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Beginning in the late 19th century, many Native American children were sent to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. These schools were usually located away from Native American reservations, and were intended to remove children from the influence of tribal traditions and to assimilate them into what the schools’ proponents saw as American culture.
Native American boarding schools of the period transported children far from their families, forced them to cut their hair, and punished them for using non-English names and languages. Most were run with military-like schedules and discipline, and emphasized farming and other manual skills. Although many Native American children attended day schools and parochial schools, between the 1880s and the 1920s, the term “Indian school” was widely used to refer to government-run off-reservation boarding schools.
Many Native American parents refused to send their children to boarding schools and fought for their rights in court. Students fled schools in the night or set school buildings on fire. Some graduates, like the Santee Dakota physician and lecturer Charles Eastman and the Yankton Dakota musician Zitkála-Šá, went on to become public figures, but questioned the methods and ideology of the schools.
A few boarding schools became well known nationally. Some, like Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, fielded sports teams and bands that kept them in the public eye. Before-and-after photographs of students were published in newspaper and magazines to demonstrate and publicize the schools’ “civilizing” process. Unmediated accounts by Native American students or their families were rarely published.
By the 1920s, off-reservation government boarding schools faced increasing criticism for questionable teaching practices, substandard living conditions, and poor medical care, and Native American education soon entered a new era. Today, former boarding school students and their descendants are working to research and honor those who endured the boarding school experience.
This is a challenging subject to teach. It can be difficult to find accounts in which students and parents describe their experiences of the boarding schools without interference by non-Native writers or editors. Descriptions and depictions of the schools and their students from the late 19th and early 20th century are rife with patronizing language and racist caricatures. Photographs of the boarding schools and their students can be found easily today, but most were taken by non-Native photographers, and many were published either by organizations sympathetic to the boarding schools or by the schools themselves.