Native Boarding Schools: The Other Side of the New World

Native Boarding Schools: The Other Side of the New World

Silvia Zarzuela Martin
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Native Boarding Schools: The Other Side of the New World
Cover by Thurya Silva

Oscar Handlin, American Historian and Professor at Harvard once said, “Once I thought to write a history of the immigrants in America. Then I discovered that the immigrants were American history.” This statement could be considered a piece of general knowledge, however, we often forget to identify the side effects of such well-known facts. Ever since Christopher Columbus reached the American continent in 1492, and it became known to the western world, it attracted waves of colonizers and immigrants. Oftentimes these immigrants were young men with nothing to lose who wanted to make a life of their own in a land that promised adventure and unparalleled opportunities. Others came from aristocratic families and saw a profitable investment in the new raw materials and resources.

This part of history has been ingrained in a whole generation that grew up watching Wild West movies and dressing up as cowboys. However, it is not often that we stop and wonder about the other side of the story. What happened to the people who were already there? What happened to the Indigenous populations? In the Eurocentric vision that has branded history ever since it blossomed as an academic discipline in the 19th century, the First Nations were merely minor characters, if at all mentioned.


Native Boarding Schools: The Other Side of the New World
A native boarding school in the United States. Source:

In recent years there has been a new vision of history unfolding, a new way of telling the story that aims to make it more accurate by narrating not from the perspective of the winners, but of those who lost. The Indigenous community (a broad and heterogenic term) is raising its voice, which has been neglected since the very beginning. An era of cultural reappropriation and open celebration of native origins and traditions is emerging.

However, with this new understanding of generational trauma comes the unraveling of certain truths. One of the most recently discovered ones was related to Native Boarding Schools. In 1819 the US Congress passed The Civilization Fund Act, which, as its name may point out, was an initiative aimed at “taming” the wilderness of these peoples, or “civilizing” them. The urge to control not only the native population but their future (via their descendants) was motivated by two main issues. The first reason was the racist system on which the soon-to-be USA would rely in order to get much of its puissance, and the second was a need for land. During the early and mid 19th century, the colonial population was rapidly increasing and the east coast, all the way down to what we now know as Louisiana, was becoming densely populated by newcomers.

This drove many explorers to “conquer the Wild West” which led to the Indigenous peoples being persecuted, enslaved, and ostracized in reservations with little to no access to water or fertile land. Despite these hardships, Native Americans were resilient; they were not willing to give up their land, culture, and identity altogether. Boarding schools were seen as an effective way to ensure future generations were more acquainted with the colonial ways than with their own roots. Roughly 360 schools were scattered over the country, becoming the “home” of around 60,000 Indigenous kids between 1860 and 1978 mainly.

By 1891 in virtue of the permission given by Congress, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs made it compulsory for Indigenous children to attend boarding schools. This measure had to be installed after encountering various forms of resistance from the First Nations, who impeded their children from being taken, sometimes encouraging them to run away. Due to the harsh conditions that the Indigenous peoples were forced to live in, some of them eventually accepted the imposed legislation and sent their kids to boarding schools, as many of them did not have another way to ensure their future.

Testimonials show that one of the first things done to the Indigenous children who arrived in one of these schools was stripping them of their traditional dresses, names, and hair. Instead, they were given clothes that matched the colonial fashion, an Anglo-Saxon name, and a drastic haircut. It is important to stress the importance that hair held and still holds for Indigenous peoples; it is not just a way of showing pride for belonging to their culture, but also a sign of respect towards their ancestors. Other expressions of their origins such as their language, music, and dances were also forbidden. When native children arrived at boarding schools, the adults overseeing them were instructed to “kill the Indian and save the man.”

Native Boarding Schools: The Other Side of the New World
Carlisle Indian Industrial School, an American Indian boarding school in Pennsylvania (c. 1900). Source: Frontier Forts

This phenomenon extended, not just over what we now know as the USA but also to Canada where in the summer of 2021 almost 1000 unmarked graves were found in two of their boarding schools. These discoveries were fruitful thanks to the combined efforts of the Government of Canada and several Indigenous associations that were pushing for a reconciliation program. The latter involved conducting research to find 10,000 to 25,000 children who perished in Canada in these schools. Reports state that some of these graves belonged to children as young as 3 years old. Between 1870 and 1997 (when the last of these boarding schools closed) an estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families.

The final report on these findings will be released this spring and the Indigenous community has shown the relevance and significance this will hold moving forward through various social media posts and events. What remains a mere page in a history book in western colonial culture, signifies a loss for those on the other side of it. To this day, survivors of these boarding schools testify to the brutal treatment they received as children just for being on one side of history.

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Native Boarding Schools: …

by Silvia Zarzuela Martin time to read: 4 min