Brainwashing and Boarding Schools: Undoing the Shameful Legacy

senecaThe History

Mind Control Techniques

Online Resources and Lesson Plans

Where Do We Go from Here?


Boarding schools were an important part of the American Indian experience. They still are a critical factor in why some American Indian parents find it difficult to communicate with public school system administrators and teachers – and even more difficult to trust them.

Many non-Indians either aren’t aware of this shameful piece of American History or know very little about it. In order to undo the boarding school legacy, it is important for every teacher with American Indian students in the classroom to have an awareness of past events and their continuing impact.

Boarding School History

Off-reservation boarding schools for American Indian children began on November 1, 1878 when Captain Richard H. Pratt opened the Carlisle Indian School at an abandoned military post in Pennsylvania.


Pratt was an Army Captain, not an educator. He had been put in charge of 72 Apache prisoners held at Ft. Marion near St. Augustine, Florida. The Army said that prisoners were suspected of having murdered white settlers, but never proved this claim.

Carlisle1Captain Pratt started a prison school for the men in his charge. When the Ft. Marion prisoners were allowed to return home in 1878, he convinced 22 of them to continue their schooling. The Hampton Institute, a school for freed slaves in Virginia, accepted several of them.

Carlisle’s opening allowed Pratt to resign his Army commission and to practice his ideas about educating Indians.

Pratt’s goal was to “kill the Indian, not the man.” In order to assimilate American Indian children into European culture, Pratt subjected them to what we would call brainwashing tactics today. These are the same methods that cult leaders use to coerce recruits to commit completely to a new way of thinking.

Boarding School Brainwashing Techniques

At the time reformers believed that assimilation and off-reservation boarding schools were the lesser of two evils. They were a better policy than extermination, getting rid of American Indians by shooting them or starving them to death. Just because something is the lesser of two evils doesn’t make it right.

AISAfter Carlisle opened, boarding schools became a part of official U.S. Government Indian policy. Attendance was mandatory. Most of the schools were run by church organizations, but they all followed the same mind-control model set forth by Pratt.

  • Many boarding schools were established far away from reservations so that students would have no contact with their families and friends. Parents were discouraged from visiting and, in most cases, students were not allowed to go home during the summer.
  • Indian boarding school students wore military uniforms and were forced to march.
  • They were given many rules and no choices. To disobey meant swift and harsh punishment.
  • Students were forbidden to speak their language.
  • They were forbidden to practice their religion and were forced to memorize Bible verses and the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Their days were filled with so many tasks that they had little time to think.
  • Indian students had no privacy.
  • Boarding school students were expected to spy on one another and were pitted against each other by administrators and teachers.
  • Students were taught that the Indian way of life was savage and inferior to the white way. They were taught that they were being civilized or “raised up” to a better way of life.
  • Indian students were told that Indian people who retained their culture were stupid, dirty, and backwards. Those who most quickly assimilated were called “good Indians.” Those who didn’t were called “bad” Indians.
  • The main part of their education focused on learning manual skills such as cooking and cleaning for girls and milking cows and carpentry for boys.
  • Students were shamed and humiliated for showing homesickness for their families.
  • When they finally did go home, as to be expected, many boarding school students had a difficult time fitting in.

By the 1930s most off-reservation boarding schools were closed, but many American Indian children who lived on reservations still attended boarding schools located there. Missionaries ran some of these schools. The Bureau of Indian Affairs ran others. Although these schools dropped many of the Carlisle trappings, more than a few of them still retained an authoritarian structure and the goal of “civilizing” students.

In all more than 100,000 American Indian children attended 500 boarding schools that were established after the Carlisle model. It is a testimony to the strength, courage and persistance of Indian people that the people and their diverse cultures survived this prolonged attack.

More Information about American Indian Boarding Schools

History of American Indian Boarding Schools

Federal Education Policy and Off-Reservation Schools 1870-1933 
This 12 page online essay written for the web site of the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University provides a solid introduction to the issues. Information includes how American Indians taught their children, the white perspective and the Indian experience at boarding schools. The piece deals with lowered expectations for Indian students, loss of dignity and cultural genocide. Examples from the Mt. Pleasant boarding school are used along with historical pictures. This essay needs to be required reading for all school administrators and non-Indian teachers who interact with American Indian students and their families.

The Reservation Boarding School System in the United States, 1870-1929 
This fourteen-page history begins, “The reservation boarding school system was a war in disguise.” It discusses justification and rationalization, day schools versus boarding schools, Carlisle Indian School and the system’s failure. The essay by Sonja Keohane is well documented. Links to other online sources of information are included at the end.

Native American Education: Documents from the 19th Century
Compiled by Elizabeth Hope Stryon and Peter Wood from Duke University, this site provided a brief overview and eight primary source documents, including three letters written home by an American Indian student.

Photographs from Indian Boarding School 
This site contains a list of links to photos from Carlisle, Rapid City, Albuquerque, Carson Stewart, Phoenix and other Indian Schools. These photos are part of the National Archives and Records Administration Collection.

An Indian Boarding School Gallery 
Cary Nelson has pulled together a number of evocative historical photographs of Indian school students.

Indian School Hospitals Under the Office of Indian Affairs 1883 to 1916
These pages, maintained by the National Libraries of Medicine, document the poor health conditions in Indian boarding schools with words and historical photographs.

Sherman Indian School in Riverside, California
The Sherman Indian School Museum site features a searchable list of students from 1890 to 1939.

Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia
This site includes class rosters from 1878 to 1892. Students are listed by tribe.

Richard Pratt — Kill the Indian, Save the Man
Read the speech Pratt gave to the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction at Denver in 1892.

Lists of Links about American Indian Boarding Schools

Bibliography of Indian Boarding Schools from Approximately 1875 to 1940 from the Labriola Center, Arizona State University Library
A finding aid, this site lists books, oral histories, periodicals published by Indian boarding schools and videos on boarding schools that the Labriola Center has in its collections.

Turtle Mountain Community College Boarding Schools And Residential Schools Page
This list contains links to articles, papers and primary source documents about Indian Schools both in the United States and Canada.

Resources for Survivors of Residential Schools
This list of links focuses on the issue of sexual abuse in Indian boarding schools. It contains many links to articles on lawsuits filed by survivors. There are also links to reading lists and survivors organizations.

Soul Wound: The Legacy of American Indian Boarding Schools.
Andrea Smith, Interim Coordinator for the Boarding School Healing Project discusses the impact of boarding schools on Indian people. This article is posted on the Amnesty International site.

Lessons Plans about the Boarding School Experience

Indian Boarding Schools: Civilizing the Indian Spirit
Ten lesson plans created by Niki Childress and Gayle Lawrence, American Memory fellows with the Library of Congress, are posted on this site. The plans are suitable for middle school students and include a teacher’s guide and student pages. Online resource materials include photographs, letters, reports, interviews and other primary documents.

Assimilation Through Education: Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest
The self-study guide that is posted here consists of a ten-page text with 24 historical photos from the University of Washington Libraries Digital Collections. Footnotes and an extensive bibliography are also included. The author, Carolyn J. Marr, has also written study questions. The reading covers U.S. Indian education policy and draws examples from schools in the Northwest. Marr reproduces a typical daily schedule for a boarding school student. This lesson and the questions are appropriate for high school and college students, but are a thought-provoking read for adults as well.

Boarding Schools
This brief lesson plan for secondary school students comes from The Evergreen State College and the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute. Although this unit is not self-contained like those above, it sets forth good objectives for teachers.

Books to Avoid

The Oyate Organization
An American Indian group, Oyate reviews books written about American Indians. They advise teachers to avoid exposing students to two boarding school book because these books contain misinformation and promote stereotypes. The books are Indian School: Teaching the White Man’s way by Michael L. Cooper and My Heart is On the Ground: The Diary of Nannie Little Rose, A Sioux Girl by Ann Rinaldi. Click on the titles to read the reviews.

Where Do We Go from Here?

We can’t change the past, but we can change the future. Once you know about the boarding school system and the impact that it had on Indian families, the steps to undoing the shameful and painful legacy become clear.

  • Keep the boarding school experience in mind when you interact with American Indian parents. Understand that the wariness some parents feel toward schools and teachers is legitimate. Respect those feelings.
  • Examine how the policy of assimilating Indians is still imbedded in public school curriculum today. Might your school still be killing the Indian to save the man? What isn’t being taught about American Indians that needs to be taught?
  • Remedy the gaps in your own education. American Indian technologies and ideas were excluded from public school classrooms, just as they were in boarding schools. We can’t teach information that we never learned.
  • Understand that the indigenous knowledge of American Indians is relevant to modern life. Try living without corn, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, rubber, quinine, the number zero, and Interstate highways that were built over Indian trails.
  • Spread the word about the accomplishments of American Indians in the areas of science, technology, agriculture, medicine, and political science. Acknowledging the rich heritage of American Indian inventiveness can be as simple as mentioning one American Indian accomplishment each day.
  • If you are a teacher, start teaching American Indian intellectual history. Consider assigning students oral reports on Indian inventions or giving them a list of contributions to take home and asking them to record how many are part of their daily lives.
  • If you are not a teacher, copy this article and give it to one.