Loss of Identity

By Jerry Duball


United States government boarding schools, around from the early eighteenth century to the late 20th century, tormented the Native American children and caused long lasting effects even after boarding schools were abolished. The overall goal of the government boarding schools was to make the Native Americans civilized but they proclaimed it was to give the Indigenous people a better life; however, the Native Americans did not want to live like the Americans. The indigenous community was abused when the United States ordered aboriginal children to be sent into these boarding schools to help assimilate them. From the interviews conducted from Lone Wolf, a Blackfoot Indian, and Bill Wright, a Pattwin Indian, revealed that they abused and prevented the Native American children from identifying with their own culture which caused them to lose their cultural identity. Wolf and Wright are examples that the boarding schools did more than take them away from their family; they damaged their ability to readapt to their society.

The first of these boarding schools was founded by Richard Prat, an officer in the U.S. military, who developed the educational program of the boarding schools based of an Indian prison.[i]Richard Pratt would take before and after pictures of indigenous children as they entered and left the schools. These pictures helped his boarding schools get government founding because they portrayed the indigenous children assimilating to standard American culture.[ii] This idea of the boarding schools took off and eventually became mandatory by the federal government and breaking this restriction caused severe penalties. Soon government boarding schools started to become more and more prevalent as the idea of assimilation grew stronger. However, the boarding schools were not affiliated with education such as math and science it was all about assimilation such as the Native American children being able to read and write. 2 The boarding schools focused more on assimilating the Indian children into the white society that they putting emphasis on the school curriculum. The boarding schools assimilated the Native American children by cutting their hair and dressing them like a civilized American and the boarding schools also made them do chores.

From the insights of Lone Wolf, who is a Blackfoot Indian, portrays the boarding schools shaving his brothers head was a form of a punishment, “He would never have any hair and his head would always be shaved and I was always wondering why his head was always shaved and he said because he got into a fight!” 2 Wolf describes that during the boarding schools that him and his brother were beaten for using their native tongue which hurt the ability to speak in their cultures tongue. Wolf also states that, “The man in charge of us pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt, and threw him across the room.” 2 Wolf describes that when one Indian boy spoke softly in his native tongue the man in charge beat the boy; this quote shows how severely the children were punished. Because the government used violence and punishment on the children many of them lost the ability to speak in their native tongue.   The government boarding schools were not in fact about education curriculum but emphasized assimilation.

 The famous quote said by Pratt, “Kill the Indian, save the man” [1] portrays how Americans thought about trying to take the culture out of the aboriginals. Assimilation is the key, Americans wanted to take the savage out of the Indians and turn them into civilized beings. Prat’s idea portrays the whole aspect of the boarding schools and what was trying to be accomplished within them and it also explains why they were so abusive as well. Tsianina Lomawaima, head of the American Indian studies at the University of Arizona, said, “The intent was to completely transform people, inside and out”. [1] The Indian children, once released from the boarding schools, were to return to their homes and try to assimilate their tribe. The government was also strategic because "They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile," Lomawaima says. "There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage.” [1] The government would take the indigenous children from the more hostile indigenous tribes and use them as collateral to force the tribes to submit to their will. Lomawaima was quoted as saying, “The idea was it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away." [1]  The government in a sense was very strategic and was using the indigenous children as blackmail.

The cultural assimilation aspect of the boarding schools continued until 1913 when new commissioner was appointed to the Indian affairs and announced that boarding schools would follow a standard curriculum. [1]However more and more Indian children returned to their homes and did not bring back the practices that they were taught which lead to the downhill battle of boarding schools in 1918. [1]In 1928 the Meriam report was filed which reported that Indian children had been abused in the boarding schools and were overcrowded, unhealthy and destroyed the heritage of the American Indian. 2The Meriam report was to report the overall conditions of the Indians reservations and boarding schools. In 1970 the last old style Indian boarding school was closed which marked the end of the kidnapping children and assimilation. Even though the last heritage destroying boarding school closed in 1970, today eight new styled education facilities’ for Indian’s remain scattered around the U.S., of them, one resides in Salem Oregon and another in Santa Fe New Mexico.

However the close of the government boarding school doesn’t mark the end of the indigenous peoples struggle. The indigenous children that were sent to the boarding schools lost years of being a part of their culture. Bill Wright who is a Pattwin Indian said  "I remember coming home and my grandma asked me to talk Indian to her and I said, 'Grandma, I don't understand you,' "[1] Wright shows that because of the boarding schools he lost the ability to speak in his native cultures tongue. However, the indigenous people lost more than just their culture, they lost their identity. They lost the ability to communicate in their own society because they lost the ability to speak with their own people. Wright says. "She said, 'Then who are you?'"[1]Wrights dialogue with his grandma shows that he lost his native tongue and in some ways, felt that, he had lost his identity. Wright lost the ability to communicate in his own tribe and therefore lost his identity.

Even though the Indian children had to endure this struggle and abuse the American government still thought that they were doing the Indian children like Wright a favor. They looked at unrelated and unimportant categories such as wealth that holds more meaning to non-natives. They would take them from their homes in hopes to get them out of poverty and help civilize them so they could become a prosperous part of society. They thought to repress their culture as they did with Wolf’s language they could turn them into a more prosperous person. As Gord Bruyere states, “this was the dream of the Americans, however it wasn’t the dream of the Indians.”[iii]The Americans wanted the Indigenous children to forget where they came from and reshape their identity into an American identity.  The Indians dream that they could live on their own and live how they want to live without having to conform to the Americans concept of civilization. Bruyere says the indigenous people dream of self-determination and to be able to have and maintain their own future. 3

While the government claimed to have good intentions the readings of Lone Wolf and Bill Wright show that the boarding schools, were in fact, hurting the Indigenous people. The United States had many reasons to assimilate the American Indians such as giving them a better “American” future. However, the indigenous people never wanted an “American future” they were content with what they already had; they wanted to live separately and have no emphasis on wealth such as the Americans. The “good intentions” of the United States led to Indians being abused which striped them away from their heritage and caused them to lose who they were. From the perspective of Lone Wolf and Wright the boarding schools were doing more harm than good by stripping them of their heritage. The boarding schools took away what made the indigenous people themselves and it took away their ability to communicate with their own people. Wolf and Wright suffered from the abuse of the boarding schools and in the end felt as if they had lost what made them apart of their culture.



[i] Bear, Charla. "American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many." NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865

[ii] "American Indian Civics Project: Indian Boarding Schools: Tools of Forced Assimilations, 1870 to 1934." American Indian Civics Project: Indian Boarding Schools: Tools of Forced Assimilations, 1870 to 1934. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Dec. 2014. http://americanindiantah.com/lesson_plans/ml_boardingschools.html.

[iii] Bruyere, Gord. "The Lessons in Our Blood."(UCLA American Indian Studies), 133.


American Indian Education