Indian boarding schools, now referred to as Native-American boarding schools, were created from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 20th century (1880s to 1920s) by Christian missionaries. Removal of Native-American children from their homes and placing them in government boarding schools was part of the American government's federal Indian policy.
The aim of the boarding schools was to teach Native-American children in an European-American tradition. Schools were established on the reservations, and boarding schools were built for children who did not have schools near where they lived. Money was given to various religious organizations to set up educational facilities on the reservations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) set up boarding schools based on the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was founded by Captain Richard Henry Pratt in Pennsylvania in 1879.
Since Native-American children were placed in a Western (European-American) system, the model of education was one of assimilation. Children were not only encouraged to speak English, but also were forbidden to speak their own native languages. Moreover, they were not permitted to keep their identities as Native Americans, nor to follow customs according to their culture. Pratt and other educational reformers believed that the Native Americans were an inferior race, and only by assimilating into Western American culture, could they become the type of "civilized" citizens the United States needed.
The boarding school system became a harsh experience for the children, who were removed from family and culture and subjected to unkind methods to become Americanized. Toward the end of the 20th century, it became clear through investigative reports that the children had suffered many cases of sexual, physical and mental abuse at school. Running away became common among children, desperate to maintain ties with their home and tribe.
A U.S. military fort near Spokane, in Eastern Washington, was turned into a boarding school for children of the Colville and Spokane Indian reservations. The Fort Spokane Boarding School began taking students in 1900 and continued until 1914. It started with 83 students, and this number more than doubled within two years. Fort Simcoe, another military facility, serviced the Yakama and neighboring tribes. The Chemawa Indian School in the Pacific Northwest was the largest boarding school established off the reservations. The school had begun at Forest Grove, Oregon, but relocated to Salem in 1885. Children from 90 tribes were enrolled in the school by 1920.
There were certain features in common among all the boarding schools, as dictated by the BIA. The schools were built to look the same, mostly according to a military style. The mode of teaching was military, as per Pratt's recommendation. Only the English language was permitted. The curriculum consisted of a focus on framing and a combination of vocational and academic instruction.
In the 1960s, many of the boarding schools closed. Changes began to occur later, with Native-American parents having more control of their children's education. Remaining boarding schools became more inclusive of practices that had been forbidden. Native-American nations began to insist that more schools become community-based. Colleges were also created that were led by Native American tribe members rather than on the assimilation model.
At the behest of the BIA, the federal government began to support community-based Native-American schools, with legislation to back this up.
By the beginning of the 21st century, most of the largest boarding schools had been closed. As of 2007, reports listed the number of Native-American children in boarding schools at 9,500, a considerable decrease from previous years. Children attending boarding schools might be from some tribes where private or independent schooling is not a financial possibility or where small reservations cannot accommodate schools. In some instances, an alternative for high school education is also preferred.
Brenda J. Child in her book Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940 presents a view of elderly Native Americans seeing the government boarding school as part of the "collective pan-Indian identity." Given the togetherness of different tribe members in the schools, many learned each other's languages and even intermarried among tribes after their school years.
In 2009, a bipartisan resolution was passed by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. Acknowledgment was made regarding inappopriate federal government policies relating to Native Americans, and an apology offered. In addition, the president was requested to apologize officially on behalf of the United States government for wrong treatment against the tribes during the boarding school years.