Incarceration, fear and shame

MSU Press publication remembers the Indian boarding school movement


“Kill the Indian in him and save the man” became the mantra of the Indian boarding school movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which saw the creation of boarding schools across the U.S. to “educate” Native American children. The phrase was derived from a speech given in 1892 by Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, one of the architects of the movement.

There are a number of books about this horrid period in American history. This year, Michigan State University Press published “Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers,” by Peter Razor, who was incarcerated as a child at Owatonna State Public School in Minnesota. Razor, who died last year, also wrote a memoir, “While the Locust Slept,” about his time at Owatonna and as an indentured farm worker.

“Wiijiwaaganag: More Than Brothers” follows a fictional character, Niizh Eshkanag, who, as a young boy, was forcibly separated from his family and sent to an Indian school. While at the school, he meets another student, Roger, the white nephew of the school principal, whom he befriends despite cultural differences. When a fellow student, an Anishinaabe, is terribly beaten and escapes, Eshkanag and Roger go on a Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer-style adventure to rescue him. Along the way, they confront settlers, immigrants and members of Anishinaabe tribes. 

For most families, the shame of having children coercively removed or kidnapped from their homes, sometimes under the darkness of night, kept them silent for generations. Often, children weren’t allowed to return home during summer vacation, despite schools’ promises otherwise. In addition, mail was censored or withheld from students, severing them from the outside world. For some families, it would be decades before they knew what happened to their children.

The boarding school movement can only be described as degrading and vicious. The children were virtual prisoners — they were physically and sexually abused, and an unknown number died at the schools or ran away. Boys’ hair was shorn, and speaking native languages was forbidden. 

The movement can be traced to the earliest history of the Americas, when Christian missionaries used Western education to “civilize” Native Americans in the hopes they would assist in others’ proselytizing.

It reached a whole new level in 1879, when the most well-known boarding school, the Carlisle Indian School, opened in Pennsylvania. In 1902, the federal government funded 25 additional schools in 15 states, and by 1920, 350 schools had been established, incarcerating more than 20,000 students. By 1925, it’s estimated that 60,000 Native American children were held at the schools.

During their height, Indian schools employed modern-day public relations techniques to promote a positive image. The most notable story was that of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, who attended the Carlisle Indian School and became the poster child for the success of the movement.

Mt. Pleasant was the site of a boarding school that operated from 1893 until 1934. Estimates place the number of children who attended the school at 12,000, and records show that 225 never returned home, either dying and being buried at the school or running away. Each year, a memorial is held on the campus to call out the names of those who were lost; this year, it will take place on June 6.

A famous panoramic photograph, taken at the Mt. Pleasant boarding school and archived at the Library of Congress, shows a garden-party-like atmosphere, with young girls posed in white dresses across the campus. Central Michigan University has created an archive of the Mt. Pleasant Indian school, which can be accessed online. The schools also produced real photo postcards, taken by administrators to show off bands and sports teams.

Indian boarding school, Michigan State University Press


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