top of page

Understanding Indigenous Culture in ND Series: Tribal Makeup/Enrollment Part 4: Boarding Schools

“The Native American boarding schools of the 1800’s and early 1900’s left a crater in Native American societies.” - Rebecca Peterson

Between 1819 and 1969, the United States government ran or supported 408 boarding schools. These federal Indigenous boarding schools were created and intended to “civilize” or assimilate Indigenous youth of all ages.

By forcefully removing indigenous children from their tribes to boarding schools, of which many did not return, the adverse impact on enrollment and tribal makeup was extensive and is STILL felt today. Tribes were and are essentially one big family. When members of that family were removed and gone for an extended period with no sense of the safety of those members, this was traumatic and devastating to individuals who were closest to those children, family units within the tribe, and the entire tribe.

Many family and tribal members were not given any coping mechanisms to deal with their children being stolen nor any knowledge of their well-being. Therefore, many chronic mental health issues resulted, along with unhealthy coping mechanisms. Whether suicide, substance abuse, poor eating habits or other detrimental behaviors, the life span for indigenous people has decreased.

There was pervasive physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at these boarding schools. Therefore, if youth returned, they had to deal with the repercussions of this abuse, with almost no professional help. This led to more issues, like that which their families and tribe had to deal with while they were at the schools unaware of their well-being. In addition, their families and the tribes had to deal with a returned, yet unrecognizable child stripped of their language, heritage, culture, religion, dignity and identity. The mesh of distraught and destroyed human beings has been passed down through the generations drastically impacting tribal makeup and enrollment.

Another tragic result, generations of indigenous children were not raised by their own parents but unloving strangers, therefore never learning how to be loving parents themselves. Also, without the life lessons and the community teachers (whether a parent or an elder) that taught them, a huge loss of knowledge was accumulated such as the loss of religion, language, storytelling, and culturally unique lessons.

If a boarding school survivor or suffering family member can afford mental health or substance abuse help, they most likely seek it outside of their reservation due to health care disparities, which leads to migration away from their tribal communities. Although they might still be enrolled, the tribal makeup is influenced, specifically leadership, with families being disconnected.

There is traction on reintroducing legislation to establish a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act which would establish the first formal commission in U.S. history to investigate the mental, physical, and intergenerational trauma that these schools inflicted on tribal communities. The commission would eventually provide recommendations to Congress to take further action and promote healing.

Red Basket, Dr. Kathy Froelich, an MHA elder and CREA Indigenous Culture Coordinator suggests this classroom activity to educators: “We are more alike than we are different.”

Goal: Students will gain an understanding of the impacts of Boarding School experience for many Native American children.

Step 1 – Students will watch the Teaching of Our Elders video “Peanut Butter Hands:”

Step 2 – Students will pair up to share a time when they were hungry and discuss how they solved the situation.

Step 3 – Students will identify area organizations that help the homeless and hungry. As a class the group will discuss ways they can help others in their community such as the homeless, elders, or children.

· Impact of Historical Trauma - The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

· Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report (

· Survivors of Indian boarding schools tell their stories | WKAR Public Media

· Peterson.pdf (

17 views0 comments
bottom of page