Anthropology Indigenous Boarding School Experiences
K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Sarah Whitt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0289


What word can represent the thousands of Indigenous children, adolescents, and adults enrolled over time in boarding/residential schools in the United States, Canada, and other nations? “Student” and “alumnus” seem disingenuous, given minimal academic instruction and forced enrollment. Considering the institutions’ carceral nature, we might use “inmates,” but a fair number enrolled voluntarily (although choices were constrained). Many enrolled adults make “youth(s)” seem inappropriate. Attendees? Enrollees? Most heart-wrenching, how do we respectfully distinguish survivors from those who perished? We use a mix of terms, hoping the reader keeps their limitations in mind. The system of colonial schooling of Indigenous peoples is global; with a few exceptions, we focus here on the United States and Canada. Mainstream media characterizations of the “shocking” unknown history of boarding/residential schools reflect what has been suppressed; Native people know. Indigenous experiences take center stage here—see Memoirs and General Overviews—but experiences occur within national agendas of deculturation, dispossession, and training for subservience. Point and counterpoint between settler-colonial and Indigenous perspectives permeate this bibliography. Histories of Policy and Institutions includes histories of political ideologies, pedagogical approaches, and institutions, with little or no attention to Indigenous perspectives. We also include other carceral institutions that shared objectives and methods with boarding/residential schools. Critical theorization of national agendas, of institutions, and of Indigenous narratives are key. Varied family backgrounds, age when enrolled, and administrators within different regions, circumstances, and times—these all contribute to a substantial range of experiences. In early decades, health care was spotty while tuberculosis and trachoma were endemic; students suffered from homesickness and malnutrition and fell victim to accidents. Tragically, not everyone survived. Survivors’ stories vary widely, from traumatic separation from family and the starkest encounters with physical and sexual abuse to positive experiences and memories. We consider current debates around Trauma, Healing, and Resilience as well as contemporary Native nations pursuing healing. Boarding/residential schools were designed as totalitarian institutions dedicated to erase-and-replace Indigenous lifeways and identities and to create a docile labor force. In the most tragic circumstances, they erased lives. In other circumstances, Indigenous youth became lifelong friends, resisted and rebelled, and carved out moments of happiness. Their survival should not be taken as endorsements of the institutions they survived. Boarding schools still exist—some, different in form and function, run by Native organizations or nations. Boarding school stories are complicated and are not relics of the past.

General Overviews

Indigenous voices and experiences were not the focus of academic scholarship about boarding schools until the 1980s. McBeth 1983 was written by the first anthropologist to survey Native alumni of US boarding schools in Oklahoma and centers the themes of their interviews in her analysis, as well as documenting both positive and negative experiences within the schools. Ellis 1996 and Lomawaima 1994 focus on specific schools—Rainy Mountain and Chilocco (both in Oklahoma)—in the context of analyses of national Indian policy; both center student experiences, relying on extensive interviews with alumni. Child 1998 focuses on Haskell (Kansas) and Flandreau (South Dakota), utilizing troves of letters between students and families that were preserved in the National Archives. Hyer 1990 documents an oral history project about Pueblo peoples’ experiences at Santa Fe Indian School (New Mexico), resulting in a book and museum exhibit. One of the most ambitious museum exhibits on boarding school experiences opened at the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona, in 2000. Originally planned as a temporary exhibit, it proved so popular with Native visitors and impactful for non-Native visitors it remained open until 2018, when it was closed for extensive updating. The exhibit reopened in 2019 as a permanent exhibit. Archuleta, et al. 2000, a companion publication to the original exhibition, contains historic photographs, illustrations, narrative excerpts from alumni narratives, and topical essays. Away from Home 2019 is an online version of the updated permanent exhibit. Cobb 2000 exemplifies the widening scope of research on Indian schools in the United States, focusing on an academy founded and run by the Chickasaw Nation from 1852 to 1949. The Bloomfield Academy, like similar academies and seminaries established by tribes in Indian Territory—including the Cherokee, Creek, and Choctaw—followed a Euro-American curricular model (in 1906, Indian Territory was subsumed into the state of Oklahoma). Trafzer, et al. 2006 compiles a range of essays, including interviews with contemporary Sherman Indian High School students in Riverside, California. Vučković 2008 provides an in-depth view of Haskell Indian School from its founding through 1928; like Sherman High School, Haskell is still in operation, as Haskell Indian Nations University, an intertribal university run by the US government.

  • Archuleta, Margaret L., Brenda J. Child, and K. Tsianina Lomawaima, eds. 2000. Away from home: American Indian boarding school experiences, 1879–2000. Phoenix: Heard Museum.

    The brainchild of Heard Museum curator Margaret Archuleta, the exhibit Our Boarding School Stories opened in 2000 with a planned three- to five-year tenure. It proved so successful it became a permanent exhibit. Native voices and experiences take center stage in Away from Home, the lavishly illustrated companion publication, which presents essays on arrival, curriculum, homesickness, health, rebellion, pageants and princesses, art, sports, and Hampton Institute.

  • Away from home: American Indian boarding school stories. 2019. Phoenix, AZ: Heard Museum.

    The Heard’s first exhibit (2000) on Indigenous boarding schools, Remembering our Indian school days: The boarding school experience was updated and refurbished to reopen in 2019 as Away from Home: American Indian boarding school stories, with an online-accessible version.

  • Child, Brenda J. 1998. Boarding school seasons: American Indian families, 1900–1940. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Trained as a historian, Child (Red Lake Ojibwe) searched for documents within federal Indian boarding school archives that might reveal Indigenous voices and experiences: remarkably, she discovered treasure troves of letters—from students writing home and families writing to students. Focusing on Flandreau and Haskell, schools with high Ojibwe enrollments, Child mines the letters to reveal vivid stories of American Indian families navigating boarding schools.

  • Cobb, Amanda J. 2000. Listening to our grandmothers’ stories: The Bloomfield Academy for Chickasaw Females, 1852–1949. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Cobb’s grandmother, Ida Mae Pratt Cobb, attended Bloomfield Academy in the 1920s. Cobb weaves together evidence from letters, reports, interviews with students, and school programs in this perceptive portrait of a Euro-American-style women’s academy established by the Chickasaw Nation in an era of great upheaval after their removal from southeastern homelands to Indian Territory (later the state of Oklahoma).

  • Ellis, Clyde. 1996. To change them forever: Indian education at the Rainy Mountain boarding school, 1893–1920. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

    The Rainy Mountain boarding school was located on the Kiowa-Comanche-Apache reservation in Oklahoma. Relying on archival records, personal memoirs, and conversations with alumni—notably Parker McKenzie, respected steward of Kiowa language and culture—Ellis paints a detailed, nuanced portrait of school life. The first chapter and chapter introductions offer a compelling, clear narrative of the development of federal Indian policy and educational practices nationwide.

  • Hyer, Sally. 1990. One house, one voice, one heart: Native American education at the Santa Fe Indian School. Santa Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press.

    An oral history project in the New Mexico pueblos led to a museum exhibit and this book about the federal Santa Fe Indian School (1890–1962). In 1981 the school was reopened by the All-Pueblo Council of New Mexico, and it continues today as a community-run Native school. Hyer features alumni memories and a wealth of photographs from federal and family archives.

  • Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. 1994. They called it Prairie Light: The story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Lomawaima’s father, Curtis T. Carr (Creek) grew up at Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma. Inspired by his stories, she interviewed Curtis and about sixty other Chilocco alumni from the 1910s through the 1940s. Extensive archival research and the interviews are analyzed to view school life through the lenses of policy, practice (daily regimens and routines), and student experiences.

  • McBeth, Sally. 1983. Ethnic identity and the boarding school experience of West-Central Oklahoma American Indians. Washington, DC: Univ. Press of America.

    Anthropologist McBeth taught university classes in Oklahoma in the late 1970s. She offered the “standard story” about boarding schools common up to that point: the schools were irredeemably destructive and Native students were inevitable victims. Native students disagreed. McBeth listened—to them and to alumni—centering the themes of their narratives in her analyses.

  • Trafzer, Clifford E., Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc, eds. 2006. Boarding school blues: Revisiting American Indian educational experiences. Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press.

    Essays address “the many and varied levels of the boarding school experience . . . No single interpretation . . . exists today or ever will” (p. xi). Positive and negative reactions are part of a complex mix for each survivor; all contributors honor the students who did not survive. Two essays highlight humorous moments carved out of institutional life; the conclusion includes testimonies from Sherman High School students in the early twenty-first century.

  • Vučković, Myriam. 2008. Voices from Haskell: Indian students between two worlds, 1884–1928. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

    Vučković draws upon a range of historical sources, including letters home and oral testimonies, to craft what she refers to as an “integrative approach” to Haskell’s (Lawrence, Kansas) assimilationist agenda. To this end, chapters are arranged around familiar themes (“Living by the Bell,” “The Curriculum,” and “Health and the Body,” for example) and address dual processes of Indigenous deculturation and resistance.

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