NPR Reports on the Strange History of Native American Boarding Schools

by Latoya Peterson

This is Tom Torlino.

He attended the Carlisle School – a special boarding school for Native American students. The picture provides both a before and after spending time at the school. The before and after photo is but one illustration NPR uses to tell the story of Native American boarding schools in the US. In a report titled “Native American Boarding Schools Haunt Many,” correspondent Charla Bear digs deep into the practices and processes used to forcibly strip young Native Americans from their heritage.

Check out the chilling reason these schools were developed in the first place:

The federal government began sending Native Americans to off-reservation boarding schools in the 1870s, when the United States was still at war with Indians.

An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first of these schools. He based it on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison. He described his philosophy in a speech he gave in 1892.

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one,” Pratt said. “In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Even more frightening to me is the familiar ritual of colonization:

In 1945, Bill Wright, a Butwin Indian, was sent to the Stewart Indian School in Nevada. He was just 6 years old. Wright remembers matrons bathing him in kerosene and shaving his head. Students at federal boarding schools were forbidden to express their culture — everything from wearing long hair to speaking even a single Indian word. Wright said he lost not only his language, but also his Native American name.

“I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, ‘Grandma, I don’t understand you,’” Wright says. “She said, ‘Then who are you?’”

Wright says he told her his name was Billy. “‘Your name’s not Billy. Your name’s Tutum,’” she told him. “And I went, ‘That’s not what they told me.’”

All of these actions were part of a long term strategy. Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona, explains:

“They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile,” Lomawaima says. “There was very a conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away.”

These schools provided education to Native children for years. Lucy Toledo, who attended one such school in the 1950s, explained how the children were not even taught the basic principles of arithmetic or grammar. Instead:

“Saturday night we had a movie,” says Toledo. “Do you know what the movie was about? Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys and Indians. Here we’re getting all our people killed, and that’s the kind of stuff they showed us.”

Corporal punishment, abuse, manual labor, and malnutrition were common problems at the schools. Bear notes:

In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing Native American students, not educating them. The report said the schools still had a “major emphasis on discipline and punishment.”

However, in more recent years, many of these schools have closed down. In the few that remain, a cultural shift has occurred where the school encourage the preservation of cultural activities:

One school that remains is Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, Calif. — the same boarding school Toledo attended.

Hershel Martinez, a Navajo student, gathers with a group of friends in a school hallway to form a drum circle. The school encourages cultural activities like this. That’s one reason Martinez feels more comfortable here than at his former public school in Los Angeles.

“Everyone was wondering what nationality, what race am I,” Martinez said when asked about being at a public school. “I’d tell them and they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re Indian. You’re like the only guy I know who’s Native.’ But here, at Sherman, they know how I feel about being Native. And they understand where we’re all coming from.”

Unfortunately, the piece ends with a familiar problem:

[T]his year, the federal government made a budgeting change that reduces funding to the off-reservation boarding schools. And their future is in doubt.

(This NPR program is part one of a two part series.)