The Dismissed Tragedy Behind the Native American Boarding School System

By: Meghan Patero
Associate Editor, Vol. 26

One thing I’ve realized about myself in law school is that, when reading about historical events, I often downgrade the event’s importance and subsequent consequences. I read the words at face value and dismiss the significance attached to the event at that time. As a result, I have been challenging myself to really think and learn about the full significance of past events when I come across them. For example, when I first learned about Native American boarding schools, I did not initially think much of it – schools are supposed to be good, right? The truth, however, is much darker.

Photograph of Chiracahua Apache Indians After Training at the Carlisle Indian School

Also known as Indian Residential Schools, Native American boarding schools were a system of institutions built by the United States so that Native American children would learn about and assimilate to American culture.[1] If one were passively reading about these boarding schools, not a second thought would be spared about this statement. Schools are assumed to be institutions underscored by trust to educate children and help them grow as individuals. What is often overlooked are the horrendous crimes these boarding schools committed against the Native American community and its ever-lasting impact.[2]

During the 19th and 20th century, the United States pursued hegemony across the entire nation by suppressing Native American culture and identity.[3] The United States, under the pretense of partnership and cooperation between the two, forced attendance of Native American children at Eurocentric style boarding schools.[4] Values such as the “importance of private property, material wealth, and monogamous nuclear families” were taught to ‘civilize’ and force a new form of education on Native Americans.[5]

Aside from the “lessons,” boarding schools also employed a number of physical, gruesome tactics to suppress Native American culture and identity.[6] Laws mandating European styled haircuts, preventing the use of indigenous languages, separating family members, and allowing for physical and sexual abuse created an environment where traumatic adversities became the norm for Native American youth. The boarding school’s gruesome laws and absence of human rights not only impacted Native American children at that moment, but also future generations through historical trauma.[7]

Forced Bowl Haircuts

Within the community and culture, Native Americans hold hair as sacred, “even powerful, because it held the essence to whom the hair belonged” and “is an integral component of a unified body and spirit.”[8]  However, boarding schools required children to cut their hair short, commonly into identical bowl haircuts.[9] In doing so, these boarding schools stripped Native American children of their identity at a time where they were just discovering their own self-worth.[10]

Since Native Americans frowned upon short hair, the forced cutting of hair by boarding schools also impacted future generations because the cultural attribute and meaning of hair was lost on them.[11] Once a characteristic with deep cultural and spiritual significance, hair is currently viewed amongst the Native American community as a reminder of the dark times in which Native Americans had their identity and culture stripped away from them.[12]

Loss of Communication

Boarding schools prevented Native American children from speaking in their respective native language, punishing those who did not use English.[13] The most severe of punishments were for those who performed their native dances or ritual prayer. [14] These strict laws still impact the Native American community as several native languages and traditions ceased to exist.[15] In fact, scholars argue the damage is permanent and that years of cultural suppression and language loss continue to impact future generations.[16] According to the Indigenous Language Institute, “there were once more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the United States, and approximately 175 remain today.”[17] As Native Americans lost their ability to share and practice their languages, a huge chunk of their identity was lost as well.[18]

Family Separation

By design, boarding schools separated children from their families and “communication with parents and family members was forbidden, as the teachers viewed any connection with family and native culture as regression.”[19] Given that family ties amongst the Native American population was and continues to be of vital importance, boarding schools creating divisions between family members remains catastrophic to Native American communities.[20] What was once a culture known for its collectiveness and glorification of family ties is presently a broken community with numerous issues arising amongst family members.[21] For example, “35.2 percent of [Native American] children live with two parents, compared with 70.2 percent of all U.S. children.”[22] Additionally, “43.5 percent of [Native American] women aged 15+ never marry, compared with 23.4 percent of all U.S. women aged 15+.”[23]

Physical + Sexual Abuse

Abuse, both physical and sexual, was another strategy boarding schools used to rewire Native American youth.[24] A reported 34.2% of Native American youth experienced physical abuse at the boarding schools.[25] And, even though data is difficult to come by due to underreporting, sexual abuse was common among boarding schools.[26] The exposure to physical and sexual abuse unfortunately continues to haunt the Native American community.[27] Native Americans are five times more likely to die of alcohol related causes than non-Native Americans.[28] And the use of illicit drugs is much more prevalent amongst in the Native American community than non-Native American community.[29] Lastly, there is high prevalence of suicide amongst children raised by an individual who was physically or sexually assaulted within this boarding school system – a phenomenon mainly caused by inter generational trauma.[30]

Final Thoughts

These violent and horrific forms of discipline perpetuated by American boarding schools on Native American children needs to be remembered. These crimes cannot be dismissed and hidden by the automatic acceptance that the United States was acting benevolently building boarding schools for the Native American community. At a time where we, as a society and nation, are reexamining our history and acknowledging our faults surrounding racial discrimination, let us never forget the consequences of actions disguised as being for the greater good.

[1] History and Culture: Boarding Schools, Northern Plains Reservation Aid,

[2] Barbara K. Charbonneau-Dahlen et al., Giving Voice to Historical Trauma Through Storytelling: The Impact of Boarding School Experience on American Indians, 6 Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 598, 607 (2020).

[3] Jessica L. Garcia, Historical Trauma and American Indian/Alaska Native Youth Mental Health Development and Delinquency, 169 New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development 41, 48 (2020).  

[4] Id.  

[5] Northern Plains Reservation Aid, supra note 1.

[6] Northern Plains Reservation Aid, supra note 1.

[7] Charbonneau-Dahlen et al., supra note 2.

[8] Mary Pember, Death by Civilization, The Atlantic (Mar. 8, 2019),

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Diana Lopez Jones, This is Progress?: Surveying a Century of Native American Stories about Hair, 37 The Lion and the Unicorn 143, 146 (2013).

[12] Id.

[13] Miriam Schacht, Game of Silence: Indian Boarding Schools in Louise Erdich’s Novels, 27 Studies in American Indian Literatures 62, 69 (2015).

[14] Andrea Smith, Indigenous Peoples and Boarding Schools: A comparative study, Prepared for the Secretariat of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (May 29, 2009). 

[15] Garcia, supra note 3, at 50.

[16] Garcia, supra note 3, at 50.

[17] Steph Koyfman, What Was, And What Is: Native American Languages in the US, Babbel (Oct. 4, 2017),

[18] Teresa McCarty et al., Reclaiming the Gift: Indigenous Youth Counter-Narratives on Native Language Loss and Revitalization, 30 American Indian Quarterly 28, 31 (2006).

[19] Schacht, supra note 13, at 71.

[20] Kim Lapp et al, Family Values Hierachys and Beliefs, The Culture of Native Americans,

[21] Id.

[22] Gary D. Sandefur and Carolyn A. Liebler, The Demography of American Indian Families, 16 Demography of American Indians and Alaska Natives 95, 104 (1997).

[23] Id.

[24] Schacht, supra note 13, at 74.

[25] Teresa Evens-Campbell et al., Indian Boarding School Experience, Substance Use, and Mental Health among Urban Two-Spirit American Indian/Alaskan Natives, 38 American J Drug Alcohol Abuse 421, 423 (2013).

[26] Schacht, supra note 13, at 74.

[27] Schacht, supra note 13, at 74.

[28] Randall C. Swaim and Linda R. Stanley, Substance Use Among American Indian Youths on Reservations Compared with a National Sample of US Adolescents, 1 JAMA Network Open e1, e180381 (2018).

[29] Id.

[30] Evens-Campbell et al., supra note 25, at 425.