Warning: this post contains distressing details.
Recent news coming from Canada, particularly from the grounds of Kamloops Indian Residential School, Marieval Indian Residential School, St. Eugene’s Mission School and just recently the Kuper Island Residential School, has illuminated a sobering truth: for many Indigenous children, school was a place of suffering, trauma, and death. U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has announced a new Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to investigate the scope of Native American deaths and burials at former Indian schools.
Following similar calls to action for non-Native people (like me) to make themselves useful, this post is an attempt to create a resource to answer some common questions about residential and boarding schools. I teach and research on this topic, and I am continually learning more. The necessary attention to boarding schools will continue to shine more light on a distressing aspect of American and Myaamia history. If there is to be a similar “truth and reconciliation” development in the United States as has progressed in Canada, it will require significant time and immense listening, particularly from non-Native people. If you have comments, concerns, questions, or improvements, my email is firstname.lastname@example.org, or Twitter dm Camshriver. This post is by no means intended as an ending point to the conversation about American Indian or Myaamia boarding school experiences.
Since this topic can be distressing, this post has been separated into several sections for readers who wish to jump to the information on a particular topic. The following list contains links to each section.
- What were boarding schools?
- Were boarding schools genocide?
- Did Myaamia children attend boarding schools?
- When were boarding schools operating?
- Did Myaamia people die in boarding schools?
- Were Myaamia children forced to attend boarding schools?
- Why boarding schools?
- What are some resources?
What were boarding schools?
Like Canada’s state-sponsored residential schools, United States boarding schools intended to remake Indigenous communities into American individuals. They were sponsored and funded by the federal government, often in conjunction with Catholic or Protestant societies. The title of one well-known book on the subject sets the tone: the boarding schools implemented “education for extinction.” Between the 1870s and 1930s, about 350 boarding schools for Indians operated in the United States, and in the first decades of the twentieth century, a majority of Native children enrolled in an Indian school, whether a boarding school far from home, or a day school run by U.S. government employees. Indian educational policy assumed that by housing and socializing children away from their parents, institutions could more effectively “civilize” or assimilate them to mainstream American culture, including Christianity, English-only language, and “modern” work habits.
Were boarding schools genocide?
It is common and accurate to label boarding schools as institutions of “genocide,” and students (who survived) as “survivors.” These are useful labels. They are specific. Genocide indicates a deliberate attempt to destroy a people. Given the common linking between genocide and the Jewish Holocaust, sometimes people clarify “cultural genocide” when discussing non-fatal policies. These include, for instance, the forcible transfer of children away from their parent’s group, intentional limits on reproduction, or the extermination of group traditions, language, religion, and so forth. “Boarding school” is the term that is in the widest current use, although “indoctrination camp” is applicable and helps quickly deliver the gravity of the topic. I trust I am not breaking news when I write that Myaamia people have experienced these genocidal policies. I also hope I am not breaking news in revealing that Myaamia people survived, and continue to resist and revitalize.
Did Myaamia children attend boarding schools?
Yes. At this time, we are aware of well over one hundred Myaamia children, adolescents, and young adults who attended Indian schools. The total number of Myaamia students who survived assimilative schools may be considerably more. Here is a working database of Myaamia attendees in Indian schools. Please be in touch with additional information so that we can update it. I thank Meghan Dorey and George Ironstrack for adding information, and Jared Nally for sharing archives from the Indian Leader which has been invaluable.
Myaamia students came from Indiana, from Kansas, and from Oklahoma. They went to Virginia, to Pennsylvania, to Oklahoma, New Mexico, California, and Kansas. Some schools were close to home, such as Seneca Indian School in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, where several Miamis attended in the early twentieth century. Others were far away, such as Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, where Frank Goodboo went in the 1880s. At the bottom of this post is a working (draft) map of boarding schools attended by Myaamia people.
Some Miami attendees, such as Frank Aveline, went east and apparently never came back to their community. Some, such as Jesse White, made careers as teachers in institutions similar to those they had attended, traveling from school to school and eventually out of the community. Some received physical punishments. “The first whipping I received was for talking Indian at school,” Dave Geboe said in a 1930s interview. Mildred Watson, who wrote an invaluable memoir of her experiences at Seneca Indian School where she attended in the late 1920s, acknowledged poor conditions. The doctor never came; clothing was the “poorest material,” discipline was “excessive and demeaning.” As for the food: “Often weevils floated on top of dried corn, peas, or beans boiling in steam cookers. We skimmed the larvae and hoped most of them were captured.” Some Miamis, such as Mildred’s brother-in-law Addison Walker (who named his son “Haskell,” presumably after his alma mater) found real belonging and love from their schools. Confronting similar stories, Brenda Child, focusing on Ojibwe students in a similar time period, asked: “What do we make today of boarding school narratives that might be described as happy?” Stories of trauma, indeed, of terror, sit uncomfortably with some of the pleasant experiences that some Myaamia people expressed.
Boarding Schools Attended by Myaamia Students (working copy, please reach out with edits or additions). Red pins indicate general hometowns of Myaamia families in the time period most associated with boarding schools:
When were boarding schools operating?
Government boarding schools–military-style institutions that housed and controlled Indian youth–lasted in the United States from 1879 to the 1930s. In some cases, boarding schools and other Indian schools continued operating into the 1980s. Chilocco, for instance, closed in 1980, although I am unaware of Myaamia attendance past the 1920s. Residential Schools, the Canadian version of the same system, operated longer, declining in the 1950s and finally closing the last residential schools in the 1990s.
Dozens of Myaamia people attended these institutions in the period between 1870-1930. It was an era that coincided with the privatization and sale of Myaamia tribal lands, widespread travel to find work, and a rapid decline in Myaamia-speaking households. We should not forget schooling before and after this “boarding school” period, including Protestant and Catholic mission schools, as well as reservation day schools and vocational schools. These hewed to the same general philosophy as the better-known boarding schools, that Native American people needed English-language, Christian, and work-specific training to survive in a country not made for them. I think it is fair to say that boarding schools affected each Myaamia family. Survivors became parents and grandparents.
Did Myaamia people die in boarding schools?
Yes. I am aware of one Myaamia person buried at boarding schools. Sadie S. Miles, from the Owl family who was removed to Kansas and Oklahoma, passed away at Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1907. She was fourteen. “She was a great favorite with her companions, many of whom were overcome with grief when they learned of her death,” the Native-run newsletter reported. At Carlisle Indian Industrial School, almost 200 Native American youths lie buried in the cemetery, an average of more than five each year.
That I am aware of one death does not mean that only one Myaamia person died in a boarding school. (I welcome any information, and you may choose to reach out to a family member or tribal or MHMA or Myaamia Center staff, if you choose.) The record is not a perfect representation of the past. Boarding school administrators promoted their schools. Their records, like all historical records, are subjective and require interpretation. There were motivations to hide unhealthy conditions. In other words, the record includes “silences,” as well; topics left under-reported or under-documented. We can access records that schools wanted produced, shared, or saved. We cannot access records destroyed or lost. We cannot access records never created. We know, from testimony of survivors, that many forms of abuse proliferated at schools in different times and places, and children died while at school.
Were Myaamia children forced to attend boarding schools?
Yes, in some cases. After 1891, attendance at an assimilation-oriented Indian school was mandatory. Thus, some were taken, such as Rose Keiser Carver. “We’ve been informed that you’ve got two girls here that needs to be in school,” the local government agent announced upon arriving at their home near Miami, Oklahoma. The men needed to collect their charges and bring them to Quapaw Industrial Boarding School, despite the protestations of their father who said they already attended an unnamed day school, perhaps the Miami or Peoria schoolhouse. “Well, we never got to finish our dinner. They picked us up and took us off. Now that’s the way it was a long time ago,” Rose said. Her mother, Sarah Cass, spoke Myaamia and even provided a story that appears in the Myaamia and Peoria Narratives and Winter Stories volume. As for Rose? “I’ve forgot more than I remember,” the eighty-two year old told her interviewer in the 1960s.
Some went willingly. Thomas Peconga and Lucy Pimyotamah sent their teenaged son, Willis, to Carlisle in 1905. He had attended the local Marion grammar school–not an Indian school. Willis fled back to Marion, Indiana later that year. He obviously did not like Carlisle, and his parents were convinced that the curriculum was not applicable for their son. His mother wrote to the superintendent, Major William Mercer: “we don’t want him to run off again but we want him released Honarbly.” The Pecongas wrote to their Congressman, who intervened. Willis Peconga returned home. His skill was papermaking, and he traveled the country in search of steady work.
For many Myaamia families, the boarding school era was just one type of schooling set in a long trajectory of voluntary and compulsory education over generations. Take the case of Josephine Pooler, who attended Haskell in Kansas (and married Osage tribal citizen Jessie Pappin, who also attended Haskell). Her mother, Mary Louisa Richardville Pooler, attended the Quapaw Indian Boarding School. Mary’s father, Thomas F. Richardville, attended Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana. Thomas’s father, Pimicinwa ‘Crescent’ apparently did not attend a Euro-American school. Pimicinwa’s father, Jean Baptiste Richardville, attended a French-language academy in Montreal or Trois-Rivières. During the boarding school era, many Myaamia families included two or more generations of boarding school survivors.
Why boarding schools?
If Native American people were doomed to vanish, then radically transforming them would save them. At least, that was the basic rationale from the 1870s into the 1930s. One of the architects, Richard Henry Pratt, famously said in an 1892 paper “that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” More graphically, he wrote: “I believe in immersing the Indians in our civilization and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked.” Like deportation and removal, like privatization and allotment, and like other harmful policies, assimilation via schooling was promoted as a benevolent solution to a persistent problem. President Theodore Roosevelt summed up a typical view in his State of the Union address in 1901. Allotment “is a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass,” he announced to Congress. “In the schools the education should be elementary and largely industrial,” he continued, enunciating that Indian education should create an Indian working class. (In the twentieth century, policy-makers transitioned from education for equality, to education for dependency. Schools focused on preparing Native students for working class life by increasing the focus on Euro-American trades for boys and Euro-American domestic skills for girls.)
What are some resources?
If you have questions, I would welcome them and do my best to answer them directly, or find someone who can. If you have suggestions for resources that are helpful, I will add them to this space, or you can comment with links or ideas. In the meantime, here is a list of recommended works and links on American Indian boarding schools.
- Brenda Child, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940 (1998).
- K. Tsianina Lomawaima, They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School (1995).
- Digital Resources on Carlisle School (including student files: select “Miami”)
- Interviews with former Chilocco School students (does not contain any Myaamia)
- Documentary film about Chilocco School
- Overview of Boarding Schools, Heard Museum online exhibit
- Twitter thread with questions and answers about Canadian residential schooling
- Excerpt from film, Indian School: Stories of Survival