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Native Americans

by Demi Wilhelm


Photo by Doug Peconge.

Boarding Schools 

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” - Richard Pratt, founder of the first Indian Boarding School: the Carlisle Indian Industrial Boarding School 


In the 1800-1900s, Americans of European descent attempted to eradicate all Native Americans’ cultures. One of the many ways Native Americans were targeted was through boarding schools. 

The beginnings of the boarding schools that hurt so many children were just as grave as the schools themselves. Richard Pratt drew his inspiration for the boarding school model from a social experiment he conducted on prisoners of war. Pratt took the prisoners thousands of miles away from their homes, forced them into military-style living, cut their hair, and only allowed English to be spoken. The traumatic experience struck the prisoners to the core, with some of them taking their own lives. Despite the inhumanity of the experiment, the surviving men successfully learned English and assimilated to the white, European lifestyle. Thus, Richard Pratt considered his experiment a success. Funded by Congress and run by churches (and occasionally government officials), the Pratt Model was used by Indian boarding schools throughout the United States. 



Recruiting children to attend the school was a horrific process in itself. Richard Pratt deceived parents into voluntarily sending their kids. He explained that if their children could read English, then their tribe would stop being disadvantaged in treaty negotiations. He also suggested that the interpreter involved in their conversations may not even be interpreting correctly. Finally, he would state that “the white men” would keep pestering the Native Americans, and thus having bilingual children would prevent them from using the Native Americans. 

For many parents, sending their kids was not a truly “voluntary” decision. A quota of children was expected from each reservation, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (a federal agency) was allowed to cease the distribution of food rations to parents who did not send their children to the boarding schools. In one instance, a group of Hopi men who refused to send their children to the schools were sent to the infamous military prison on Alcatraz Island. Many parents attempted to hide their children, utilizing “hide-and-seek” to make the practice into a game for children. 

Performer and activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a Dakota Sioux citizen, described his feelings as he boarded the bus to attend the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School. Initially, he thought his mother was sending him away because she didn’t want him around anymore; he was saddened even more when he saw her crying. He stated, “It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that...I'll never forget. All the mothers were crying.” One Myaamia woman reported being taken at dinner time as a young child. She began hiding any time she heard a car drive up the lane toward her home - a habit that persisted even in adulthood.

By the year 1926, nearly 83% of Indian school-age children were attending boarding schools.
– The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition 


The Indian Boarding Schools had several main goals, each focused on assimilation. The children were supposed to learn to use only English. The children were to convert to European religions (typically a branch of Christianity). Finally, children were to learn the importance of individualism, in which worth was measured by property ownership. This last goal was aimed at transforming Indian children into motivated industrial and agricultural workers.

At the time of the boarding schools, Native American cultures were not viewed as separate and complex cultures, but instead lumped into a single group identity. Native Americans were self-sufficient, but the removal efforts forcing them into unfamiliar landscapes made them unable to grow crops and thus dependent on the government. They were knowledgeable and creative individuals, but were viewed by European neighbors as savages. Many tribes were very community focused, with an emphasis on generosity, which conflicted with European materialism and individualism, and so they were seen as uncivilized.


Regardless of their upbringing before arriving at the schools, Native American children were treated as inferior to white European children. They were barely treated as human.

Boarding School Life 

The abuse the children were subjected to began the moment they arrived at the schools. Children were stripped of their clothing and robbed of their personal belongings. They were called “dirty Indians” and cleansed with alcohol, kerosene, and synthetic pesticides. Their long hair, a cultural and religious tradition, was cut short. The children were given low quality uniforms to wear. Finally, they were assigned both first and last English names.

As one goal of the schools was to prepare children to work, most of the education was dedicated to vocational training rather than academics. In many Native American tribes, men and women were treated with equal respect and held leadership positions. In the boarding schools, the children were educated according to European gender norms. Boys were taught farming and career skills for outdated, low-status jobs. Girls were taught sewing, cooking, and nursing, and were prepared to be domestic servants. The children were used as child labor for the schools, constructing school buildings, gymnasiums, and cemeteries that would later be used for children who passed away (typically from malnourishment or disease from exposure to new diseases, unsanitary living conditions, and lack of medical care). 

In 1945, Bill Wright, only 6 years old at the time, remembers having his head shaved and a kerosene bath at the Stewart Indian School. He states, “I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, 'Grandma, I don't understand you’...She said, 'Then who are you?” When Wright told her his name was Billy, she said, “Your name's not Billy. Your name's 'TAH-rruhm” to which he replied, “That's not what they told me.” 


Administrators believed that the longer the children remained away from their families, the more effective their assimilation would be. When children arrived at the schools, they were told they could return home during school vacations. However, when the vacations drew near, school officials would make up reasons for them to stay. During summer vacations, children were sent on outing programs, which outsourced the children to farms as child laborers not protected under child labor laws. Although occasionally placed in loving homes, many children were forced to attend to chores all day, and many girls were victims of sexual abuse. 

(Left) Letter from the Edwin Miller student file, National Archives and Records Administration/Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

Many students tried to run away from the boarding schools but were caught by staff and police. They were beaten and locked in the school jails. Sometimes, older students were forced to beat younger students who ran away. Facing homesickness, many students wrote home, but the letters were heavily censored by school officials, so parents were not aware of the abuse their children faced. Even the schools’ entertainment appeared to be cruel and unusual punishment; Lucy Toledo, a Navajo citizen, recalls being shown a “cowboys and Indians” movie for their Saturday night movie night.


In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing American Indian students, not educating them. The report said the schools still had a "major emphasis on discipline and punishment."

American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many : NPR


Lasting Effects

The effects of these schools is still felt today through intergenerational trauma and the breakdown of tribal community. Some tribes have lost traditional aspects of their culture, while others have lost their language entirely. Many reservations today face some of the highest suicide rates, as well as drug and alcohol dependency rates, of any North American demographic. Bill Wright reflects on raising his own daughters, wondering if he punished them too harshly after being subject to abusive punishments for years at the schools. Although many are proud of their tribal status, the pain inflicted upon their ancestors still leaves scars.


The Myaamia was one group of Native Americans who experienced major cultural impact from the displacement of their community. When their tribe was forced to relocate to Kansas and then again to Oklahoma, the remaining members in Indiana and Ohio were separated from their culture. Indian Boarding Schools and other cultural erasure tactics enforced racism toward Native Americans, making older generations hesitant to pass down certain aspects of their culture. Despite these challenges, the Myaamiaki, or people of Myaamia (Miami Tribe), have reunited and revitalized their culture. They are an active community today. 

The revitalization of Myaamia, the Myaamia language, was an important development that aided in the reunification of the tribe. In the 1960s, the language ceased to be used as the last fluent speaker passed away. In the 1980s, Daryl Baldwin, a Myaamia tribe member (now a linguist and director of the Myaamia Center at Miami University) found documents from his grandfather that he thought were written in Myaamia. With these documents, the beginning stages of revitalizing the language began. Baldwin’s research led him to David Costa, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, also researching Myaamia. Costa had found documents from French missionaries who worked with the Myaamia in the 1800-1900s. Among these documents was a dictionary. This discovery was hugely significant, as prior to this, documentation of Myaamia was rare. Upon learning that Baldwin had been researching Myaamia, Costa reached out with his findings.


Translating these documents was not easy. Not only was the age of the documents an issue, but the written Myaamia itself posed some confusion. Myaamia can be written with over twelve orthographies, or spelling systems. In the mid-1990s, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma adopted an official, modern orthography system. Today, linguists are still working to translate various Myaamia orthography into the current spelling system. 


The University of Miami in Oxford, Ohio was instrumental in this process. Through a relationship with the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, they founded the Myaamia project to help with language revitalization. This turned into the Myaamia Center, a place at the University of Miami where cultural advancement and language research continues. The Miami-Illinois Digital Archive (MIDA), an online archive database was formed. This database made researching the language easier and more accessible. Through the Smithsonian Recovering Voices initiative, the MIDA software grew into the present-day Indigineous Languages Digital Archive (ILDA) and contains various indigenous languages from different groups working on their own language revitalization. Working with ILDA and the Myaamia Center, the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma was able to release their ILDA Dictionary app. This app is a Myaamia Dictionary that allows for translation from English to Myaamia. Without having to reference documents and linguistic studies, everyday Myaamia members can now learn and practice their language in their own homes.


With the reinstitution of the language, attendees of Myaamia cultural events increased. The activities at these community events were enriched with the language. Elder community members who once held memory of traditional games now also had the Myaamia vocabulary that went with the games, thanks to documents referencing the games. Yearly language camps for children sparked the interest in multiple generations of children and their siblings, with attendance at the camps continuing to grow. Matching games and coloring pages created by some community members allows children to continue practicing what they learned at the camps. Community members engage in art workshops, furthering their possibilities for immersion in the language and cultural traditions. Some Winter Stories, an important oral tradition at the annual Winter Gathering, can now be told completely in Myaamia. As time progresses and the need for new language grows, the Aacimotaatiiyankwi website provides community members with access to newly produced words. Language use has spread to people’s homes, and as many as 500 people use Myaamia on a daily basis.


Doug Peconge, Assistant Tribal Historic Preservation Officer of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, and Community Programming Manager of the CREO in Fort Wayne, is an example of language immersion in the community and home. Peconge organizes events for the community of Fort Wayne, from the seasonal gatherings to workshops requested by Fort Wayne Myaamia citizens. The community members helped find ways to recreate the traditional lacrosse sticks used by Myaamiaki in the past. Peconge explains the impact of practicing the language in his home as well, by creating language opportunities for his daughters. His personal favorite, not so much to the delight of his daughters, is requiring a Myaamia rendition of the all-to-common question, “Dad, can I have some money?” He is pleasantly surprised whenever his daughters catch him by surprise with an unfamiliar word, to which he turns to the Myaamia Dictionary App for help.


Daryl Baldwin, during his speech at the Future Speakers Series at the University of Colombia, stated, “I would say that today, you would be hard pressed to find any tribal member that thinks their language is dead or extinct. They have come to accept the fact that there is a lot we can do in reclaiming our language. It won't be the same, but we are not the same as a people. We too have changed." On the Myaamia people themselves, Doug Peconge states, “We’re still here.”

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