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  • Sue Devick

The Assimilation of Indigenous Children

Updated: Jun 17, 2023

In June of 2021, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland ordered an investigation of the U.S. Federal boarding school program for Native American children after the discovery in Canada of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The Secretary

writes in a memorandum dated 6/22/21:

Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819 and running through

the 1960's, the United States enacted laws and implemented policies

establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the Nation.

During that time, the purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally

assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families

and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian,

Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian identities, languages, and beliefs were

to be forcibly suppressed.

In this case, the process of assimilation, which can be defined as "to cause (a person or group) to become part of a different society, country, etc...," is more insidious than it appears due to the fact that many children suffered injury and abuse on a routine basis; some students also perished and were buried in unmarked graves. Indigenous parents were not usually allowed to visit their children at these facilities, and incomplete record-keeping has not allowed families to obtain knowledge or to find closure for trauma or deaths that occurred. Secretary Haaland finds that this led to "cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance, premature deaths, and other undocumented bodily and mental impacts."

The sheer magnitude of the U.S. Indian Boarding School Program, which involved over 400 residential facilities across 37 states and territories, signifies the depth of this controversial topic. The schools were used to separate the children from their tribal communities for 150 years by their placement in institutions where their indigenous identities were erased and recreated in English-speaking, religious, and military-oriented educational programs that did not support cultural diversity. Many of these schools also were associated with violence and abuse, which in turn negatively impacted the social and familial network of the tribes when survivors returned to their villages, changed and impaired from their experiences.

On April 1, 2022, Assistant Secretary of the Interior Bryan Newland submitted his analysis to Secretary Haaland, which was intended to assess the scope of the boarding school system, to pinpoint the precise location of each school, and to identify each student who lived or died at these facilities. Newland's report, entitled Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative Investigative Report, confirmed for the first time that the U.S. "directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession." Even more specifically, Newland finds that the boarding school policy was intended to assimilate the children in order to "take their territories."

Lt. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, PA.

also wrote that the Native American children at boarding schools "would be hostages for the good behavior of the people."

Along with his identification of 408 boarding schools, Newland reported at least 53 burial sites for children associated with the schools, with 6 having unmarked burial sites, 33 having marked burial sites, and 14 having both marked and unmarked sites. Newland also notes, "Outside the scope of the investigation, the Department also identified over 1,000 other Federal and non-Federal institutions, including Indian day schools, sanitariums, asylums, orphanages, and stand-alone dormitories," which could have involved the education of indigenous children, as well.

An importantl aspect of Newland's study also involves the health status of Native Americans who attended these federally supported boarding schools. There was a correlation between a child's attendance at one of the schools and the child's health, physical state, and chronic health conditions. The report also finds that now-adult attendees also often experienced mental and emotional problems and an "increased risk for PTSD, depression, and unresolved grief," resulting in feelings of isolation, despair, and loneliness within their communities. The need for further evaluation of these issues is emphasized by Newland and the Department of the Interior.

The geographical span of the Federal Indian Boarding School program is significant. For example, in examining the states associated with the Three Fires Confederacy (the Ojibwa, Odawa, and Potawatomi), there were 22 boarding schools in the confederacy's respective tribal lands in Minnesota, 12 in North Dakota, 11 in Wisconsin, 5 in Michigan, and 2 each in Indiana and Illinois. The names of most of the schools are not indicative of the purpose for their existence. Illinois does not have any federally recognized tribal lands, despite having had two Indian boarding schools, which are identified in the Newland report as:

1) Homewood Boarding School (or Jubilee College) in Brimfield, Il.; and 2) St. Mary's Training School for Boys (or Feehanville School or Maryville Academy) in Feehanville, Il. These facilities also are listed in an 1888 government report entitled, "Indian Education and Civilization," which had an average combined number of 53 students at that time.

The Black Hawk War of 1832 and the subsequent 1833 Treaty of Chicago were devastating for the Three Fires Confederacy tribal members, many of whom were forced to relocate from their homelands to reservations west of the Mississippi River. Illinois judge Henry W. Blodgett discusses the final visit of Potawatomi Chief Aptakisic to his family's home west of Chicago, writing in a letter, "I well remember the sad face of the old chief as he came to bid our family goodbye. ... We all shed tears of genuine sorrow." Aptakisic had guided the Blodgett family to the safety of Ft. Dearborn in Chicago when Sauk war leader Black Hawk threatened to wage war against the white pioneers in 1832. Despite the mutual friendship between many Illinois settlers and the local Potawatomi during the Black Hawk War, the harsh relocation policies dictated by the 1833 Treaty of Chicago caused the displacement of these Native Americans from their homelands within about five years of its signing. The relocation of the tribal members caused dire consequences for many, including Chief Shabbona (the recognized leader of the Confederacy), whose life was in danger from hostile Sauk warriors due to his loyalty to the U.S.

The territorial dispossession pointed out in the Newland report was further impacted by the policies of the U.S. to sell the land it acquired from the Native Americans, which allowed settlers to reserve up to 160 acres for $1.25 an acre. In Illinois alone, the approximate population of white settlers grew as follows:

157,445 in 1830;

476,183 in 1840;

851,470 in 1850;

1,711,951 in 1860;

2,539,891 in 1870.


As suggested by these statistics, the Settlement Era of the nineteenth century is a significant aspect of America's story, which cannot be considered complete without equal consideration of the indigenous population, whose history is not well-documented. As noted by Chicago historian Ann Durkin Keating, author of Rising Up From Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago, "We erase this history, which is unfortunate because it offers a fuller, richer understanding of our past." While Dr. Keating's observation was intended to address a broader historical perspective, it is relevant to note that as the number of white settlers multiplied, an inverse population decline occurred in Native American reservations due to the impact of programs directed toward cultural assimilation, including the federal Indian Boarding School program. As stated by Secretary Haaland on 6/22/21, "While it may be difficult to learn of the traumas suffered in the boarding school era, understanding its impact on communities today cannot occur without acknowledging that painful history. Only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future we are all proud to embrace." This complex process of reconciliation requires not only accountability, but the refusal to erase the legacy of our country's indigenous people.

Note: Secretary Haaland's memorandum dated 6/22/21 (3 pp.) and Assistant Secretary Newland's report dated 4/1/22 (102 pp.) can be found online under their topic title. The list of Federal Indian Boarding Schools (435 pp.) can be found online by searching for the appendix to the titles of Newland's report. This short introduction to this topic written as a blog

is not intended as a summary of the extensive work of the Department of the Interior; it is intended to encourage more study and research into this complex subject.

Sue Devick, M.A.

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