Bodies and Boarding Schools

By: David Wallace Adams, author of Education for Extinction; American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875–1928

Recent news of the discovery of hundreds of Native American children’s graves at a site of a former boarding school in Canada has brought to public attention one of the most tragic chapters in the history of Indigenous peoples in North America, including the United States—the story of how Native children were removed, often forcibly, from their families and communities and placed in distant boarding schools where missionaries or government officials went about the business of eradicating cultural identities in the name of “civilization” and assimilation.

Having spent more than forty years studying and writing about Indian boarding schools, I was not terribly surprised by recent revelations but felt compelled to comment on a subject so close to the focus of my own work. For those unfamiliar with this chapter in Native American history, it may be surprising to learn of the extent to which the systematic removal of Native children from their families and communities and placing them in boarding schools, both reservation and off-reservation, was a major component of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century federal Indian policy. While it is nearly impossible to calculate the number of Indigenous children who attended such schools, my own analysis is that if a survey of Native Americans had been made in 1930, it would have shown that approximately 70-80 percent of the population attended such an institution at some point in their life. It is also important to point out that, unlike Canada, most of the enrollment in the United States was in federal (not mission) schools.

While it is true that many children adapted to the regimentation of boarding school life and saw their time of enrollment as an opportunity for acquiring knowledge and skills that would facilitate their survival in white society, for most the prolonged separation from family constituted terribly traumatic experiences which left emotional scars for years to come. Not the least of these painful memories was seeing fellow students stricken by raging epidemics of influenza, measles, pneumonia, and tuberculosis that swept through the school. Overcrowded dormitories, inadequate food, severe discipline policies, military-like regimentation, and other institutional realities all contributed to one of the darkest consequences of the boarding school experience—school cemeteries. Many of the bigger schools possessed such plots. How many of these undiscovered grounds exist, we still do not know.

The graveyard at Carlisle Indian School, one of the largest of the off-reservation institutions, contains 192 bodies with names like Lucy Pretty Eagle, Maud Little Girl, Dennis Strikes First, as well as the gravestone marked Unknown. Similarly, there are some one hundred graves at Haskell Institute, located in Lawrence, Kansas. Again, the names: Jerry Wolf Chief, Maggie Big Fire, and Charles Panther. Students’ knowledge of the school cemeteries couldn’t help but rattle their minds. Would they ever make it home? In his memoir, My People the Sioux, Luther Standing Bear, who attended Carlisle in the early years, says the news of a fellow student dying “worked on our nerves to such an extent that it told on our bodies.”

Some thirty years ago I interviewed an elderly Navajo (Diné) man who attended the off-reservation school in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and who at one point was so consumed by pneumonia that he lay in a hospital bed for several months. Near-death, and slipping in and out of consciousness, his only relief was hearing what he thought to be that of tinkling bells. It must be the sheep, he imagined. Back on the reservation, he had spent countless hours herding sheep. And now he was hearing the familiar sound. “I could hear the bells. I know the sheep was pretty close. Them days, if you don’t hear those bells, you’d better go look for them. So I had the dream all the time. I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t hurtin’ no place.” And so he managed to pull through.

The number of children who never came home was a major reason why many parents resisted turning their children over to school officials. In 1891, a chief in the Spokane Nation, which had lost sixteen of the twenty-one youths sent to eastern schools, declared, “If I had white people’s children, I would have put their bodies in a coffin and sent them home so that they could see them. I do not know who did it, but they treated my people as if they were dogs.”

Meanwhile, boarding school employees scrambled to keep the death number down, and most cared for sick children in the most humane manner possible. Many reasoned that sending homesick children to the poverty of the reservation would only seal their fate. The long distances and weather also came into play. At the same time, however, some dismissed the school’s responsibility for school deaths by claiming that many children were already showing signs of illness before arriving at school and consequently it was not attributable to school conditions. And then there was the all-to-common motivation to send a stricken child home once a serious illness was discovered with the likeliness of death, thereby reducing the risk of raising bureaucratic eyebrows in Washington for the school’s rising death toll.

With Secretary of Interior Haaland’s recent announcement of a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to explore the extent of burials across the boarding school system, one cannot help but wonder whether the numbers unearthed will approaching those of Canada. A thorough investigation will tell us, but I suspect not. While Canadian and US systems were driven by similar motives, like the erasure of Native cultures and land dispossession, as suggested earlier, there were also significant differences. Besides the proportional difference in the number of schools operated by the churches, there were also differences in bureaucratic oversight, at least after the 1870s when policymakers created an inspection system to monitor developments in the field.

Whatever the outcome on numbers, the fact remains that the history of Indian boarding schools constitutes one of the darkest chapters in the nation’s past, a story strewn with pain, moral atrocities, and the ghosts of children crying out for home.