The boarding school effect: "Chiricahua Apaches Four Months After Arriving at Carlisle." Image courtesy of the Richard Henry Pratt Papers, Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Dean Chavers: Boarding schools offered yet another way to 'civilize' Indian people

The boarding schools: How to ‘uncivilize’ an Indian

By Dr. Dean Chavers
Native Sun News Today Columnist

The federal government decided in the late 1880s that Indians had to be “civilized.” Indian agents arrested Indian leaders from the Apache, Assiniboine, Lakota, Cheyenne, Crow, and many other tribes and held them as prisoners for refusing to let their children be taken away to attend Indian schools. Robert Milroy, the agent at Yakama, sent his reservation police to arrest the parents of children who were not in school.

The BIA sent Army troops to the Hopi reservation in 1890. They rounded up 104 Hopi students and took them away to the local school at Keams Canyon. But the Hopi people resisted letting their children be brainwashed. When 19 traditional leaders of the Hopi Tribe refused to let the government agents take their children away to school, the soldiers arrested them in 1894 and imprisoned them on Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay for almost a year.

They were arrested on November 25, 1894, and arrived on Alcatraz, a military installation, a month later. They had traveled by horse, foot, train, and boat to reach the island. The Army held them there until August 7, 1895, when they were allowed to return home.

Two Modoc survivors of Captain Jack’s holdout in the lava beds of northeastern California were sent to the prison on Alcatraz Island, where one of them, Barncho, died of consumption. Sloluck served the longest term of any Indian on Alcatraz; he was finally released in 1878 and allowed to join his Modoc people in Oklahoma. They got off lightly compared to Captain Jack—he was captured and hanged on October 3, 1873. His body was later dug up and embalmed and made into a carnival attraction. Shoshones, Apaches, Paiutes, and Papagos were also imprisoned on Alcatraz, most on the same kind of trumped-up charges as the Hopis.

Francis Leupp, the Indian Commissioner, told educators in Los Angeles in 1907 that if Indian parents did not allow their children to attend Indian schools, “we send the policeman or the soldier to show him we mean business.” (Child)

What was elective soon became mandatory. The Congress first passed the first mandatory attendance law in 1891, requiring Indian students to attend school. The law was not strictly enforced, however, since there were not enough spaces for all Indian students. Congress passed another law in 1898 making attendance at school for Indians mandatory. Thus Indian students were legally required to attend school even before all the states passed mandatory attendance laws, which did not happen until 1912, when Arizona, the last state to do so, passed its mandatory attendance law.

Children were normally enrolled in the boarding schools for four years. Some, however, stayed as long as seven or eight years. When they left, as many of them said later, they were fit neither for life as an Indian nor accepted by the whites to live among them.

For decades, the children in the boarding schools were required to wear uniforms. They had to work in the fields, the boiler rooms, the dorms, and the school buildings. They grew much of their food in the fields and gardens that surrounded each school. The boys operated mangles, which rung the water out of clothes. Many of them were also injured by the mangles. They also operated hay balers, hay rakes, plows, disks, harrows, sod busters, and other farm implements. The teenaged boys did a man’s work in the afternoon, after they had been in the classroom all morning.

The Indian Agent on the Crow Reservation, J. W. Watson, said in 1894:
The Indians do not take kindly to these schools. It has been necessary to use force to get pupils and keep them in school. It is one of these cases, however, where force must be added to persuasion and reason to have the Indians do what is best for themselves.

The dorm aides cut the long hair off the boys on their first day. For most tribes long hair was a source of pride. Many of the boys came to school with their long hair in braids. They were forced to have their hair cut short in military style. This braided hair was a symbol of their manhood, and its loss was a highly charged cultural affront. Girls had their hair cut back as well.

Support Native media and read the rest of the story on the Native Sun News Today website: The boarding schools: How to ‘uncivilize’ an Indian

Dr. Dean Chavers is director of Catching the Dream, a national scholarship program for Native college students. He invites students to contact him at

Copyright permission Native Sun News Today

Join the Conversation