On this dayNov 01, 1879

Federal Government Separates Native Children from Families in Efforts at Forced Assimilation

Over several decades in the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Native children were forced away from their families and sent to off-reservation boarding schools in misguided efforts to "civilize" them. After the United States Congress created the Civilization Fund and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, boarding schools for Native children were established and children were forcibly compelled to attend these schools, which were designed to eradicate Native youth’s tribal ties and assimilate them into white culture so that they would grow into adults supportive of the American economy. The consequences of this horrific abuse are still felt today. 

The first such school to open was Carlisle Indian School, opened in Carlisle, Pennsylvania on November 1, 1879. The founder, Captain Richard Pratt, described his philosophy for educating Native children as: “All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” The federal government used Carlisle as a model for other boarding schools designed to forcefully assimilate Native children into white culture. Young children were taken from their families to attend these schools, and parents who resisted were forced to flee, hide, or face imprisonment. Many parents sent their children because Native children were not permitted to attend local public schools with white students, making assimilation boarding schools the only available opportunity for formal education.

The federal government's views on educating Native children were rooted in racism and prejudice. While the government believed a white youth’s “moral character and habits are already formed and well-defined” when he leaves for school, a Native youth was thought to be “born a savage and raised in an atmosphere of superstition and ignorance... lacks at the outset those advantages which are inherited by his white brother.” In the eyes of the government, “if [a Native American child] is to rise from his low estate the germs of a nobler existence must be implanted in him and cultivated. He must be taught to lay aside his savage customs like a garment and take upon himself the habits of civilized life.”

Reflecting these genocidal biases, Native children attending boarding schools were given English names, forced to cut their hair, and forbidden from speaking their native languages. Students received vocational training but very little academic instruction, with the expectation that they would make their living as farmers or manual laborers. Conditions in many schools were poor and students were often the victims of physical and sexual abuse.

These schools continued to exist for decades with funding and support from the federal government.

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