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Uncovering the brutal history of Native boarding schools in Indiana

While the U.S Department of the Interior plans to release a report on residential schools, DNR will look closer at how many lives were lost in Indiana.

Madison Stacey

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Published: 4:44 PM CDT April 4, 2022
Updated: 6:00 AM CDT April 5, 2022

For a 14-year span in the late 19th century, the federal government worked in tandem with religious organizations to send hundreds of Native American children to two off-reservation boarding schools in Indiana. 

Thousands of miles away from their families, and operating inside a structure dedicated to the eradication of their identity, the boarding school system used children as pawns in the federal government's overall strategy to destroy Native American communities through the policy of assimilation.  

At the height of the off-reservation boarding school era, more than 350 institutions operated across the United States. Attendance at these schools did not only mark a spiritual or cultural death for Native children. It very often marked a physical one. 

Dozens of children who lost their lives at these schools remain buried near or on, the grounds of those institutions — more than a century after they closed. 

Now, the Indiana Department of Natural Resources is investigating whether there could be more innocent victims whose lives ended in the thralls of this lethal system and who remain unaccounted for across the state. 

Zitkála-Šá was 8 years old in the spring of 1884, when Quaker missionaries came to her home on the Yankton Indian Reservation in Dakota Territory.

The well traveled men spoke of a mysterious, far eastern land they called Big Red Apple Country.

They wanted Zitkála-Šá , as her older brother had three years prior, to get on a train and go with them. 

Despite her mother's hesitations, the men eventually persuaded Zitkála-Šá's mother this would be in her child's best interest. White settlers had already begun to encroach on that land in Dakota Territory, and perhaps an education out east would give Zitkála-Šá a chance for survival. 

Zitkála-Šá, not fully aware of what going with the men meant, begged to go with them and was put on a train with eight other children. 

"Soon, we were being drawn rapidly away by the white man's horses. When I saw the lonely figure of my mother vanish in the distance, a sense of regret settled heavily upon me. I was in the hands of strangers whom my mother did not fully trust," she later wrote. 

When Zitkála-Šá eventually did set foot on those lands a few days later, icicles clung to bare trees where she had been told red apples would grow.  

Within days, she faced abuse typical of the boarding school system. 

Her clothes were taken from her, replaced with the standard uniform everyone else wore. When she began to cry over a bowl of porridge, an older student whispered, "Wait until you are alone in the night."

The next day, school officials cut Zitkála-Šá's hair. Growing up, she only saw people in mourning, or people who lost in battle, cut their hair. She hid under a bed to avoid the violation, but school officials strapped her to a chair and took it by force anyway. 

"I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while, until I felt the cold blades of scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids," she wrote. "Then, I lost my spirit." 

Zitkála-Šá's testimony of her time at White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute, detailed in her 1921 memoir "American Indian Stories," is one of the only surviving student perspectives that recounts what brutal conditions hundreds of children endured at that school — the older of two institutions established in Indiana during the off-reservation boarding school era of the United States. 

Credit: Division of Work and Industry, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution
Zitkála-Šá, also called Gertrude Simmons Bonnin, first enrolled at White's Indiana Manual Labor Institute from 1884 and graduated in 1895.

Utilizing institutions under the guise of education to strip Native Americans of identities and culture throughout generations predates the United States. 

As early as the mid-1600s, a smattering of missionaries worked to establish religious schools across New England, intentionally placing those institutions near indigenous communities in an effort to further spread Christianity, and destabilize native culture. 

Although European farming practices likely would not have survived had they not been implemented on ancestral lands indigenous people cultivated for centuries, the federal government was eager to rid them of it. 

Having forced thousands of tribes onto reservations in the western United States by the early 1800s through a series of broken promises and faulty treaties, the federal government moved fast to adopt a harsher iteration of the assimilation framework previously established by churches.

Day schools were set up on reservations as a way for the United States government to further their influence within Native American communities, in the hopes of eradicating ways of life for hundreds of tribes.

By 1819, the government had provided its first allocations for boarding schools with the Civilization Fund Act. 

But government officials were displeased by how close children remained to their families at those locations. Seeking to further disrupt whole tribes more permanently, the government implemented a new strategy for children. 

It was the brain child of a U.S. army sergeant charged with overseeing 72 Native American prisoners of war at Fort Marion in Florida.

"A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one," U.S. Army Captain Richard H. Pratt said. "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."

Credit: National Anthropological Archives
U.S. Army General Richard H. Pratt established the 'kill the Indian, save the man' at Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, a framework that was replicated hundreds of times over at other institutions across the United States.

Pratt's common refrain, 'kill the Indian, save the man' was later embedded into the curriculum at the boarding school he persuaded the federal government to build.

"He was a war criminal. His whole idea of killing the Indian and saving the man was so detrimental to generations of people, generation after generation after generation of people, just dealing with what he created," Meg Singer, a producer and Native American Initiative Director at Utah Valley University, said.

By 1879, the army barracks at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, were converted into an "Indian school" as a way to force children into culturally assimilative practices.

Credit: National Anthropological Archives
Students at Carlisle Indian Industrial School Miss Booth's classroom around the year 1885. By that point, the school had been in operation for six years.

Once within the walls of Carlisle Industrial School for Indians, children were subjected to physical and sexual abuse, forced to convert to Christianity, and beaten for speaking their own language. Their heads were shaved. They often died from sickness and endured psychological trauma. 

In January 1880, a cemetery was established — four months after the school opened. 

Credit: National Anthropological Archives
An unidentified girl, pictured at Carlisle in 1885. Children as young as six were in attendance at the institution.

"What sort of high schools have cemeteries? This is not normal. Generally, children are the healthiest demographic of any population. Children just — don't die. And so, something must have been precipitating these deaths," Preston McBride, a postdoctoral research fellow of Native American and Indigenous Studies with the University of Southern California, said. 

McBride's research focuses on health and environmental situation students endured at some of the largest residentials schools in the country. It found conditions within those institutions were not suited for survivability. Institutions underreported the deaths of students, or intentionally left them out of the records.

Credit: Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College
Between 1879 and 1902, Carlisle superintendent Richard Henry Pratt often commissioned propaganda photos, like this one of student Tom Torling, to demonstrate how students were becoming "civilized" at the institution.

"Ultimately the federal government doesn't care about the deaths of indigenous children in their custody. This is all part of, number one, the belief that indigenous people are just going to die out naturally — kind of the disappearing Indian myth. But also, these children are acceptable collateral damage from the government's perspective," McBride said. 

Carlisle, despite the human rights atrocities that were recorded there, fast became the standard for other boarding schools across the country.

It wouldn't be long until these genocidal curricula, implemented at more than 350 institutions nationwide, made their way to Indiana.