It’s interesting to me to read the different viewpoints on old Indian boarding schools and orphanages—and even hospitals—that were in operation to accommodate Indians, and assimilate them into white society. Living here in Oklahoma, we have a few of the now-defunct facilities scattered around our state—one, Concho Indian School, not more than about an hour’s drive from my house. Let’s take a look at the beginnings of these schools and how they came into existence.
Richard Henry Pratt was the man who came up with the idea of boarding schools for Indian children. These schools would remove children from the reservations when they were very young, send them to a place run by whites, and immerse them in white culture. This would obliterate their “Indian-ness” and encourage them to cope with and join into the world as it had become—white.
Mr. Pratt founded Carlisle Indian Industrial School in1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and compared to genocide—which was a much-discussed option—seemed to be the only “reasonable” alternative in those days to annihilation of the Indians that remained after the Indian wars were over.
The above is a picture of General Pratt with one of his young students.
Some Indian parents willingly sent their children, but many (I would venture to say most) were threatened with imprisonment and loss of their food rations. Eventually, they understood there was no choice, and said tearful goodbyes to their children as they were shipped off. The boarding schools at that time were hundreds of miles away—Carlisle being the flagship school, located in Pennsylvania. One of Oklahoma’s most celebrated Indian athletes, Olympian Jim Thorpe of the Sac and Fox Nation, was sent there.
Once the children arrived, everything was taken from them. Their clothing was burned, in many cases, and they were provided uniforms. Their hair was cut short. Even their names were changed. And, they were forbidden to speak their native tongue—for most of them, the only language they knew.
In many boarding schools, everything was done by bells. No talking was allowed among the children—even among brothers and sisters. Punishment for doing so was beating or confinement.
By 1902, twenty-five federally funded boarding schools in fifteen states and territories had been built, with more being planned. Over 6,000 students were enrolled in these institutions. But only seven years later the system was coming under fire. Though graduates had been trained for factory or farm work, neither could be found on the reservations they returned to. No jobs for these young adults waited once their schooling was finished, and so returning to the reservations meant dependence on the U.S. Indian Agency rather than taking jobs that allowed them to provide for themselves.
Boarding schools were there to stay, though, and remained open for over 100 years, into the 1980’s.
The Concho Indian School I mentioned earlier, opened in Darlington, Indian Territory, in 1887. It was replaced in 1932, and again in 1969, until its doors were closed for good in 1981due to budget cuts and defunding.
According to many, it was a horrible place—and it wasn’t the only one. Stories of abuse of all kinds—physical, sexual, and emotional—run rampant. In fact, there is a psychological condition called CSDT or Constructionist Self Development Theory that has been identified for survivors of these schools, wherein they develop their own theories as to why this kind of upbringing was “good” for them—it made them stronger; it made them a “fighter”, and so on.
Survivors’ descendants tell of some of the horrifying experiences their relatives endured, and the abandoned Concho Indian School building is said to be haunted by the spirits of some of the young victims, hoping for justice after all these years.
One woman writes: “I’m an Indian and my grandmother told me bad stories of this place…many children from my tribe were taken and some were never heard from again. I hate the thought of this place.”
This post barely scratches the surface, and I will continue next month with more about orphanages and hospitals “for Indians only.”
In my novel, GABRIEL’S LAW, Brandon Gabriel and Allison Taylor first meet in an orphanage run by a ruthless headmaster. Though it was not a place strictly for Indians, the unhappy circumstances Brandon and Allie are faced with here forges the beginnings of trust, with love to come in the future.
I will be giving away a signed print copy of GABRIEL’S LAW today to one lucky commenter!
Here’s the blurb!
If you just can’t wait to see if you won, here’s the Amazon link!