Residential Boarding Schools

Chemawa Boarding School, Students at Desks in 1928, Oregon Historical Society.

The recent discoveries of bodies at Indian residential boarding schools and mission schools in North America and Canada, has forced the U.S. government to reckon with its role in this tragic history. Deb Haaland, the first Native American to hold the position of Secretary of the Interior, is pushing her department and the U.S. government to acknowledge the disturbing history surrounding the boarding school system.  A recently released report that named the 408 boarding schools that were established to assimilate Native children and to strip them of their cultural heritage identifies the deaths of over 500 children, and that list is expected to grow. 

The boarding school movement became popular in the late 1860s, when reformers turned their attention to the plight of the Native population. The reformers believed that with proper education the Indigenous population could assimilate into society. The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 allowed the federal government to establish reservation boarding schools where students were removed from their families for months with limited contact or mandated to attend day schools which offered minimal education and worked with boarding schools to transfer students for more advanced studies. Many Native children also attended federally funded mission schools established on the reservations that discouraged cultural practices in favor of Christian doctrine.  

In the 1850s Territorial Governor George Stevens negotiated treaties with Coast Salish tribes and educational provisions were included in the treaty language.  For example, Article 14 in the Point Elliot Treaty of 1855 includes an education clause that states the U.S. government will, “…establish an agricultural and industrial school, to be free to children of the said tribes and bands in common with those of the other tribes of said district, and to provide the said school with a suitable instructor or instructors.”  This pledge was not enacted and many Coast Salish children were sent to the Catholic mission school in Tulip, WA, the Stickney Home Mission School for Indians in Lyden, WA, or Chemawa Indian School in Forest Grove, Oregon. 

Attendance at the schools was mandated by the U.S. government with school policies directed and overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.  At these schools, children were stripped of all things connected to Native life. Their hair was cut, they were forced to wear uniforms, lived under military style regimes, punished for speaking their native languages, and contact with family members was restricted or denied.  Survivors of the schools described harsh conditions, experiences of physical, mental, and sexual abuse, and limited access to medicine and food. As a result, many students died with their parents learning of their deaths only after they had been buried in unmarked graves at school cemeteries.  

By the 1960s public education had replaced the boarding school system in the United States and Indigenous children enrolled in schools that focused on American nation state narratives, a continuation of the assimilation practices found in residential schools.  Coast Salish students encountered institutional racism in public school settings, especially in the 1970s when the Boldt Decision created a climate of open hostility in the Puget Sound surrounding fishing rights. Some Indigenous parents sought out Chemawa Residential School as a possible alternative option to the racism their children faced in public school settings. By that time, Chemawa had become a site where Indigenous students could seek out educational opportunities and also embrace their cultural heritage. Today, the four remaining boarding schools still run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs encourage their students to explore Indigenous history and cultural traditions. 


Fonseca, Felicia. “US Finds 500 Native American Boarding School Deaths So Far.” Associated Press, May 19, 2022. 

Marker, Michael. “Indigenous Resistance and Racist Schooling on the Borders of Empires.” Paedagogica Historica 45, no. 6 (2009): 757–72.

Marr, Carolyn. “Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest.” University of Washington Libraries, American Indians of the Pacific Northwest Collections, Topical Essays.

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