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American Indian Boarding Schools

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Black and white photograph of “Intermediate” students inside a classroom at an Indian boarding school in Beaulieu, c.1900.

“Intermediate” students inside a classroom at an American Indian boarding school in Beaulieu, Minnesota, c.1900.

American Indian boarding schools, which operated in Minnesota and across the United States beginning in the late nineteenth century, represent a dark chapter in U.S. history. Also called industrial schools, these institutions prepared boys for manual labor and farming and girls for domestic work. The boarding school, whether on or off a reservation, carried out the government's mission to restructure Indians' minds and personalities by severing children’s physical, cultural, and spiritual connections to their tribes.

On March 3, 1891, Congress authorized the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to create legal rules that required Indian children to attend boarding schools. It also authorized the Indian Office to withhold rations, clothing, and other annuities from Indian parents or guardians who would not send and keep their children in school. Indian Agents forcibly abducted children as young as four from their homes and enrolled them in Christian- and government-run boarding schools beginning in the mid-1800s and continuing into the 1970s.

Captain Richard H. Pratt’s boarding school experiment began in the late nineteenth century. A staunch nineteenth-century assimilationist, Pratt advocated a position that diverged slightly from the white majority’s. Convinced of the U.S. government’s duty to “Americanize” Indians, he offered a variation of the slogan—popular in the American West— that stated the only good Indian was a dead one. The proper goal, Pratt claimed, was to “kill the Indian…and save the man.”

Pratt founded a school in 1879 at the site of an unused cavalry barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, organizing the institution along rigid military lines. Pratt's program of half days in the classroom and half days spent at some form of manual labor soon became standard boarding school curriculum. Government expenditures for boarding schools were always small, and the schools exploited the free labor of Indian children in order to function.

Minnesota had sixteen boarding schools that drew students from all eleven of the state’s reservations. The earliest was White Earth Indian School, begun in 1871. In 1902, St. Mary’s Mission boarded an average of sixty-two students, Red Lake School seventy seven, and Cross Lake forty two. At Morris, more than two thousand children attended the school during its history. White Earth had room for 110 students. Clontarf housed an average of 130 children from reservations in Dakota Territory. By 1910, Vermilion Lake held 120 students. Cass/Leech Lake opened with a capacity of fifty students. Pipestone housed children from Dakota, Oneida, Pottawatomie (Bodéwadmi), Arikara, and Sac and Fox (Sauk and Meskwakwi) tribes.

A typical daily schedule began with an early wake-up call at 5:45 am, most often announced by a bugler or bells. Students marched from one activity to the next. Every minute of the day was scheduled; mornings began with making beds, brushing teeth, breakfast, and industrial call (“detail”). School began around 9 am. Afternoons were spent in school and industrial work, which were followed by supper, up to thirty minutes of recreation, a call to quarters, and “tattoo.” Pupils retired to the sounds of taps at 9 pm.

Methods of discipline at Minnesota boarding schools were harsh. Some schools had cells or dungeons where students were confined for days and given only bread and water. One forced a young boy to dress like a girl for a month as a punishment; another cut a rebellious girl’s hair as short as a boy’s. Minnesota boarding schools recorded epidemics of measles, influenza, blood poisoning, diphtheria, typhoid, scarlet fever, tuberculosis, pneumonia, trachoma, and mumps, which swept through overcrowded dormitories. Students also died from accidents such as drowning and falls.

Boarding school staff assigned students to “details”: working in the kitchen, barns, and gardens; washing dishes, tables, and floors; ironing; sewing; darning; and carpentry. The schools also extensively utilized an “outing” program that retained students for the summer and involuntarily leased them out to white homes as menial laborers.

One of Minnesota’s most famous boarding school survivors is American Indian activist Dennis Banks. When he was only four years old, Banks was sent three hundred miles from his home on the Leech Lake Reservation of Ojibwe, in Cass County, to the Pipestone Indian School. Lonesome, he kept running away but was caught and severely beaten each time. Another student, at St. Benedict’s, recalled being punished by being made to chew lye soap and blow bubbles that burned the inside of her mouth. This was a common punishment for students if they spoke their tribal language.

Many students’ parents and relatives resisted the boarding school system. In letters sent to absent children, they delivered news from home and tried to maintain family ties. In messages sent to school administrators, they arranged visits, advocated for improved living conditions, and reported cases of malnourishment and illness.

In 1928, the U.S. government released the Meriam Report, an evaluation of conditions on American Indian reservations and in boarding schools. The critical study called the schools grossly inadequate. It presented evidence of malnourishment, overcrowding, insufficient medical services, a reliance on student labor, and low standards for teachers. As a result, the government built day schools on reservations. The original boarding schools began closing their doors as parents increasingly kept their children at home. By the end of the 1970s, most of them had shut down. In 2016, though tribes and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) continue to run fifty schools nationwide, no Indian boarding schools remain open in Minnesota.

There has been scant recognition of the boarding school era by the U.S federal government and church denominations that initiated and carried out the schools’ policies. Neither has acknowledged, as the Canadian government did for its own boarding school program in 2008, that those policies’ purpose was cultural genocide or accepted responsibility for their effects. Pratt’s contemporaries viewed him and other enforces of assimilationist policies as heroes.

Few textbooks discussed Indian boarding schools before the twenty-first century. In the 2000s, however, many historians study them as the tools of ethnic cleansing. The genocidal policies the schools’ staffs carried out aimed to destroy the essential foundations of the lives of American Indian students. Their objective was the disintegration and destruction of the culture, language, and spirituality of the American Indian kids under their care. The policies they implemented led to the deaths of thousands of students through disease, hunger, and malnutrition, and have left a legacy of intergenerational trauma and unresolved grieving in many boarding school survivors and their families across Indian country.

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Adams, David. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1995.

Archuleta, Margaret, Brenda Child, and Tsianina Lomawaima, eds. Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences, 1879–2000. Phoenix, AZ: Heard Museum, 2000.

Bah, Alberta Yeo. "Education Among Native Americans in the Periods Before and After Contact with Europeans: An Overview." Paper presented at the annual National Association of Native American Studies conference, Houston, Texas, 2005.

Child, Brenda. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.

Cooper, Michael. Indian School: Teaching the White Man’s Way. New York: Clarion Books, 1999.

Feagin, Joe, and Clariece Feagin. Racial and Ethnic Relations. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003.

Horne, Esther, and Sally McBeth. Essie’s Story: The Life and Legacy of a Shoshone Teacher. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 1999.

Littlefield, Alice. "Learning to Labor: Native American Education in the United States, 1880–1930." In The Political Economy of North American Indians, edited by John Moor. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993.

Lomawaima, Tsianina. "Domesticity in the Federal Indian Schools: The Power of Authority Over Mind and Body." American Ethnologist 20, no. 2 (1993): 1–14.

——— . They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1994.

Pratt, Richard H. Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades With the American Indian, 1867–1904. Robert M. Utley, ed. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003.

——— . “The Advantages of Mingling Indians with Whites.” In Americanizing the American Indians: Writings by the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880–1900. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Smith, Andrea. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2005.

Statutes at Large of the United States of America. 1891.

Trafzer, Clifford, Jean Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, eds. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska, 2006.

Utley Robert, ed. Battlefield and Classroom: An Autobiography by Richard Henry Pratt. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of “Intermediate” students inside a classroom at an Indian boarding school in Beaulieu, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of “Intermediate” students inside a classroom at an Indian boarding school in Beaulieu, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of the first school at St. Mary's Mission, Red Lake, Minnesota, c.1880s.
Black and white photograph of the first school at St. Mary's Mission, Red Lake, Minnesota, c.1880s.
Black and white photograph of students performing a drill on the grounds of an Indian boarding school, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of students performing a drill on the grounds of an Indian boarding school, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of mmbers of the White Earth boarding school band photographed by the A. A. Richardson Photo-Illustrating Company between 1908 and 1916.
Black and white photograph of mmbers of the White Earth boarding school band photographed by the A. A. Richardson Photo-Illustrating Company between 1908 and 1916.
Black and white photograph of children at an Indian boarding school work in a garden plot, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of children at an Indian boarding school work in a garden plot, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of students and staff of an Indian boarding school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students and staff of an Indian boarding school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of a young child inside an Indian boarding school, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of a young child inside an Indian boarding school, c.1890s.
Black and white photograph of students at an Indian board school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students at an Indian board school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students at an Indian boarding school perform a Thanksgiving play, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students at an Indian boarding school perform a Thanksgiving play, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students inside a classroom at an Indian boarding school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students inside a classroom at an Indian boarding school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students and a teacher at an Indian boarding school, c.1900.
Black and white photograph of students and a teacher at an Indian boarding school, c.1900.

Turning Point

After a 1928 report exposes overcrowding, malnourishment, and generally poor conditions for students in American Indian boarding schools, the U.S. government begins to open day schools on reservations as an alternative.

Chronology

1869

President Ulysses S. Grant begins to carry out a “peace policy” that avoids violent confrontation between Indians and the United States but enforces Indians’ assimilation.

1871

The first American Indian boarding school in Minnesota, on the White Earth Reservation of Ojibwe, begins to take in students.

1879

An American Indian boarding school opens in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

1880

Chemawa, the second boarding school in Oregon, is established.

1891

On March 3, the U.S. Congress approves an Indian Appropriation Act. One of the act’s provisions requires Indian parents to send their children to boarding schools or suffer withheld rations, clothes, and other annuities.

1910

A school at Vermilion Lake boards 120 students.

1928

The U.S. Congress releases the Meriam Report, an evaluation of American Indian reservations and boarding schools that criticizes their poor conditions.

1931

Twenty-nine percent of Indian children enrolled in a school are in boarding schools. An estimated two-thirds of American Indians have attended boarding school at some point in their life.

1970s

The majority of boarding schools have closed their doors.

1985

The number of BIA-operated boarding schools decreases from 88 to 54.

2016

No Minnesota boarding schools remain open. Nationwide, fifty boarding schools remain open. They are controlled by tribes and/or the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE).