“The boarding school experience is crucial to understanding Native America today,” says Margaret Archuleta, Pueblo/Hispanic, former curator of fine art for the Heard Museum. In the mid-1800s the United States government was driven by Manifest Destiny, and in the desire to extend the borders of the U.S. from coast to coast, Native Americans were relocated, dispossessed of their traditional lands and culture, treated as prisoners of the War Department, and forcibly assimilated into mainstream society. Indian boarding schools became the primary instrument used to “Civilize and Christianize the savages” for more than 100 years
Not only was this policy of forced assimilation directed at those as young as 2½ years who were least able to survive the effects of isolation, punishment for expressing their only known teachings, language and way of life; but, the communities from which these children were taken were left with the despair of parents and elders knowing that the lifeblood of their families and reason for being were taken away with no hope of recovery.
Tens of thousands of Native American children were taken from their families and tribal cultures and shipped off to federally-funded Indian boarding schools scattered across the United States. Upon arrival these Indian children were given haircuts in an effort to remove their Indian identity, were punished if they spoke their Native language or practiced their ceremonies, and were required to wear government issued clothing.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs established the first school in 1879 in Carlisle, PA. The exact number of Indian boarding schools established since that date is unknown, but is estimated to be in the hundreds. Of those hundreds, only eight remain open today. Understanding this history is not only important to Native Americans, but to all Americans as we struggle to understand social and contemporary issues in Native American life.
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