Confronting the Legacy of Native American BOARDING SCHOOLS
by Philip P. Arnold

Patriotic pageants that celebrated American citizenship and Christianity were commonly held at Hampton Institute and other boarding schools. This one was to celebrate Indian Citizenship Day. Patriotic songs, parades, and poetry were part of the “celebration.” Haudenosaunee young people were the second largest group of native students at Hampton. Photo: To Lead and to serve: American Indian Education at Hampton Institute 1878-1923.

The history of Native American boarding schools clearly illustrates how the US and Canadian Governments, and various Christian denominations have actively collaborated to "convert" and "civilize" Native people. Under the mantle of "Kill the Indian, save the Man," Col. Richard Henry Pratt founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania in 1879.

Several hundred other schools opened in the following decades that were run by a variety of Christian denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Episcopalian, Quakers among others) but they were all financed through the US and Canadian governments. Most of them closed in the 1970s and '80s.

Traumatizing Children
The Thomas Boarding School on the Seneca Cattaraugus Nation Territory, for example, was run by the Quakers to educate and "civilize" children of the Iroquois Six Nations Territories (including the Onondaga Nation). There are numerous stories of children being taken from their homes, sometimes by force, to travel long distances to live at these schools, sometimes for many years. The children were forced to cut their hair, wear military uniforms and, most tragically, stop speaking their native languages and performing their traditional ceremonies.

In some cases, these children were incarcerated for trying to escape, and died or were murdered in these schools. All of these students were radically transformed by these experiences. Boarding schools have had a devastating impact for generations on Indigenous communities throughout North America. It would be difficult to name anything more destructive to the integrity of traditional knowledge than the boarding school program. Nearly every Native American family has been impacted by these schools.

An Unrepentant Church
In February 2008 Syracuse University hosted a screening of "UNREPENTANT: Kevin Annett and Canada's Genocide" (2007) and a public conversation with Kevin Annett. Reverend Annett started his first ministry for the United Church of Canada (UCC) on Vancouver Island in the 1980s. He immediately noticed that in spite of there being a large Native American population in the community, none of them attended his church.

He made a concerted effort to reach out and listen to their stories. Annett was shocked to learn that the UCC, as well as Catholic and Episcopalian run boarding schools had been directly involved in traumatizing Native American children.

For nearly 70 years, sexual abuse, torture and murder occurred in these boarding schools. Annett uncovered UCC involvement with the physical and cultural extermination of native populations so their lands could be made available to government and private interests. These Christian run and government-funded boarding schools dedicated to "civilizing" Native Americans were the means by which private interests acquired vast tracts of valuable land.

Annett's exposure of the UCC's involvement in these genocidal practices resulted in his being defrocked in 1996. The UCC dedicated itself to silencing Annett by encouraging his wife to file for a divorce, cutting funds for his graduate work and suppressing his publications. With growing interest among boarding school survivors in filing class action lawsuits against the church, Annett's dissenting inside voice had to be squelched. You can see Kevin Annett's film in its entirety and buy his book Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust at


Making Amends
With mounting pressure from the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (September 2007), there may be growing opportunities for reconciliation. Recently the Prime Ministers of Australia and Canada have apologized to the Indigenous people affected by the legacy of boarding schools in their nations. The US lags behind in these international human rights initiatives.

Religion and the freedom from religion have never applied to Native American traditions. If immigrant people came to the US to escape religious persecution then why have they perpetrated the same sort of persecution on the indigenous peoples of North America?

There are also difficult theological issues. Why does Christianity, with respect to Native American Indigenous traditions, seem to require an overwhelming confidence in knowing the nature of God? As the boarding schools reflect, religious institutions have committed themselves to a dichotomy between "primitive" and "civilized." Are we suffering culturally and environmentally as a consequence of this? These are urgent questions that require us all-Native and non-Native, Indigenous and Immigrant, Traditional Native American, Christian and other-to actively resolve through reconciliation.

Philip teaches Religion at Syracuse University, is a member of NOON and coordinates the Roots of Peacemaking