Claiming Our Heritage from the Boarding School Experiment

By Jerilyn DeCoteau, Native American Today

The heritage passed down to Native Americans is often too painful to name. Not reported in textbooks, and often not spoken of by boarding school survivors, is the chilling fact that for generations Native American children were forced to attend boarding schools far away from their homes for the purpose of destroying “all that is Indian in them.”

Children from age four were taken to nearly 500 off-reservation boarding schools (1). They were shorn of their hair, stripped of their Native garb, forbidden to speak their language or practice familiar customs, and denied contact with family. Many children spent all their school years in boarding schools. Many died there, never to return home. Each of these schools has a graveyard. The intended and actual result was the rending of family and community ties, the weakening of Native societies and social structure – the annihilation of much Native culture.

Legendary teacher, lecturer, activist and author Dennis Banks

Silence has been a way boarding school survivors have coped. Silence is a survival tool, but it has caused untold damage. Dennis Banks, a great Indian activist, left us with many lessons. One was to break the silence.

“I was taken to a boarding school when I was four years old, and taken away from my mother and my father, my grandparents … 300 miles away from our home. And, you know, the beatings began immediately, the … de-Indianizing program … that was trying to destroy the culture and the person …”

“…You know, they cut off all communication with your parents, and a lot of letters, which I found later in — I stayed there for six years without communicating to — with my parents at all … I asked my mother, I said, ‘Why didn’t you write to me?’”

“… I had a chair; I was sitting right by her grave, and I started reading these letters. And I knew that she loved me then. I mean, even now, even at this moment, I feel that, man, it’s a hard — it’s a hard experience to tell people. But I tell them anyway” (2).

The evil of this genocidal experiment, and the effect of the silence around it, cannot be exaggerated. Because people are beginning to tell their stories, we are beginning to understand the intergenerational and often traumatic effects of the boarding school experiment. In many critical ways Native American heritage was destroyed in the boarding schools. In its place is often the visible manifestation of the pain from that loss: broken families, alcohol and drug addiction, mental and physical health problems, suicide.

Richard Henry Pratt (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

Richard Henry Pratt founded and acted as superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He coined the phrase “kill the Indian… and save the man” in reference to the ethos of the Carlisle School to forcibly educate Native Americans.

Dennis Banks’ story is typical. Unloved by his mother, alien to his Native language and culture, he was sent back home, empty-handed of tools and skills needed to take his place in his Native society. And so, well into his 70s, he sat by his mother’s grave and knew for the first time that she loved him. He fought his whole life for his heritage, for all of us, and won after all.

If the boarding school story makes it sound like many Native people are sad, damaged, broken, it is a truth we cannot hide. The effects of that trauma are evident today, long past the boarding school experiment. Native people have much to grieve and much healing to do. We can be silent no more. Our boarding school stories need to be told. They are hard to tell, but like Dennis Banks’ story, they are stories of resilience and hope. Only if we learn the truth, as Mr. Banks did, can we claim our full Native American heritage and begin to heal our families, our communities, our tribes (3).





1) There were about 500 federally supported boarding schools, a large number being run by churches.

2) Native American Leader Dennis Banks, “The Overlooked Tragedy of Nation’s Indian Boarding Schools,” an interview by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now,” October 8, 2012.

3) The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has just launched a campaign called “Break the Silence, Begin the Healing,” which features “Healing Voices,” stories that “foster resilience and support healing.”

This article was originally published by First Nations Development Institute as part of its “Native American Stories” series.



Jerilyn DeCoteau is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and serves on the Board of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. Her parents, maternal grandmother and some of her siblings attended Indian boarding schools.






The vision of the NABS coalition is indigenous cultural sovereignty, and its mission is to lead in the pursuit of understanding and addressing the ongoing trauma created by the U.S. Indian Boarding School policy. NABS is a nonprofit, membership organization comprised of over 100 Native and Non-Native individuals, Tribal Nations, and organizations committed to boarding school healing.