As the later 1800s progressed, the Indian wars began to wane. This was largely due to the attrition of years of battle, along with disease and compulsory placement on reservations where "being good," despite the poor land and living conditions that came along with it, was marginally preferably to extermination.

The question of education came up. While there truly were some well-meaning people who had the best interests (misguided, though they might be) of the Indians in mind—there were even some schools that had tribal backing as well as were monitored by the tribes—one of the main reasons was that it was thought easier to work for assimilation rather than extermination (simple removal would not accomplish this and leave open the door to future "Indian trouble"). Another reason, of course, was that it was figured that educating ("civilizing") the Indian would be cheaper than killing him. It was calculated in 1882 that killing was about $1 million per Indian, while eight years of schooling would only cost $1,200.

So, things moved from General Philip Sheridan's "the only good Indians I ever saw were dead"1 and the phrase often and fondly quoted by Colonel John M. Chivington (of Sand Creek Massacre "fame") "nits make lice" to Captain Richard Pratt's "kill the Indian and save the man."

Pratt felt that through education one could "civilize" the "savage" out of the Indian. He believed that racial differences were meaningless and that the key thing was environment—the Indian wasn't inferior because of his race but because of his culture, which was no longer relevant to contemporary (read: white) civilization and should be discarded. Of course, exterminated might be a more accurate term—or "excised" if one wishes to invoke a cancer metaphor (regardless, the idea that it is something akin to a disease that corrupts and must eliminated is inescapable). He had made some attempts that he felt were successful with prisoners of war and wanted to try similar measures with Indian children.

In order to put his theories to the test, he opened the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania (1879). In yet another sad bit of irony—along the lines of the Bureau of Indian Affairs being originally created as part of the War Department (now euphemistically renamed the Department of Defense)—the building to house the school was an old barracks. This was also appropriate because the students were regimented not unlike they were in a military program, including being "drilled" like soldiers. They marched to and from class and meals, had to have beds made "correctly," shoes and buttons shined, and were even ranked.

When the students were brought to the school, they were systematically "decultured" through several means. First, they were reclothed and anything resembling native dress was outlawed. For people used to an entirely different form of dress, these were constricting, often uncomfortable clothes (and shoes). The males were given stiff uniforms and the females "proper" dresses. The boys were forced to cut their hair, which for many Indians was a symbol of manhood (for Lakotas, it was symbolic of mourning). Their heads were washed with kerosene and their bodies with lye. They were given English names. An early student's account of that experience:

Almost immediately our names were changed to those in common use in the English language. Instead of translating our names into English and calling Zinkcaziwin, Yellow Bird, and Wanbli K'leska, Spotted Eagle, which in itself would have been educational, we were just John, Henry or Maggie, as the case might be. I was told to take a pointer and select a name for myself from the list written on the blackboard. I did, and since one was just as good as another, and as I could not distinguish any differences in them, I placed the pointer on the name Luther....
Luther Standing Bear
Their diets were changed to mostly white bread and coffee and sugar instead of their more typical "meat, either boiled with soup or dried, and fruit, with perhaps a few vegetables" (Luther Standing Bear, quoted in Wilson)—this, along with confined conditions, physical exertion, and lower immunity to Western diseases led to sickness and disease among the students, some of whom died. There were over 250 at Carlisle. Another school, the Haskell Institute (Kansas), had 102 graves and records showing at least 500 who were buried elsewhere. At Chemawa (Oregon, there are 189 students buried in the cemetery (others were returned home for burial). Any Indian religious practices were not only discouraged, but banned and along with any attempt to use their native language was a punishable offense.2 Christianity and English were the order of the day and both pushed onto the students, often through long recitations of scripture. In fact, religious studies was considered a basic "academic" subject from the school's viewpoint (whether it was a religous school or not—only a matter of degree of practice).

A quote from Pratt, showing how closely intertwined religion and "civilizing" were: "In Indian civilization, I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked" ( (While it is easy to demonize Pratt—and his misguided attempts brought about more than one generation of misery, and in all too many cases, abuse—he, and many others, truly felt he was helping out the Indians, in the very least saving them from almost assured physical extermination. On the other hand, context cannot excuse the results of the attempt.)

In addition to studies and drilling, the boys had to do physical labor (chopping wood, for instance), often working on farms or in workshops (including carpentry, blacksmithing, animal husbandry). This served more than one purpose. One was that it taught them a valuable skill—at least in an assimilated America where their "ways" and culture had been eliminated in favor of "civilization" (also some were of the opinion that manual labor was the best thing, if not only, they were suited for). Second, it was a way of offsetting the costs of running the schools. The girls were also taught useful "domestic" skills (laundry, sewing, cooking, cleaning) to ensure their success as part of civilization. Many students there and elsewhere were "loaned out" to (white) families for work during off hours or when school wasn't in session in what was called the "Outing Program." Some students stayed with the families year round, attending nearby schools.

The education was akin to indoctrination, the students being filled strictly with American history and Western values and culture. The curriculum included US history, geography, language, math, reading, writing, and spelling. Recall that the attempt wasn't so much for actual education but rather to strip them of their "inferior" culture that was preventing them from becoming civilized (this, of course, was stripping them of their identity, as well). While much of this was not atypical for students in many boarding schools in the United States and England, it should be remembered that these children were not part of either culture in any significant way.

But that's what was done. Part of the way the school succeeded was by the way it isolated the students from the "taint" of their culture. First they were taken away from their families. Second, they were separated and stripped of any cultural identity they had. Third, they had a new cultural identity assigned and ingrained in them.

Pratt's school appeared a great success, helped along by his extensive use of "before and after" photographs of the students, showing them as "savage" (occasionally redressed to look more exotic and "uncultured") then "civilized." Another "bonus" was that after being covered up and in the less sunny climate, the students lost their tan (some were probably sick, as well) therefore appearing "more white." The school and "program" became a model for other schools hoping to accomplish the same.

This wasn't entirely a new thing. Indian children and even some adults had been schooled going back nearly a hundred years, often by missionaries. And while the extent that they were "civilized" in the process (as well as whether that was the intention—some believed they were doing good work by simply educating the Indians, others saw it as a means for religious conversion) runs from little to complete, none of the previous efforts were as systematic or far-reaching in their application and execution. Though the original students at Carlisle were "recruited" from reservations, later students there and elsewhere were taken (education for Indian children became mandatory in 1893). If parents refused, authorities were allowed to withhold promised annuities and even rations. Jail time was another possibility.

Building on the "success" at transforming the Indians into Americans, there was a sustained effort to expand and continue as the century came to a close. There were over 300 schools devoted to teaching Indian children by 1900 with an enrollment of 22,000. This was nearly 10% of the total Indian population at the time.3 It is estimated that about 18,000 of those children attended schools modeled after Carlisle. [Much of the rest that follows is not Carlisle specific, though similar patterns existed throughout much of the system. Bear in mind, it wasn't all horrors for the students—regardless of its being right or wrong—and some students went on to be successful, including athlete Jim Thorpe. None of which mitigates the problems or the intent to extinguish the identity of a people.]

Between the hard work, the military style schedule and rules, sickness (tuberculosis and influenza were a problem, even small pox in some places), and punishment for infractions of the rules—particularly relating to practice of their Indian culture, the students were far from turning into the bright, productive, happy-to-be-civilized students desired (and expected) by the program.

Corporal punishment was strictly enforced, often to the point of abuse. In 1928, the government ordered an end to corporal punishment at the Phoenix Indian School. The Superintendent felt otherwise: "we deal with a primitive race, with persons who often lack appreciation of the reasons for good behavior" (

Hundreds ran away. And those that were caught (as most were) were punished, often severely. A former student recalls two girls who had run away and were returned:

They tied their legs up, tied their hands behind their backs, put them in the middle of the hallway so that if they fell, fell asleep or something, the matron would hear them and she'd get out there and whip them and make them stand up again.
Depression was rampant. There were even some suicides (which often seemed inexplicable to the staff of the schools). As one student recalled "we didn't like ourselves because we were Indian. We were bad. We were no good. We were uneducated, illiterate. We were not going to amount to anything." Further, when it came time to return, they were still isolated from their cultural identity. The children had been transformed into something that was no longer Indian, yet not really white and were forced to try to somehow find a way to become part of a society (either) that they didn't belong to (and to reconcile those feelings within themselves). Since many had spent so long with little or no contact with families and being raised in what was an often cold, emotionless environment, few had the parenting skills necessary for adulthood. Some became teachers at these schools or at reservation schools. While in many cases that was a good thing, in others started a cycle of mistreatment of Indian students.

Ideas changed in the 1920s as complaints arose—mainly that it was too expensive and taught dependency rather than self-sufficiency. By 1923, the majority of students already went to public schools. 1928 brought about a report on Indian education at the boarding schools. It listed many problems, including: "poor diet, overcrowding, below-standard medical service, excessive labor by the students and substandard teaching" ( It wasn't until 1934 that any Indian history was allowed to be taught. By then, many of the schools had already closed. Other laws were enacted (1975, 1978) that enabled tribes to have a say in the educational programs and allowing them to have school boards in order to hire teachers, themselves.

Even though the boarding schools were phased out, some of the excesses continued at reservation schools and religious schools throughout much of the 20th century.

Some Indians and others claim that the system of boarding schools in the US and Canada with their programs of assimilation was a matter of genocide. Others disagree. Especially due to the "general" definition of the term which in typical usage means to systematically kill (or make a strong attempt—intent is implied) an entire race, nationality, or people. While this is not exactly wrong, it is too narrow.

The original formulation of the concept included a number of things that are usually not considered. The originator of the word, Raphael Lemkin wrote that

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves....disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.
Also: "Genocide has two phases: one, destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group: the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor." In a word: assimilation. "Kill the Indian and save the man."

Further, the United Nations defines genocide as:

...any of the following acts committed to destroy, in whole or part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
  1. Killing members of the group;
  2. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
  3. Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
  4. Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  5. Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Just taking the boarding school system into account, it is a violation of the Genocide Convention's point E (arguably, the causing mental harm provision in B applies as well). Some, including Indian writer and activist Ward Churchill, believe that is part of the reason (though not the only) the United States held out against ratifying the Convention for 38 years—and then only with "reservations" and "understandings" that, in effect, mean the US will "cede authority to the International Court of Justice, but only when it decides" (sid).

Their point being that a bloodless genocide is still genocide.

1Possibly apocryphal as there is only anecdotal evidence he spoke those words, though it was widely attributed to him. There are numerous, often close, variations of the "proverb" that date back prior to the Indian Wars of the mid to late 1800s. Nonetheless, it accurately reflects the General's, and much of the army's, attitudes in that respect (,1,1,95/INDIAN.html).

2Commisioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan (1889-1892) said that English was "the language of the greatest, most powerful and enterprising nationalities beneath the sun" ( One of the most important aspects of the assimilation process from the point of view of those in charge was learning English and disallowing any native language (in fact, many students, over time, lost their ability to communicate in their original language, further distancing them from their identity). Some examples of punishment for speaking their native language included being hit in the mouth with a ruler, spanking, being forced to eat lye soap, and having to bite down on a large rubber band which was then pulled back taut and repeatedly allowed to snap the student in the mouth. Other stories of abuse include claims of students being whipped and kicked. A student named Harry Charger said he had "seen young men's backs broke....young men's necks broke....a young man's hip-bone kicked out of place. It healed like that" (Wilson).

3I'm assuming this figure to mean in the United States. On the other hand, Canada had its own similar system of residential schools for Indians with the same or similar results for the children. A major difference is that Canada has made moves to apologize and attempts at reparations (admittedly after a number of lawsuits— it is still notable that the likelihood of a similar US response is exceedingly low).

(Sources: James Wilson, The Earth Shall Weep: the history of native Americans, 1988,,,, my WU for genocide)

Some anecdotal (but true) evidence:
This information is from the experiences of a Sioux family who grew up in South Dakota in the 1940's, a family I know well. The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

Juanita and Ophelia were tortured for speaking Lakota instead of English. The punishment for this "crime" was to be beaten with shovels. For a different infraction, the girls were forced to kneel on the same shovels. As mentioned by sid, forcible hair cutting was not considered punishment, but it was a terrible desecration of identity.

Juan spoke of the sexual abuse they endured. In his own words, "When night came, all you could do was lie still and pray it wasn't your turn." The incidents of abuse were reported, not years later by adults, but by the children.1

When Juan died, the nuns who used to beat his sisters came to the funeral. They made rosaries and prayed for his soul.

In an interview on The Early Show on 6/12/02, a vetran of WWII, one of the original code talkers. stated, In the government schools they would wash our mouths with a brush and brown government soap for speaking our language. Ironic. Twenty years later, the government needed our language to win the war.This is a paraphrase but is as accurate as I could get it.
1: "Nobody paid any attention until white people started to speak out." -- Juanita

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.