Happiness

Unearthing the Legacy of Native American Boarding Schools

Updated at 4:10 p.m. ET on November 24, 2021.

North America’s Indigenous peoples carry a painful past. This truth was laid bare when the mass graves of hundreds of Native children who died while attending residential schools were discovered in Canada this summer. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Native children in the United States and Canada were forced into assimilationist boarding schools that sought to strip them of their culture and heritage. Many died from disease, starvation, or physical abuse. Most were buried hastily, sometimes two or three small bodies to a grave. Outside the Native community, their deaths have been lost to obscurity, a painful chapter in a long-ago history, willfully forgotten. But try as they might, non-Native people cannot dodge the past.

Indigenous people on both sides of what Natives people call the medicine line—the border between the U.S. and Canada—have been reckoning with the residential schools’ traumatic repercussions for generations. They lie underneath our collective psyche, waiting to be unearthed. This history will continue to resurface until our governments, institutions, and non-Native people fully reckon with it.

Interrogating and researching the history of Indian boarding schools has been my life’s work, both personally and professionally. My mother, Bernice, was a boarding-school survivor. In the 1930s and ’40s, she attended Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School, on the Bad River Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin, where her family lived. I described part of her story for The Atlantic in 2019, upon the 200th anniversary of the 1819 Civilization Fund Act, which ushered in the era of assimilationist policies, which in turn led to the beginning of the Indian-boarding-school era in 1860.

Flowers, shoes, and moccasins laid out to honor 215 children whose remains were recently discovered Ontario, Canada
Flowers, shoes, and moccasins are laid out to honor 215 children whose remains were discovered at a grave in British Columbia, Canada. (Cole Burston / AFP / Getty)

The first federal Indian boarding school was founded in 1879 by Richard Pratt, an American Army lieutenant who coined the phrase “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Many Native families were threatened with loss of food rations if they failed to turn their children over to boarding-school authorities. By 1926, more than 80 percent of school-age Indian children were enrolled in boarding schools, and at the program’s peak, there were approximately 400 such schools in 29 states. Pratt’s American model inspired Nicholas Flood Davin, a Canadian member of Parliament who was tasked with finding a means to educate that country’s Indigenous peoples. He shared Pratt’s belief that Native people and their customs were shameful and inferior, and used the American schools as a blueprint for the Canadian residential-school system. Although two-thirds of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. were operated by the federal government, three-quarters of residential schools in Canada were operated by Christian missionaries, which received direct funding from the Canadian government for this work.

For decades, federal policies in both countries were designed to take our lands and resources, separate children from their families, and destroy our languages, cultures, and traditions. But many Native people resisted assimilation, stubbornly maintaining their ways. We still tell the boarding-school stories from one generation to the next, sometimes in whispers for fear of retribution from the institutions that operated the schools as well as from our own communities. Many survivors have faced denial and accusations that they are lying or simply seeking money when they’ve come forward about abuses suffered at the schools. Some think remaining quiet is safer. But without truth and justice, moving on is nearly impossible.

By the time my mother entered Saint Mary’s, at age 5, boarding schools had been around for nearly a century. She called it the “Sister School,” in reference to the nuns who ran it, and lived there for about 10 years with her four siblings. My grandma Cele, also a boarding-school survivor, had fled to Idaho after my grandpa Joe beat her nearly to death. Joe was often incapacitated by alcoholism and the extended family was unable to care for the children, so they ended up at the Sister School. Although Joe was unable to financially support his children, he still cared for them, often visiting them at the Sister School and bringing them traditional Ojibwe foods. According to my mother, the sisters oversaw his visits to ensure that nothing “Indian” passed between them.

But “Indian-ness” was passed along all the same. Joe made traditional maple-sugar cakes that bore his desperate, tenacious love and the memory of all things Ojibwe, the core belief that we are a part of rather than apart from the Earth. My mother savored their sweetness her entire life, closing her eyes and smiling each time she told me the story.

This remarkable connection to culture helped my mother survive a horrifically traumatic childhood long before health-care professionals identified the dangerous impact of unresolved trauma on our bodies and minds. In the late 1990s, Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, an associate professor in the University of New Mexico’s psychiatry department, and Lemyra DeBruyn, a medical anthropologist at the CDC, began publishing their research about the effect of historical trauma on Native Americans. According to their studies, unresolved grief and trauma from the boarding-school experience, in addition to massive loss of culture and lands, contribute to high rates of physical- and mental-health problems among Native people compared with all other ethnic and racial groups.

Saint Mary's Catholic Indian Boarding School.
Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School on the Bad River Reservation in Wisconsin, circa 1925 (Courtesy of the Bad River Tribal Historic Preservation Office)

In their quest to dominate North America, settlers created waves of policies and practices that impoverished our bodies and spirits and very nearly wiped us out. But boarding schools in the U.S. and residential schools in Canada, with their emphasis on children, were among some of the most devastating engines of these policies. The schools created generations of traumatized children who grew into adults with little experience in parenting and loads of unresolved grief and trauma; many people medicated their pain with intoxicants or obscured it with rage, denial, and other destructive methods.

Fortunately, Saint Mary’s was located on our reservation, so my mother was able to maintain a measure of connection to her family as well as to Ojibwe culture and language. That connection, however, was forever tainted by the nuns’ continual negative messaging about the inferiority of all things Native. As an adult, she suffered from what I believe was unacknowledged mental illness likely advanced by untreated post-traumatic stress disorder. Hypervigilant, defensive, and unable to express affection, she was not well equipped to parent my siblings and me. Her shame and fear over being, as the nuns described her, “a dirty Indian” lingered for her entire life.

But learning her true story, and researching and investigating the schools’ history as well as the impact of unresolved trauma on our minds and bodies, helped me gain context for understanding her exasperating and often cruel ways. At last, I forgave her and grew to admire her courage and stubborn resilience. She gave us a gift she could never have hoped for as a child: She stayed.

In 2007, Canada took its first steps toward facing its assimilationist past by passing the Indian Residential Settlement Agreement, in which the government apologized and made financial reparations to all residential-school survivors. Two years later, the Canadian government launched a Truth and Reconciliation Commission focused on gathering survivor stories and opening up school records to ensure that this terrible period is never forgotten. As part of the Settlement Agreement, the government also provided funds for tribes to begin searching for the graves of children long rumored to be buried at former school sites. The work began this year, leading to the discoveries this summer.

In 2015, the Canadian government estimated that about 6,000 Indigenous children had perished at its schools from sickness, starvation, abuse, and other ills. Since this past May, more than 1,300 unmarked graves of children have been found—and the grounds of only a few of the country’s more than 130 residential schools have been searched so far.

These are the right first steps, but it’s not just the government that needs to apologize and make amends. The Catholic Church ran most of the Canadian schools, but despite repeated calls from government and tribal leaders, it has never publicly apologized. (The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops formally apologized in September.) Catholic entities’ financial obligation under Canada’s Settlement Agreement was $79 million, including a target of fundraising $25 million for survivors. The Church raised just $3.7 million. And Catholic orders that ran residential schools continue to withhold documents and other archival material despite repeated requests from Indigenous and government leaders.

The U.S. has a similar story. The Catholic Church operated about 100 boarding schools, according to records from the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions. In a 1908 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Catholic missionaries could access Indian trust and treaty funds to pay for tuition at their schools. In an earlier investigation, I found that the Church siphoned away millions of dollars from Indian tribes for tuition payments. And as in Canada, Catholic leadership in the U.S. has been reluctant to help the public access any proprietary archival school records.

Saint Mary's Catholic Indian Boarding School.
Nuns at Saint Mary’s Catholic Indian Boarding School (Courtesy of the Bad River Tribal Historic Preservation Office)

“Not only are we living with the impacts of ethnic cleansing and genocide, but we are without resources to even begin to confront [and] do the healing,” Fawn Sharp, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, told NPR. Although my work has been a great help in my personal healing, it hasn’t diminished my outrage about U.S. policies regarding Indians and the country’s refusal to honor its treaty and trust responsibilities with Native peoples. Two hundred–plus years of failing to provide guaranteed assistance to support infrastructure, self-governance, housing, education, health care, and economic development has contributed to inequities in Indian Country. Individual healing has many benefits, but without a healthy, stable society in which to live, it’s simply not enough to create significant change for the entire community.

The U.S. has a long history of ignoring its colonial past and epic failures to honor its treaty and trust agreements with Indigenous peoples. Most people seemed genuinely shocked to learn that, as in Canada, the unmarked graves of thousands of Native children who perished at boarding schools might lie beneath their feet.

But Native people have always known. Our calls for justice have gone unheeded for generations, until now. Ignited by the Black Lives Matter movement, our country is facing a racial reckoning and experiencing a desire for reconciliation.

The U.S. government appears to be starting the reconciliation process. In June, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native person to serve in the role, announced that her department would oversee an investigation and compile records associated with the schools, paying special attention to locating cemeteries and burial sites. Haaland is a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo Tribe. This investigation is intended to inform future actions, such as potential repatriation of remains and protection of burial sites (with consultation from tribes). Haaland wrote in June, “For more than a century, the Department was responsible for operating and overseeing Indian boarding schools across the U.S. and its territories. The Department is uniquely positioned to assist in the effort to recover the histories of these institutions.”

Haaland has set April 2022 as the deadline for the investigation. But no funds have been allocated for any of the plans Haaland laid out. Who will pay for ground-penetrating radar to locate the graves? Who will pay to disinter the remains and transport them home if tribes choose to pursue this action? Should tribes be forced to foot the bill, or will the federal government and Christian denominations that ran boarding schools be required to pay?

In addition to acknowledging the past and offering a formal apology, the U.S. should be guided by the work of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which focuses on educating the public about boarding-school history. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has created curricula for teaching grade-school, middle-school, and high-school students about this history. Democrats in Congress have proposed legislation, the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act, to appropriate funding for mental-health services for survivors and communities affected by historical trauma.

For many survivors and their descendants, these proposals are a welcome step toward justice. Deb Parker, a member of the Tulalip Tribe and the director of policy and advocacy for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, told me that for generations, many Americans have reacted to boarding-school history with silence. Now the world’s attention suddenly seems focused on the children’s graves in Canada.

“I personally believe the discovery of the children’s graves released their energy out into the world at a moment when society is opening up to these lines of understanding and waking up to the injustices of the past,” Parker told me. She thinks these events herald a time of healing in which governments and society awaken to the truth and find a measure of human compassion. “I believe this reckoning will be a source of great pain for Indigenous people,” she said. “But at last we can understand why our families have been so broken and find a way forward, a way to live on as Native people.”

In July, nine young Sicangu Lakota ancestors who died at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Pennsylvania, were returned home to the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. Chief Duane Hollow Horn Bear, a descendant of the early-20th-century Lakota leader Hollow Horn Bear, spoke about the importance of keeping Lakota values alive—the same ones that the children had learned 140 years ago, before they were separated from their families. “You are never alone,” the chief said. “Your closest relative is always right there—your Mother Earth. Tomorrow she will take these young ones and she will cover them and take them into her womb.”

Chief Hollow Horn Bear is a descendant of Friend Hollow Horn Bear, one of the nine children who returned. “I’m honored that he’s home today. I’m sad that I never got to know his life story.”


A photo caption in this article previously misstated the Canadian province in which 215 children’s remains were discovered. It is British Columbia, not Ontario.

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