Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today
Comparing the histories of Indian residential schools in Canada with Indian boarding schools in the U.S. is almost like comparing apples with oranges. A true comparison is nearly impossible since so little data on the schools and children in the U.S. are available.
Unlike Canada, where the 2008 Indian Settlement Act and creation of the Truth and Reconciliation Act helped unlock and organize government and church records, there is no definitive information on the number of Indian boarding schools or children who attended in the U.S.
But with hundreds of unmarked graves being uncovered at Canadian residential schools and a new Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative launched in the U.S. by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, the boarding school eras in both nations have drawn increasing scrutiny.
“There has never been a thorough accounting of this information,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Nation and chief operating officer of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, a Native advocacy organization based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
A review by Indian Country Today of the Indigenous boarding school eras in both countries found significant similarities, particularly since the Canadian system was patterned after the early boarding schools in the U.S.
But while Canadian officials have apologized for their operation of the schools and are in the process of paying compensation to those who were forced from their homes into the boarding school system, the U.S. has offered no such apologies or payments. In fact, U.S. officials have barely acknowledged the policy existed.
Canada operated 139 federal schools, with more than 150,000 Indigenous children attending between the 1870s and 1997, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The numbers, however, don’t include schools operated without federal support by some religious orders or provincial governments. Between 1920 and 1988, Canada also operated nearly 700 federal Indian day schools, with about 200,000 children attending.
In the U.S., there is no comprehensive index to records created by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The National Archives and Records Administration's vast Record Group 75 contains records beginning from about 1774, including those from the bureau and its predecessor agencies. Records are arranged according to tribes’ proximities to BIA’s 12 regional offices and 83 agencies, with documents filed at more than 15 National Archives locations throughout the U.S.
Christian missionaries also operated more than 25 percent of schools in the U.S., and records for those schools are overseen by individual denominations. The Catholic Church operated about 100 schools, making up most of the Christian schools.
The U.S. estimates have been left to researchers, who have concluded there may have been as many as 400 boarding schools operated by the federal government and Christian missionaries.
According to the Boarding School Healing Coalition, by 1900 there were 20,000 children in boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled. By 1926, 83 percent of Native children attended boarding schools.
Beginning in the early 1930s, the federal government began creating more Indian day schools and closed some boarding schools, boosted by legislation enacted to help Native children attend public schools. The numbers, however, are unknown.
Today, a small percentage of Native children still attend federal boarding and day schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education or by Christian denominations. According to the Bureau of Indian Education, there are currently 183 bureau-funded elementary and secondary schools. Of those, 53 are directly operated by the bureau; 130 are tribally controlled under BIE contracts or grants.
Data collected by the coalition indicates that 15 schools offer boarding today. A map on the American Indian Catholic Schools Network website indicates that there are 21 Catholic Indian Schools today, and at least one, St. Joseph Indian School in South Dakota, provides boarding.
A complicated legacy
Numbers aren’t the only differences in the Canadian and U.S. boarding schools.
Although information about the number of schools and children who attended in the U.S. is limited, Indian Country Today found important comparisons between the two countries’ federal policies regarding boarding and residential school systems.
Both countries sought to restrict its Indigenous populations to clearly defined zones of land called reserves or reservations beginning in the early to mid-19th centuries effectively separating them from their traditional subsistence ways of life. Both countries sought to remove Indigenous peoples from their lands in order to make way for settlement by Whites. And like the Americans, Canadians embraced assimilationist policies aimed at civilizing Indigenous peoples through education that separated them from family, forbade speaking of Native languages or engaging in traditional cultural or spiritual ways.
In both cases, the aim was to extinguish Indigenous holds on land and resources through erasure of culture and identity and finally subsuming Indigenous peoples into the bottom rung of capitalistic systems that would render them powerless.
Life for Indian children at schools in both Canada and the U.S. was one that emphasized strict military-style order and harsh discipline. Food was often inadequate, disease common, and the mortality rate was high. Most schools featured schedules of a half-day of mostly manual labor and a half-day of education, usually basic and vocational.
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Federal policies regarding Indian schools in both countries changed over several decades, reflecting changes in government policy and societal views on education.
Beginning in 1890, The Progressive Era, as it is known in both countries, with its politics of reform, created ideas regarding morality, economic reform, efficiency and social reform as a means to correct social ills and forward citizen participation in the country’s democratic process. This period gave rise to the philosophy of progressive education, which emphasized maintaining connection to family, faith in science and preparing students to participate in a democratic society. Notions of progressive education began to shape Indian education policies in both countries and helped reduce the single-minded focus on assimilation, allowing more inclusion of Native culture and language.
Some researchers claim, however, that many schools failed to abide by these changes in federal Indian education policy, mostly maintaining the old styles of promoting the White American world view over Native ways.
It’s important to note, however, that not everybody who attended the schools, in both the U.S. and Canada, describe the same experiences, according to interviews with former students over the years by Indian Country Today.
Some former students share fond memories of their boarding and residential school years. Some made lifetime friends or met their spouses there. And for some, the schools represented a relief from overcrowded family homes with limited resources.
As more generations of Indigenous people attended the schools, they developed survival strategies and ways to maintain their human dignity and to hold on to a measure of their languages and cultures. In many ways, going away to boarding schools and the attendant hardship grew normalized.
But in many ways, Canada and the U.S. succeeded in the overarching goals of assimilation and diminishing Native language and culture. Like generations of immigrants who settled in the U.S., some Native people left their cultures and traditions behind.
Their survival came at a great human and spiritual cost.
Here’s a comparison of the two nations and their records on Indigenous people.
Canada: 'We are sorry'
The Indigenous population in Canada appears to have grown steadily in the last centuries. In 1887, the country had an estimated 100,000 to 125,000 Indigenous people; by 2011, there were estimated to be 1.4 million.
The Indian Act, enacted in 1876, is the primary law defining how Canada interacts with its Indigenous peoples. In 1894, the act was amended to require Indigenous children between the ages of 7 to 16 to attend one of the country’s Indian residential schools. Children could be forcibly removed from their families by the government and placed in schools.
The act also granted the government power over Indians, their lands and property.
As Canadians sought to create their federal residential school system, they were influenced by the U.S. Indian boarding school model such as the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Founded by Army General Richard Pratt, Carlisle exemplified the popular belief among White Americans that rapid assimilation was the only hope for Native people. Pratt is the author of the infamous phrase, ‘kill the Indian to save the man,’ as an effective means to achieve that goal.
In 1876, Nicholas Flood Davin, a member of Canadian parliament, was charged with investigating the use of Indian residential schools in the U.S. as an answer to Canada’s so-called “Indian problem.”
Favorably impressed with schools such as Carlisle, Davin recommended that Canada adopt a similar system.
Almost all of the residential schools in Canada were operated by Christian missionaries. The Catholic Church ran approximately 70 percent while the Anglican and United churches were responsible for the rest. The federal government contracted directly with churches to run the schools.
There were 80 Indian residential schools in operation in 1931, the pinnacle of the school program.
In 1968, the federal government took over direct control of schools, although churches were still allowed to appoint school administrators.
The last residential school closed in 1996. By 1999, there were 2,500 lawsuits launched over abuse at the schools.
The Canadian government also ran day schools for Indigenous students. Although they were separate from the residential schools, they were operated by the same missionary groups, Catholic and Protestant, that ran the residential schools.
Between 1920 and 1988, there were nearly 700 federally run Indian day schools throughout the country. About 200,000 Indigenous children attended those schools, which carried many of the same negative elements as the residential schools -- harsh discipline, erasure of Native language and culture, and sexual abuse.
According to the 2009 research project, “A Short History of Aboriginal Education in Canada,” by Jerry White and Julie Peters, education at the schools was minimal. Instruction focused mainly on religious indoctrination and manual labor. Schools followed a program in which students received classroom instruction for half of the day and learned practical skills, usually agricultural, for the other half. The practical skills curriculum usually amounted to using students as free labor at the schools. In the early years, officials hoped that the schools might grow to be financially independent through student’s manual labor. In 1930, only 3 percent of Indian residential students progressed past grade 6; three-quarters of students were in grades 1 to 3.
Few of the missionary teachers at the schools held teaching certificates; most principals were clergymen with limited educational experience.
Physical abuse was common and harsh; sexual abuse was also pervasive. Although government documents indicate that officials were aware of these problems, they mostly chose to overlook them, according to reports by researchers and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
A 1946 Special Joint Committee of the Senate and House of Commons examined conditions at the schools and suggested they be abandoned in favor of integrating Indigenous students into provincial schools.
In 1951, the Indian Act was amended to allow the federal government to enter into agreements with provincial schools to accept Native students. By 1960, the number of Native students in Canada attending provincial, or public, schools surpassed those living in residential schools. Churches strongly resisted the change; in 1960, more than 60 residential schools remained.
Residential schools increasingly served as orphanages and child-welfare facilities for Indigenous children beginning in the 1940s. By 1960, the federal government estimated that 50 percent of children at residential schools were there for child-welfare reasons.
In 1967, the Hawthorn Report, a governmental study, again strongly criticized residential schools and recommended more integration into provincial schools.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, a Canadian policy known as the Sixties scoop emerged in which child welfare authorities began to “scoop up” or remove Indigenous children from their families for placement into foster homes from which they were adopted into White families. This policy persisted into the 1980s.
By the late 1960s and 1970s, however, Indigenous people began to gain a greater voice in the education of their children. But even today, Indigenous children in Canada are taken away from their families disproportionately. In 2016, more than 52 percent of children in foster care were Indigenous despite making up only 7.7 percent of the population
In 2006, the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement was approved by the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples. Former residential school students received financial compensation; as part of the agreement, the government paid $125 million to the Aboriginal Healing Foundation to continue providing healing programming. The government also supports an Indian Residential crisis line to provide support and offer referrals for people seeking emotional and crisis help.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established in 2008 and operated for five years, and Canada issued a formal apology for creating and operating the schools.
Several Christian denominations that ran residential schools have also apologized for their roles. But despite repeated pleas from Indigenous people and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the Catholic Church has not apologized.
As the world expressed shock over recent discoveries of hundreds of unmarked graves of children at residential schools, Pope Francis issued a statement saying he would meet with Indigenous groups at the Vatican in December. Among the issues expected to be discussed is the fact that the church still owes more than $20 million of its share of the settlement for survivors.
In 2019, the Canadian federal court approved a nationwide class-action settlement for Indigenous people who were forced to attend federal Indian day schools. The government began processing claims in January 2021, with survivors set to receive compensation of $10,000 each. Ottawa is also investing $50 million in a Day Scholars Revitalization Fund.
The government also promised to quickly distribute about $22 million to help in locating and commemorating unmarked graves of children who died at the schools. This funding is part of money already set aside for that purpose in the federal budget.
Unresolved challenges to finding unmarked graves include current ownership of residential school lands that have since been sold. New owners may not be aware of the history of their lands.
Terence Clark, assistant anthropology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, is part of a team searching for remains. In an interview with Global News he said, “They (private owners) do have the right to turn us away. But I hope at some point once the surveys are done, the government needs to think hard about what they are going to do with these properties.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized in 2017 for his country’s treatment of Indian residential school students, and he recently called on Pope Francis to apologize as well.
"Saying that we are sorry today is not enough,” Trudeau said. “It will not undo the harm that was done to you. It will not bring back the languages and traditions you lost. It will not take away the isolation and vulnerability you felt when separated from your families, communities and cultures.”
He continued, “We share this burden with you by fully accepting our responsibilities — and our failings — as a government and as a country."
United States: A new initiative
The Indigenous population in the United States also appears to have swelled, from an estimated 313,000 in 1879 to 2.9 million in 2010, according to U.S. Census data.
The boarding school era here was preceded by the federal 1819 Civilization Act passed by Congress as a means to civilize and assimilate Native people into mainstream culture. Thus began a transition in U.S. federal Indian policy from adversarial to paternalistic.
Congress relied on Christian missionaries already in place among Native communities to carry out its directives to “introduce Indians to the habits and arts of civilization, instruct them in the mode of agriculture and for teaching their children in reading, writing and arithmetic.”
In 1867, President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration created a Peace Policy designed to civilize Native people through assimilationist education policies. The policy emphasized a Christian education as the best path to “enable Indians to perform duties of the family, state and church.”
Prior to the Peace Policy, Catholic missionaries played a large role in carrying out federal educational policies but found themselves pushed out as anti-Catholic sentiment favored Protestant schools in the late 19th century. They regained their status and access to federal funding however, after a 1908 Supreme Court decision Quickbear v. Leupp ruled that Native people could pay for tuition at Catholic schools by surrendering their treaty and trust fund money.
The federal government operated about two-thirds of the U.S. Indian boarding schools. Most of the Christian boarding and day schools were operated by the Catholic Church with more than 100 schools; the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, founded in 1874, played a dominant role in influencing the government’s Indian policies.
White educators soon found that the most effective way to carry out the assimilation process and extinguish children’s connection to Native language and culture was to place them in boarding schools away from their families.
By the 1880s, there were 60 Indian boarding schools serving 6,200 children. The boarding school heyday lasted into the 1930s, with historian David Wallace Adams describing the era in Native education history as “education for extinction.”
In 1891, Congress passed the first mandatory school attendance law for Native children, and in 1893, Congress empowered the Secretary of the Interior to withhold rations and annuities from parents who refused to send their children to school.
Unlike Canada, however, parents could choose to send their children to public or mission day schools. But lack of transportation, lack of proximity to local schools and money for clothing and food forced many families to send children to faraway boarding schools.
As in Canada, death was a very real possibility for Indian boarding school students. Indian Country Today found several copies of pre-printed boarding school roster forms in both the Bureau of Catholic Indian School and National Archives with columns labeled “graduated,” “ran away” and “died.”
Schools were paid by the federal government according to the number of children attending based on the filing of such documents. The number of children who died at U.S. Indian boarding schools is unknown, however. As in Canada, U.S. boarding school policy often discouraged incurring the expense of shipping children’s remains home. They were usually buried near the schools in cemeteries or unmarked burial sites that have long since been forgotten.
Some government and religious boarding schools used an “outing program,” in which teenage students worked for local White families or farmers. Although the outing program varied from school to school, students were mostly employed as farm laborers or domestics. Employers paid wages directly to the schools; students were sometimes given a small amount of spending money. Some schools promised to give students their accumulated wages at graduation; in some cases, however, students received nothing. Educators viewed the program as a valuable extension of the assimilation process.
It appears that Canada did not employ an outing program.
Although not well-documented, Christian boarding schools in the U.S. also appeared to play a role in child welfare, as they did in Canada. Indian Country Today found documents in the Bureau of Catholic Mission archives indicating that in the 1930s, some schools were paid by local child welfare agencies to house and care for homeless children or those removed from their homes.
There are many anecdotal stories of sexual abuse at U.S. boarding schools but unlike Canada, few survivors have successfully brought lawsuits against churches or the government.
In 1928, the Indian Defense Association released a scathing report detailing the poor conditions in tribal communities and Indian boarding schools. Social reformer John Collier, the association’s secretary, championed the inclusion of Progressive Education ideals in Indian education programs.
In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed Collier as head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs where he helped drive a number of important changes in U.S. federal Indian policy. Under the Indian Reorganization Act or the “Indian New Deal,” Collier forwarded changes that included abolishing the Indian Allotment Act and encouraging reservation leaders to create their own constitutions.
Under Collier’s leadership, the government created 100 community day schools on reservations and enacted the Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934. Under the act, the government subsidized Native attendance at public schools.
Collier advocated for better training for teachers at Native schools, a more natural setting for students in which they were raised at home with family while attending school, appropriation of funds to encourage traditional arts and crafts, and more acceptance of Native language and culture.
Ultimately, however, the schools mostly failed to reinforce traditional culture but changed their curriculum to focus on progressive education ideals reinforcing a more democratic, scientific model.
Collier’s policies did not include abolishing boarding schools but the heyday of off-reservation boarding schools came to an end, as the schools began to close in the 1930s.
By 1969, about two-thirds of Native students in the U.S. attended public schools. However, they frequently lagged far behind non-Native students in achievement and dropped out at higher rates.
A special congressional subcommittee released a report in 1969, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy - A National Challenge,” that found that many school districts used Johnson-O’Malley Act funds to supplement general operating budgets rather than for special supplementary programming for Native students as directed in the act.
“School districts provide no detailed accountability for use of this money,” the report noted. “Indians rarely get an opportunity to decide how the funds are should be spent. The classroom and the school have become a kind of battleground where the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of his school.”
The act has been updated over the years to require inclusion by the Native community in directing funds and determining programming.
After World War II and the Indian Relocation Act, in which Native families were encouraged to resettle in cities, Native children began to be removed from their families by child-welfare authorities at higher rates than non-Native children.
By the 1970s, 25 to 35 percent of Native and Alaska Native children were removed from their homes by government welfare agencies, with 85 percent of those placed with non-Native families.
The Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted in 1978 to stem the flow of Native children away from family and community, with Congress recognizing that cultural ignorance and bias within the child welfare system were the main drivers of the removal of Native children from their homes.
The act was created to protect the best interests of Native children and to promote the stability and security of tribes and families. The act establishes preferences for placing children with extended family or other tribal families, and recognizes tribal sovereignty and jurisdiction over decisions regarding their own children.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the act has come under fire by conservative political leadership as unconstitutional and discriminatory towards White adoptive parents.
Finally, although U.S. federal Indian policies have improved since the beginnings of the civilization and assimilation eras, there is still much to be done.
Interior Secretary Haaland, the only Indigenous person to serve at the Cabinet level, recently announced her agency’s creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative. Under the initiative, the Bureau of Indian Affairs is instructed to identify and collect records and information of the Indian boarding school program with special attention to records of deaths and burial sites. The initiative also includes securing records and information from Christian denominations that operated schools.
Haaland’s initiative represents the first official U.S. effort to acknowledge the existence of the boarding school era or to recognize its negative impact on Native peoples. It’s also the first concrete commitment by the government to take action to investigate and acknowledge the history of the assimilationist policies.
“For more than a century, the Department was responsible for operating or overseeing Indian boarding schools across the U.S.,” the initiative states. “While it may be difficult to learn of the traumas suffered in the boarding school era, understanding its impacts on communities today cannot occur without acknowledging that painful history.
“Only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future we are all proud to embrace.”
Directives in the initiative do not yet include specific plans to explore current and past boarding school sites.
The U.S. has never apologized for its boarding school policies.