their religion, saying in one statement:

“The Indians have a right, under the Constitution, as much as any other person in the Republic, to the full enjoyment of liberty of conscience; accordingly they have the right to choose whatever Christian belief they wish, without interference from the Government.” (The Churches and the Indian Schools, 1888-1912, Prucha, Francis Paul, Univ. of Nebraska Press 1979) (Emphasis supplied.)

In 1872, the Board of Indian Commissioners allotted 73 Indian agencies to various denominations as follows: Methodists, 14 agencies in the Pacific Northwest (54,743 Indians); Orthodox Friends, 10 (17,724); Presbyterian, nine in the Southwest (38,069); Episcopalians, eight in the Dakotas (26,929); Catholics, seven (17,856); Hicksite Friends, six (6,598); Baptists, five in Utah, Idaho and the

Indian Territory (40,800); Reformed Dutch, five (8,118); Congregationalists, three (14,476); Christians, two (8,287); Unitarians, two (3,800); American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in the Indian territory of Oklahoma (1,496); Lutherans, one (273).

Whatever pretense there may have been about the appointment of Christians as Commissioners, there was no mistaking that the allocation of the agencies was by Christian denominations.

The systematic destruction of indigenous cultures and communities through the removal and reprogramming of Native children

Boarding schools located far from homelands were initiated when 2nd Lieutenant Richard Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian School in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The fundamental principle was that Native Americans must be taught to reject tribal culture and adapt to white society; famously saying his goal was to “kill the Indian, in order to save the man.” This initiative called for the removal of children from family and community, voluntarily when possible, by coercion if necessary. Parents were threatened with the loss of provisions—which almost certainly meant starvation—or even jail for withholding children.

Nineteen Hopi men were designated as “hostiles” by the U.S. Army on November 25, 1894 and incarcerated in Alcatraz “until they shall evince, in an unmistakable manner, a desire to cease interference with the plans of the government for the civilization and education of its Indian wards.” They had opposed the forced removal and education of their children.

Children were held in isolation in regimented and sterile settings. Separated from their homes and communities, they were placed in dormitory settings fashioned after the military model where they were controlled, trained, neglected and abused. They were punished for speaking their native languages, banned from acting in any way representative of traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and all things and behaviors reflective of their cultures. They were intentionally and systematically inculcated with shame for being Indian through ridicule of their religions and their life-ways; shame that became internalized as self-loathing and emotional disenfranchisement for their own cultures.

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Before. Carlisle Indian Industrial School group from Arizona and Florida upon arrival at school.

For many of the girls and boys, the only touch they received from the small population of adults stationed at the schools, were the beatings or, perhaps worse, forced sexual contact with adults, or older students who themselves had been victims. Kept at the boarding school year-round, many grew up solely in the company of other children, under the control of a few adults, who shared the perception that their wards were savages and heathens to be managed, tamed and “civilized.”

Systemic institutional neglect and the fear of death from persistent mortalities motivated many students to run away. At Carlisle Indian School in the years from 1883 through 1918 there were 1,842 desertions and nearly 500 deaths; ranging between 3.5 and 4.5 times the national average at that time. Capture after running away—the only desperate act within the power of the children and teens—was punished by physical restraints, beatings, and isolation in unlighted cellars and unlighted and unventilated outbuildings designed as jails.

SPC Sw Apache 02090000. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution

After. Carlisle Indian Industrial School group of boys and girls from Arizona and Florida after three years at school.

Before long, there were some 500 boarding schools in 18 states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. As late as 1973, there were still 60,000 American Indian children enrolled in off-reservation schools.

Reports include the disappearance of children born to boarding school students as the result of rape. Unaccounted for thousands of children died from disease, malnutrition, loneliness and abuse. Survivors reported that many of the dead were buried anonymously, some in mass graves, on the grounds of the residential schools. The remains of these children have never been returned to their families or communities.

Turning Back A National Tragedy

In 1928 the Meriam Report on federal administration of Indian affairs concluded with respect to the boarding schools that: “The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.” In 1969, the Kennedy Report declared Indian education “a national tragedy.” Teachers in 1969 still saw their role as that of “civilizing the native.”

RELATED: New Questions for an Old Problem in Indian Education

Schools failed to “prepare students academically, socially, psychologically, or even vocationally for the urban life to which the schools directed them. As a result, many returned to their reservations disillusioned, to spend the rest of their lives in economic and intellectual stagnation.”

Those victimized in the schools, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, have become the legacy of the boarding schools and the federal policy that established and sustained them. Many of those that returned to their communities came as wounded human beings. Denied the security and safety necessary for healthy growth and development, they retained only fractured cultural skills to connect them with their families and communities. These survivors were left with varying degrees of scars and skills, but most profoundly, of psychological subordination. Many report feeling self-hatred for being Indian; bereft of spirit, knowledge, language and social tools to reenter their own societies. With only limited labor skills, exacerbated by the subordinated spirit trained into them, too many carried undefined and unremitting anxieties that drove them to alcoholism, drug abuse, violence against their own families and communities, and suicide.

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School portrait of group of Navajo boys and one girl in uniform six months after arrival at school.

Native communities have advocated over the decades for an end to the federal boarding school policy. Despite the fact that some students at the boarding schools did thrive, still others suffered, and the success of individuals did not justify the policy of cultural genocide and could have been achieved without it. Eventually, in large part due to the impact of the Kennedy Report and tribal advocates, the policy started to turn back via passage in 1972 of the Indian Education Act and in 1975 of the Indian Self Determination and Education Assistance Act. This legislation made it possible for tribes to begin to control their own schools, and to turn back the policy of educating the Indian out of the Indian students.

Change was not immediate. The damage that has already been done over the previous century is a long way from being resolved. The nation seemed to turn its face in denial over what had happened. This prolongs the suffering, as the injuries to Native communities, families, and individuals carries on until they are healed. The first step in creating that opportunity for healing involves telling the truth about what happened; instead of turning away from the past, we must embrace it and honestly admit all that happened.

No Access To Justice

There is no meaningful access to justice in the courts for the individuals and communities that suffer from the impacts of the implementation of the boarding school policy. Legal barriers to bringing suit against the United States for compensation for injuries exist in the form of statutes of limitations. Lawsuits against individual teachers, priests, and church representatives face the same kind of barriers in state courts. One Catholic order went to the South Dakota state legislature in 2010 to get a law cutting off claims against the Church and them as individuals. One wonders if that is their teaching about what Christ would do.

NARF Involvement—Symposium and Coalition

In 2011, NARF, the Boarding School Healing Project of the Seventh Generation Fund, the University of Colorado School of Law and the University of Wyoming School of Law convened a symposium of individuals from across the U.S. and Canada who had been working on various aspects of boarding school issues. The goal of the symposium was to discuss priorities and strategies to achieve a national recognition of the wrongs visited on Native American individuals and communities, and to obtain remediation to provide a framework for healing of these historic and enduring wrongs. The symposium participants agreed that it was necessary to continue the work on the issue and formed the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (N-NABS-HC) to formulate a specific strategy and framework to pursue broader support and participation. NARF completed non-profit incorporation of the Coalition in June 2012 through the Navajo Nation’s Business Regulatory Department. Application for certification as a tax exempt 501(c)(3) organization has been filed. The founding meeting of the Corporation was held in September 2012, and the first annual meeting was held in October 2013.

NARF has been working to assist the N-HABS-HC to meet its mission. The Coalition has recommended that the United States create a Commission on Boarding School Policy with the full and active participation of impacted Native Americans at all stages to carry out a range of essential tasks. The tasks of the Commission should include: (1) providing accurate and comprehensive information to the United States government, Indigenous Peoples and the American public about the purposes and human rights abuses of boarding school policies; (2) gathering documentation from survivors, their families and others about the treatment of children in the schools, the abuse and neglect they suffered, and the number of deaths that to date are unreported, including an accounting for the remains of children that are as yet un-repatriated to families and tribes; (3) receiving recommendations for redress and programs to facilitate and support healing for individuals, families, communities, tribes, Pueblos and Alaska Native Villages; (4) recommending legislative provisions that will remove the barriers to access to justice for individuals, communities, tribes, Pueblos and Alaska Native Villages; (5) documenting healing programs that are proving effective or that display promise of being effective in helping heal tribal nations and their members from historical trauma; (6) and documenting scientific theories that help explain the process, effects, and recovery from historical/inter-generational trauma.

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Carlisle Indian Industrial School portrait of female Omaha Indian students in school uniforms in 1894.

The National Commission would plan, design, and carry out its work in collaboration with impacted indigenous communities and experts in the relevant fields. It would: gather records and related information about the operation of the schools by the government and the churches; gather information from experts about inter-generational and historical trauma; take recommendations from affected communities about what is needed to effectuate true community and national healing; raise public awareness and provide public education about U.S. boarding school policies and their ongoing effects; and recommend and commit support for culturally-appropriate community-led remedies with the full and effective participation of survivors, communities, and tribal nations.

N-NABS-HC also stresses the importance of redress for the ongoing intergenerational trauma and cultural loss that are a direct result of these polices for so many indigenous individuals, families, communities and tribal nations across the United States. Opportunities and resources must be made available for indigenous communities using indigenous principles and understandings to plan, design, implement and manage programs and processes for healing the longstanding inter-generational and historical traumas that continue to plague them, including programs to reverse language loss. These programs and processes must be locally conceived and administered with input from impacted individuals and families as well as traditional spiritual and cultural knowledge-holders, healers and other practitioners.

The quest for a fully participatory process—one that results in meaningful and just redress, reconciliation and restoration of what can be restored—will involve engaging impacted indigenous individuals and peoples to define what justice, healing and redress look like for them. This vision may differ among and between distinct communities. It is imperative to begin collecting input now on what measures are needed in each Native nation and community to begin to reverse the bitter legacy of this policy, a policy of deliberate cultural genocide. It is time to let our nations begin healing.


It is time to heal our communities and our nations. Tribal nations and the United States both stand to benefit immensely by stepping towards recovery and righting the relationship that continues to suffer because of wide scale denial and ignorance of the history of the United States boarding school policy. Both will begin to heal once the truth of the story is told. Efforts to create and recreate the wheel are underway, as of necessity, in many tribal communities across the nation. Science is advancing to finally come to understand what Native communities have been aware of for a long time—that traumas experienced in the past continue to harm the victims and the victimizers through the generations until the harm is effectively confronted and healing is undertaken in earnest. The time for this healing to begin is now, and this project is poised to help make it happen.