The Brutal History of Native American Boarding Schools
By Ryan Backus
Mistreatment of Indigenous people has been a part of history since the colonization of the Americas. The form of mistreatment may have changed over the years, but its horrific effects have remained constant. The Assimilation of Native Americans into mainstream European /American Culture and the eradication of Indigenous culture was a major focus throughout history.
The Native American assimilation era began in 1819 when U.S. Congress passed The Indian Civilization Fund Act. Originally, the Act intended to reduce the decline of the Native American populations and encourage American education opportunities for Indigenous societies. The results of the Act were far from this intention. The policies created within the Act caused significant harm to the Indigenous people and their culture.
Native American boarding schools were established in the U.S. in the late 19th century. The schools were supposedly made to civilize Native American children and youth into white society. Instead, these institutions perpetuated generations of abuse on Native Americans. Children were removed from their homes, families, and tribes and placed into church-operated or government-regulated boarding schools. The abuse and harm caused to the children and the families affected can never be reprimanded.
From 1819 to 1969, the U.S. operated or supported 408 boarding schools. The schools were militant. Children were forced to change to a Christian name, cut their hair, wear uniforms, speak only English, and march in formations. The rules were strict and discipline was often harsh when rules were broken.
Conditions within the boarding schools were far from humane. Children were mistreated and malnourished. Dormitories were poorly structured, overcrowded and rampant with diseases. Additionally, students endured physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
This problem was both real and close to home in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan where The Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School was constructed in the years of 1891-1892. It was then fully functioning and housed boys and girls in dormitories by 1993. The facility includes a dining hall, a hospital, an industrial training building, a woodworking and blacksmith shop, a clubhouse for employees and several farm buildings. Adjacent to the school was an "Indian Cemetery", which is still there today.
Native American children from all over the state of Michigan, as well as Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and New York, were brought to the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School. The school averaged enrollment of more than 300 students annually for many years while in operation. The Mt. Pleasant school was modeled after the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, also known as Carlisle Indian Industrial School. The students received a K-8 Education with vocational training and religious conversion. The classes for the Native American children at the school continued until the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School closed on June 6, 1934.
The U.S. documented five deaths of Indigenous children at the school in Mt. Pleasant, from its opening in 1893 to its closure in 1934. When the state returned to the land where the school once sat to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe of Michigan in 2010, the tribe uncovered a more extensive history of the federal government's violence. Records confirmed the deaths of 227 children while attending the Mount Pleasant school. The search for their remains continues today.
The Department of the Interior faces scrutiny from its recent announcement of its investigation of the more than 350 Native American boarding schools that operated in the U.S. for more than a century. A recently released report from the Department of Indian Affairs recorded over 500 deaths of Native children– a number projected to increase as the Department of Interior continues investigating.
In 2008, the state granted the land to the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Nation. The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe recognizes the 87th anniversary of the Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School closing. The Tribe has goals to honor the 227 children lost through the creation of a memorial site and potential museum.
Retired professor, poet and artist Denise Lajimodiere's 2021 book Stringing Rosaries collect 16 oral histories of boarding school survivors. She found, due to the immense amount of trauma the students experienced while attending these institutions, few stories were shared afterward. The stories shared shed a bit of insight into how children were treated. As more stories
Unravel, more survivors speak out about their experiences during their stay at the schools.
The tragedies Native children faced during the era of assimilation have impacted the lives of not only the children but also their families and communities. An entire generation of Native Americans was stripped of their identity, creating incredibly harmful effects for the generations that followed. These impacts have caused Indigenous communities to suffer mental health issues and struggle with the relationship between Native communities and the American education system.
Native American youth continue to face challenges in the American education system. They rarely have access to a curriculum that is culturally relevant and experience difficulties in the classroom at alarming rates. School districts around the country are beginning to recognize the gap in knowledge and are working to represent a more accurate reflection of Native American history for students.
We stand in solidarity with each person affected and each life taken as a result of the mistreatment of Indigenous people within American history and work to create a more accurate reflection of the harsh realities endured.