⚓ Claiming Our Heritage from the Boarding School Experiment

Three Lakota Boys, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, ca. 1900

By Jerilyn DeCoteau, Board Member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

The heritage passed down to Native Americans is often too painful to name. Not reported in textbooks, and often not spoken of by boarding school survivors, is the chilling fact that for generations Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools far away from their homes for the purpose of destroying “all that is Indian in them.”

Children from age four were taken to nearly 500 off-reservation boarding schools (1).  They were shorn of their hair, stripped of their Native garb, forbidden to speak their language or practice familiar customs, and denied contact with family. Many children spent all their school years in boarding schools. Many died there, never to return home. Each of these schools has a graveyard.  The intended and actual result was the rending of family and community ties, the weakening of Native societies and social structure - the annihilation of much Native culture.


Legendary teacher, lecturer, activist and author Dennis Banks.

Silence has been a way boarding school survivors have coped. Silence is a survival tool, but it has caused untold damage.  Dennis Banks, a great Indian activist, left us with many lessons. One was to break the silence.

"I was taken to a boarding school when I was four years old, and taken away from my mother and my father, my grandparents … 300 miles away from our home. And, you know, the beatings began immediately, the … de-Indianizing program … that was trying to destroy the culture and the person …"




"…You know, they cut off all communication with your parents, and a lot of letters, which I found later in — I stayed there for six years without communicating to — with my parents at all … I asked my mother, I said, ‘Why didn’t you write to me?’"






"… I had a chair; I was sitting right by her grave, and I started reading these letters. And I knew that she loved me then. I mean, even now, even at this moment, I feel that, man, it’s a hard — it’s a hard experience to tell people. But I tell them anyway" (2).

The evil of this genocidal experiment, and the effect of the silence around it, cannot be exaggerated. Because people are beginning to tell their stories, we are beginning to understand the intergenerational and often traumatic effects of the boarding school experiment. In many critical ways Native American heritage was destroyed in the boarding schools. In its place is often the visible manifestation of the pain from that loss: broken families, alcohol and drug addiction, mental and physical health problems, suicide.


Richard Henry Pratt founded and acted as superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He coined the phrase "kill the Indian... and save the man" in reference to the ethos of the Carlisle  School to forcibly educate Native Americans. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Dennis Banks’ story is typical.  Unloved by his mother, alien to his Native language and culture, he was sent back home, empty-handed of tools and skills needed to take his place in his Native society. And so, well into his 70s, he sat by his mother’s grave and knew for the first time that she loved him. He fought his whole life for his heritage, for all of us, and won after all.

If the boarding school story makes it sound like many Native people are sad, damaged, broken, it is a truth we cannot hide. The effects of that trauma are evident today, long past the boarding school experiment. Native people have much to grieve and much healing to do.  We can be silent no more. Our boarding school stories need to be told. They are hard to tell, but like Dennis Banks’ story, they are stories of resilience and hope. Only if we learn the truth, as Mr. Banks did, can we claim our full Native American heritage and begin to heal our families, our communities, our tribes (3).


1) There were about 500 federally supported boarding schools, a large number being run by churches.

2) Native American Leader Dennis Banks,  “The Overlooked Tragedy of Nation’s Indian Boarding Schools,” an  interview by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” October 8, 2012. https://www.democracynow.org/2012/10/8/native_american_leader_dennis_banks_on

3) The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has just launched a campaign called “Break the Silence, Begin the Healing,” which features “Healing Voices,” stories that “foster resilience and support healing."

•  •  •

This article was originally published by First Nations Development Institute as part of its “Native American Stories” series.



Jerilyn DeCoteau is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and serves on the Board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Her parents, maternal grandmother and some of her siblings attended Indian boarding schools.


The vision of the NABS coalition is indigenous cultural sovereignty, and its mission is to lead in the pursuit of understanding and addressing the ongoing trauma created by the U.S. Indian Boarding School policy. NABS is a nonprofit, membership organization comprised of over 100 Native and Non-Native individuals, Tribal Nations, and organizations committed to boarding school healing.


Homepage: Carlisle Indian School (Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center)

Story Lead: Three Lakota Boys, Carlisle Indian School (www.calie.org)

#1: Forced Labor Camp -- A saddle shop at the Carson School (Manataka American Indian Council)

#2: Native-American students conduct physics experiments at the Carlisle Indian School (history.com)

#3: Thomas Indian School, girls' basketball team (www.calie.org)

#4: Osage Indian Football Team (Library of Congress)

#5: American Indian Girls in Uniform (National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)

#6: Educating the Indian Race (Wikipedia)

Five Myths About American Indians

Did one tribe really sell Manhattan for some beads?

This story originally appeared in The Washington Post and is reprinted here with its permission.

Kevin Gover, a citizen of the Pawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, is the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. Follow Smithsonian NMAI on Twitter.

Thanksgiving recalls for many people a meal between European colonists and indigenous Americans that we have invested with all the symbolism we can muster. But the new arrivals who sat down to share venison with some of America’s original inhabitants relied on a raft of misconceptions that began as early as the 1500s, when Europeans produced fanciful depictions of the “New World.” In the centuries that followed, captivity narratives, novels, short stories, textbooks, newspapers, art, photography, movies and television perpetuated old stereotypes or created new ones — particularly ones that cast indigenous peoples as obstacles to, rather than actors in, the creation of the modern world. I hear those concepts repeated in questions from visitors to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian every day. Here are five of the most intransigent.


There is a Native American culture.
This concept really took hold when Christopher Columbus dubbed the diverse indigenous inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere “Indians.” Lumping all Native Americans into an indiscriminate, and threatening, mass continued during the era of western expansion, as settlers pushed into tribal territories in pursuit of new lands on the frontier. In his 1830 “Message to Congress,” President Andrew Jackson justified forced Indian removal and ethnic cleansing by painting Indian lands as “ranged by a few thousand savages.” But it was Hollywood that established our monolithic modern vision of American Indians, in blockbuster westerns — such as “Stagecoach” (1939), “Red River” (1948) and “The Searchers” (1956) — that depict all Indians, all the time, as horse-riding; tipi-dwelling; bow-, arrow- and rifle-wielding; buckskin-, feather- and fringe-wearing warriors.

Yet vast differences — in culture, ethnicity and language — exist among the 567 federally recognized Indian nations across the United States. It’s true that the buffalo-hunting peoples of the Great Plains and prairie, such as the Lakota, once lived in tipis. But other native people lived in hogans (the Navajo of the Southwest), bark wigwams (the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the Great Lakes), wood longhouses in the Northeast (Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois peoples’ name for themselves, means “they made the house”), iglus and on and on. Nowadays, most Native Americans live in contemporary houses, apartments, condos and co-ops just like everyone else.

There is similar diversity in how native people traditionally dressed; whether they farmed, fished or hunted; and what they ate. Something as simple as food ranged from game (everywhere); to seafood along the coasts; to saguaro, prickly pear and cholla cactus in the Southwest; to acorns and pine nuts in California and the Great Basin.

American Indians get a free ride from the U.S. government.
The notion that indigenous people benefit from the government’s largesse is widespread, according to “American Indians: Stereotypes and Realities,” by Choctaw historian Devon Mihesuah. Staff and volunteers at our Washington and New York museums hear daily about how Washington “gave” Native Americans their reservations and how the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages their lives for them.

The fight for Native American humanity | CONSTITUTIONAL | The Washington Post

But Native Americans are subject to income taxes just like all other Americans and, at best, have the same access to government services — though often worse. In 2013, the Indian Health Service (IHS) spent just $2,849 per capita for patient health services, well below the national average of $7,717. And IHS clinics can be difficult to access, not only on reservations but in urban areas, where the majority of Native Americans live today.

As for reservations, most were created when tribes relinquished enormous portions of their original landholdings in treaties with the federal government. They are what remained after the United States expropriated the bulk of the native estate. And even these tenuous holdings were often confiscated and sold to white settlers. The Dawes Allotment Act, passed by Congress in 1887, broke up communally held reservation lands and allotted them to native households in 160-acre parcels of individually owned property, many of which were sold off. Between 1887, when the allotment act was passed, and 1934, when allotment was repealed, the Native American land base diminished from approximately 138 million acres to 48 million acres.

‘Native American’ is the proper term.
Commentaries and corporate guidelines address the notion that “Native American” is preferred or that “American Indian” is impolite. During the 1492 quincentennial, Oprah Winfrey devoted an hour of her show to the subject. At the museums and on social media, people ask at least once per day when we are going to take “American Indian” out of our name.

The term Native American grew out of the political movements of the 1960s and ’70s and is commonly used in legislation covering the indigenous people of the lower 48 states and U.S. territories. But Native Americans use a range of words to describe themselves, and all are appropriate. Some people refer to themselves as Native or Indian; most prefer to be known by their tribal affiliation — Cherokee, Pawnee, Seneca, etc. — if the context doesn’t demand a more encompassing description. Some natives and nonnatives, including scholars, insist on using the word Indigenous, with a capital I. In Canada, terms such as First Nations and First Peoples are preferred. Ditto in Central and South America, where the word indio has a history of use as a racial slur. There, Spanish speakers tend to use the collective word indígenas, as well as specific national names.

Indians sold Manhattan for $24 worth of trinkets.
This myth — repeated in textbooks and made vivid in illustrations — casts Native Americans as gullible provincials who traded valuable lands and beaver pelts for colorful European-made beads and baubles. According to a letter to Dutch officials, the settlers offered representatives of local Lenape groups 60 guilders, about $24, in trade goods for their homeland, Manahatta. The best insight we have into what the Lenape received comes from a later 17th-century deed for the Dutch purchase of Staten Island, also for 60 guilders, which lists goods “to be brought from Holland and delivered” to the Indians, including shirts, socks, cloth, muskets, bars of lead, powder, kettles, axes, awls, adzes and knives. The Dutch recognized the mouth of the Hudson River as a gateway to valuable fur-trapping territories farther north and west.

But it is unlikely that the Lenape saw the original transaction as a sale. Although land could be designated for the exclusive use of prominent native individuals and families, the idea of selling land in perpetuity, to be regarded as property, was alien to native societies. Historians who try now to reconstruct early transactions between Europeans and Native Americans differ over whether the Lenape considered it an agreement for the Dutch to use, but not own, Manahatta (the majority view), or whether even as early as 1626, Indians had engaged in enough trade to understand European economic ideas.

Mascots honor Native Americans.
Many people, including some American Indians , hold that naming sports teams after Native American caricatures, such as the Redskins and the Braves, recognizes the strength and fortitude of native peoples. “It represents honor, represents respect, represents pride,” Redskins owner Dan Snyder told ESPN.

A little history: The use of Native Americans as mascots arose during the allotment period, a time when U.S. policy sought to eradicate native sovereignty and Wild West shows cemented the image of Indians as plains warriors. (No wonder all of these mascots resemble plains Indians, even when they represent teams in Washington, Florida and Ohio.)

What’s more, social science research suggests not only that some native people recognize the word “Redskins” as a racial slur and are offended by it, but that exposure to mascots and other stereotypes of Native Americans has a negative impact on American Indian young people. According to a study by Tulalip psychologist Stephanie Fryberg, such mascots “remind American Indians of the limited ways others see them and, in this way, constrain how they can see themselves.” Likewise, in 2005, the American Psychological Association called for the retirement of all Indian mascots, symbols and images, citing the harmful effects of racial stereotyping on the social identity and self-esteem of American Indian youth.

Twitter: @SmithsonianNMAI

Five myths is a weekly feature challenging everything you think you know. You can check out previous myths, read more from Outlook or follow updates on Facebook and Twitter.