This month’s Reading into History book, Sweetgrass Basket by Marlene Carvell, depicts the devastating experiences endured by children who were forced to attend Native American boarding schools. Carvell’s novel is historical fictional, but drew from her in-laws’ oral histories and the very real story of cultural genocide enacted by the United States federal government. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S. government created boarding schools to “Americanize” Native children. The schools used cultural cleansing, emotional abuse, and physical harm to force assimilation into white culture. The traumatic practice left an indelible mark on both the individuals who attended the schools and their families. The generational legacy of the damage continues to impact the collective culture of American Indians to this day.
We invite families and educators alike to talk to the young people in your lives about this tragic history. As you learn together about the Native American boarding schools, we invite you to consider the question: How do the boarding schools reflect the larger U.S. government’s relationship to Native Americans?
Since white Europeans first set foot in the Americas, they approached indigenous people as a “problem” to be fixed. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the new U.S. government focused on trying to seize land and force American Indians to live in only certain areas of the country. Native peoples’ original homelands were rich with resources. The U.S. government wanted this plentiful land for white settlers to cultivate. Over the course of the 19th century, the government expanded its attempts to control Native people. On March 3, 1819, Congress passed the Civilization Act Fund, which set allocated funds for education and lay the foundation for the boarding schools. In the early part of the 19th century, the schools were run by Christian missionaries and received some federal funding. In the second half of the 19th century, the government focused on separating tribes, breaking bonds, and assimilating Native people into white culture. White officials believed that the best way to achieve assimilation was to start with children.
In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes Act, which intended to correct what the reservation system was not achieving in the eyes of the government. The Dawes Act had a few parts, including a mandate to educate Native American children. The Act insisted that Native children be taught the values and habits of white, Christian culture. In addition, the United States government wanted to use education to spend less money on Native people. The government analyzed that it cost them more money to fight American Indians rather than to assimilate them. (Unfortunately, not interfering at all was not considered an option.)
During the advent of the Dawes Act, Army Captain Richard Henry Pratt suggested the solution of removing children from their families and placing them in off-reservation boarding schools. In 1879, Pratt founded the Carlisle Industrial Indian School in Carlisle, PA, where Sweetgrass Basket is set. Pratt believed “that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
In October 1879, 84 Lakota children arrived by train from the Dakota Territory to attend the Carlisle Industrial Indian School. Many forcibly taken from their parents, they had traveled hundreds of miles from home. Parents who pushed back against sending their children away were punished, with federal recruiting agents withholding food rations or involving the police. Parents were also compelled to sign contracts that were nearly impossible to break. You can learn more about one mother, Theresa Green, and her fight to get her daughter Marie Arteshaw back on our Women & the American Story curriculum site here.
The Carlisle School was formerly Army barracks for the cavalry. In the first days after students’ arrival, the school administrators stripped away all outward markers of cultural identity and familial connection. The school forcibly cut children’s hair. For the vast majority of Native people, long hair symbolizes strength and dignity. Zitkala-Sa describes hiding from the school administrators to avoid losing her hair. When she was found, she was strapped to a chair and wailed in protest, while a school official cut off her hair. The school stripped away traditional clothing, replacing it with military-style uniforms. School officials used fear to intimidate children, forcing them to stop all spiritual practices. In the PBS documentary Unspoken, a former student, Harry Walters, says, “I remember at the Church being told what my parents practiced would send them to hell, where they would burn forever.” The schools also forbid students, many of whom spoke no English, from speaking their native languages. Students described being beaten if caught speaking anything other than English. Children were already traumatized by being hundreds of miles from their homes and families. The terror was compounded by being denied their dignity, culturally affirming clothing, spiritual connections, and native tongues. Having endured all of these horrific hardships, the newly arrived “students” were now expected to learn.
Stayed tuned for the upcoming post, where we’ll learn more about the individual stories of those who survived and their families.
Written by Maggie Bordonaro
- genocide: intentional killing of a large group of people, usually part of a singular group
- cultural cleansing: considered part of genocide, erasing the history and traditions of a group of people
- assimilation: the process of becoming similar to something, in this case a culture
- missionary: people who are committed to serving a specific cause or community, often with a religious purpose
Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and Boarding School Experience, 1875 – 1928. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 1995.