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The History of Native American Boarding Schools Is Even More Complicated than a New Report Reveals

8 minute read

Last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a more than 100-page report on the federal Indigenous boarding schools designed to assimilate Native Americans in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries. Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. ran or supported 408 boarding schools, the department found. Students endured “rampant physical, sexual, and emotional abuse,” and the report recorded more than 500 deaths of Native children—a number set to increase as the department’s investigation of this issue continues.

“This report, as I see it, is only a first step to acknowledge the experiences of Federal Indian boarding school children,” Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs, the study’s author, wrote in a memo.

The effort to catalog these institutions came nearly a year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves at the site of similar boarding schools in Canada raised awareness of this dark chapter in North American history.

“We continue to see the evidence of this attempt to forcibly assimilate Indigenous people in the disparities that communities face,” Deb Haaland, Interior Secretary and first Native American cabinet secretary, said in a statement. “It is my priority to not only give voice to the survivors and descendants of federal Indian boarding school policies, but also to address the lasting legacies of these policies so Indigenous peoples can continue to grow and heal.”

To get an American Indian historian’s reaction to the significance of the Interior Department’s research and to better understand the history of these boarding schools, TIME called Brenda Child, historian and author of Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940.

Why were these boarding schools started?

We always have to remember that the goal of the schools was assimilation, but it was also about Native people. To me, the great genocide of the boarding school era is the land loss and dispossession that accompanies the boarding school policy. People at the time thought Native people could just abandon their homes and reservations and tribal ways and wouldn’t need a homeland anymore.

Why was Carlisle Indian Industrial School significant?

Carlisle was significant because it was the model for other government boarding schools. It came early in the history, and a lot of the ideas for Indian education were tested out at Carlisle. For example, at the time, people thought Indians had to go into manual trades because they were good with their hands. They weren’t educated to be doctors or teachers or lawyers. And so Carlisle had this program where students would spend half the day in the classroom, and then students would be trained in vocational work during half the day. And so other schools copied that.

It also sounds like the schools were training people for certain kinds of low-paying jobs that serve white Americans.

Yeah, it was a system that emphasized social class. Indian people were Native, but lower-class [who white people thought] should learn some good manual trades that benefited the white majority. The boarding schools were not really about benefiting Indians. They were a form of segregated education in the history of the United States. And we know who benefits from segregation.

How did the U.S. government get away with these boarding schools?

I think that the citizens of this country, and politicians in this country and reformers were deeply invested in dispossessing Indians, and that’s why the boarding schools persisted and why they were talked about by people at the time as being great—”This was going to be the best thing! Indians are going to become citizens! They’re going to get jobs!” And the price they’re paying is being dispossessed of their land. But that’s what it was all about. So I always say you have to look beyond the rhetoric of the assimilation era. And if we look at the land policies and see what happened, we see this era was an utter disaster for Native people that made them poorer than they ever were before.

Read more: The Historical Significance of Deb Haaland Becoming the First Native American Cabinet Secretary

What is your general reaction to the report?

The report doesn’t really periodize American Indian history very well. We generally date the boarding school era from 1879 when Carlisle, the first of the off-reservation federal schools, was established. That was the dominant form of Indian education in the United States for 50 years, up until [Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency], when the Indian office and the policymakers at that time turned away from assimilation as the policy. They had also turned away from the boarding school concept.

The federal government shut many of them down in the 1930s, and the big story of Indian education became public school education. But some of [the boarding schools] continued, actually, at the demand of the Indian families, who used them as a poverty relief program for their families to survive the Great Depression. So I think you have to look at this era as not just one policy that lasted for 150 years, that is still with us today, but that there are different eras in the history of American Indian education. And so what Native people who attended a government school might have experienced in 1879, when there were still Indian wars being fought in the United States, was quite different than what [an American Indian] student in the 1930s experienced when people in government were saying, “Well, Native people shouldn’t have to give up their languages or their cultures.” That’s a very different period. I don’t think that students who attended boarding schools experienced the same thing decade after decade.

Where does this report fit in the history of research on Indigenous boarding schools?

I think that what people in the United States government or perhaps in the Department of Interior, certainly in the Bureau of Indian Affairs, wanted to know is, are there things that we need to be concerned about in the United States? Is there a hidden history that we’re not aware of in regard to the government? What they’ve done is to try to take a very comprehensive look at any institution that could be called a boarding school, whether it was run by the federal government or whether it was run by church organizations.

Do you think that the report adds anything to the scholarship on this topic that’s important to note?

I did find it interesting that the report includes Native Hawaiians. Many of us who have written about the history of Indian education haven’t really included them in this history. There are a lot of similarities and parallels because maybe some of the same missionaries or officials started out in Indian schools and then went to Hawaii. These ideas about assimilating, changing Indigenous people were global. So I like that [the report] included Hawaii.

One of the problems that I see with the report is that it takes this sweeping view of schools. And most of us historians are specific about the kinds of institutions we study. So what the report does is sweep together all kinds of institutions—Catholic schools, Episcopal schools, Presbyterian schools—and I don’t know if that sheds light on the overall history. Maybe it provides a certain overview that there were many, many institutions, but I think it’s better to separate the church schools and the federal schools, the schools that the United States government funded, because they were different kinds of institutions with different purposes.

Read more: What Thanksgiving Means Today to the Native American Tribe That Fed the Pilgrims

What was the impact of the boarding schools on your family?

My great-grandfather went to Carlisle and my grandmother, his daughter, went to the Flandreau school in South Dakota in the 1920s. They were Ojibwe-speaking people who left our reservation at Red Lake in northern Minnesota, and [these boarding schools were] their first real experience with the English language. The schools wanted kids to speak English, have a basic grammar school education, but then to be trained in some domestic or manual trades. My grandmother went out to work as a domestic servant in the local white households in South Dakota. My great-grandfather was one of those people who played football with [Olympian] Jim Thorpe and so we celebrate this athletic history.

My grandmother was bilingual, unlike her husband that she married when she came back home to the reservation. She became the family advocate because she could write letters. She could speak out on many issues when they were trying to get a home loan, all the ways that you had to manage the bureaucracy of reservations. When she came back to Red Lake, my grandmother raised her children to speak the Ojibwe language. My grandparents insisted on speaking their language and didn’t give up their culture in any way. But I think it’s a mixed bag. [The boarding schools were] an institution that was designed to eliminate Native culture, Native languages, and we’ve paid a price for that.

What should the U.S. government do now, to make up for federal Indian boarding schools?

We can’t change the past. We can’t change the experience of assimilation. But what we can do is restore land to Native people who were dispossessed. And if you would ask Indians, they would tell you exactly what land they want restored.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com