Steven Newcomb

Indian Boarding Schools in Context

Some years ago, I came across the book Massacre: A Survey of Today’s American Indian published in 1931. Written by Robert Gessner, the book is an exposé. It provides what one Indian writer recently called “contextual and perspective research” of Indian boarding schools that helps us get “a total picture.”

In chapter ten, “Flogging Children,” Gessner explains “in the thousands of miles I have traveled I have heard one great plea: We are starving—yes, we are being robbed and oppressed—yes, but first save our children.” Gessner’s research “confirmed these verbal statements.” “I learned,” he wrote, “of children as young as six years of age being taken forcibly from their mothers’ arms and sent to distant boarding schools until they were eighteen years old, without seeing their parents during that period.” Gessner learned how Indian children in those schools “were underfed to point of starvation, roughly treated, even beaten, and all the time made to work half a day at hard industrial labor in their fields, in the bakery, or in the laundry—child labor.”

Gessner said he had seen the jails Indian children were “thrown into after being flogged for infringement of minor rules.” He detailed eye-witness accounts: Indian boys chained to beds at night; thrown in cellars under the building, which the superintendent called a jail; shoes taken away and children made to walk through the snow to help milk the cows; children whipped with a hemp rope, and a water hose; children forced to do work for employees and superintendents without compensation under the guise of industrial employment and education. The source? “Hearings Before a Subcommittee on Indian Affairs pursuant to S. Res. 341, p. 30.”

One boarding school superintendent showed an investigator “a dungeon in his basement used for girls, up to his coming [to the school] two years ago.” The dungeon “was 18’ x 8’, absolutely dark. Girls told the superintendent of two or three of them sleeping there on mattresses and rats crawling over them at night. Their food was bread and water. Brick walls showed where the girls had worked holes through and escaped.”

Mrs. Gertrude Bonnin, Zitkala-Sa, was founder and President of the National Council of American Indians, which preceded the National Congress of American Indians. She related a story of Conquering Bear’s two boys in the Oglala Lakota boarding school. The boys were captured after running away, and given a “severe beating. They were about twelve and fourteen at the time. Their heads were shaven, though it was winter.” The boys ended up in a school jail. “They were in a dirty, filthy place, with a bucket to be used as a toilet.”

“One of the boys had a ball and chain locked onto his leg and was locked to the bed at night.” Zitkala-Sa said that “It hurt her to see the little boy carrying the ball when marching to meals…The boy even went to school with the ball and chain on, and it bothered the other children.”

At Pine Ridge, a man named Philip Romero personally told Gessner: “They whipped Mary Rough, a young girl, and when her granddad went to see her the guard asked, ‘What the hell are you going to do about it? We’ve got a right to give her a whipping.”

An engineer at the Rice School on the San Carlos Reservation gave testimony under oath. He testified “about Indian girls, 11 and 12 years old, who escaped from the Rice School.” They were “pursued and captured.” “Part of their punishment,” wrote Gessner, “consisted in walking with heavy cordwood on their shoulders, around and around the school yard the whole of an afternoon. One girl stood dumb [silent], her head and shoulders bowed, offering passive resistance. The principal ‘seized a club from the ground, beat the girl until she fell, and beat her on the ground. Then the girl carried the cordwood for the afternoon.”

Applying a strap to the bare backs of Indian children in the boarding schools was originally termed “a flogging,” but this terminology was then changed to the euphemism “emergency measure.” The “disciplinarians” were, according to Gessner, “guilty of the atrocities listed in this chapter.” One white administrator “received protection from the new Commissioner of Indian Affairs for having ‘children beaten with leather straps, knocked down for sarcasm to the disciplinarian, struck with fist and hard object until covered from face to knees with blood’.”

While not every Indian child experienced such abuse, it is unconscionable for anyone to downplay generations of criminal and traumatic patterns of abuse that Indian children experienced in the boarding “schools.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.


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Indian Boarding Schools in Context