The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was announced June 22 by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland to complete a comprehensive review of the legacy of federal boarding school policies. A primary goal is to identify boarding school sites, the location of burial sites and the identities of children buried at such locations. Haaland stated “only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
While the last of the Indian residential schools in Canada closed almost 40 years ago, many Indian boarding schools are still in operation today, funded through the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Education, including seven off-reservation boarding schools, 44 on-reservation boarding schools, and 14 peripheral dormitories. These numbers do not include the private and parochial Indian boarding schools currently in operation.
Indian boarding schools in the U.S. started before the system of Indian education began through the 1819 civilization fund. Enrollment at Indian boarding schools grew throughout most of the 20th century. The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 led to more emphasis on community schools. As more community and public schools served the reservation population, the need for boarding schools diminished.
Since the 1960s, social scientists have documented the harmful effects of boarding schools on Native students, including high rates of mental disorders, suicide, school failure, child abuse and family breakdown.
While working on a doctoral degree, I worked with a research team at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma to understand the experiences of people who attended Indian boarding schools between 1950 and 2004. All participants reported intense loneliness and homesickness, and many reported multiple forms of abuse and neglect. This research produced a theoretical framework for mental health professionals working with survivors of Indian boarding school trauma.
Many Native American families lack access to basic necessities for healthy development: health care, child care, housing, job training and employment. From my experience, Native families who send their children to be dorm students are experiencing poverty and family breakdown. For these families, the boarding schools serve as a kind of foster care for children. Boarding schools often receive at-risk and high-needs children.
Indian boarding schools are a bad solution to these problems. The problems caused by living in an institution, away from family and community, are not erased by improving facilities or infusing culturally relevant content. The practice of taking a child away from home to live in an institution has been identified as a problem around the world. Not all children who attend a boarding school later develop major problems in social and occupational functioning. Some children are more resilient than others and adapt as best as they can to boarding school life. Some grow stronger from difficult and traumatic experiences. However, for less resilient children and those at risk of mental illness, substance abuse and school failure, the boarding school experience can be extremely destructive.
Throughout Canada and the U.S., the solution to the problem of providing schooling to those who live in remote areas has been to increase busing and create smaller, but more numerous, community schools. Additionally, more resources are needed for social service options in Native communities that meet the standards of care existing outside of Native communities.
Creating an accurate historical record of the Indian boarding schools in the U.S., including the worst of it, identifying the children who perished and were buried in unmarked graves, is important. So is taking care of the children living in Indian boarding schools today – and those being sent there tomorrow.
Stephen A. Colmant has published on the history and impact of Indian boarding schools in multiple scholarly journals.