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There is less information about the teachers at the Indian boarding schools, but I wonder how many of them believed they were doing the best thing for Native Peoples. I think that many of them meant well.

After waging wars to defeat the Native Peoples and taking their lands, the U.S. government decided to wage war on Native Peoples’ cultures, values, and families. In 1880, the Board of Indian Commissioners made this statement: “as a savage we cannot tolerate him any more than as a half-civilized parasite, wanderer or vagabond. The only alternative left is to fit him by education for civilized life. The Indian, though a simple child of nature with mental faculties dwarfed and shriveled, while groping his way for generations in the darkness of barbarism, already sees the importance of education.” The idea of Indian Boarding schools was championed most famously by Richard Pratt, a Civil War veteran, who established the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Pratt made these claims about the Native Peoples, “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.” In general, the boarding schools prepared Native boys for lives of manual labor and Native girls for domestic work. During the summers, most students were leased to white homes for menial labor, thus severely limiting any interactions with their homes and families.

This phrase of “kill the Indian and save the man” became the mantra for these boarding schools. The Bureau of Indian Affairs opened more than two dozen off-reservation boarding schools, and churches operated over four hundred on-reservation schools with government funding. But recruiting students was difficult. In 1886, an agent at the Mescalero Apache agency reported “everything in the way of persuasion and argument having failed, it became necessary to visit the camps unexpectedly with a detachment of police, and seize such children as were proper and take them away to school, willing or unwilling. Some hurried their children off to the mountains or hid them away in camp, and the police had to chase and capture them like so many wild rabbits. This unusual proceeding created quite an outcry. The men were sullen and muttering, the women loud in their lamentations, and the children almost out of their wits with fright.”

The experiences of the children at the boarding schools are chilling to read. Helen Sekaquaptewa, a Hopi, recalled, “it was dark when we reached the Keams Canyon boarding school and were unloaded and taken into the big dormitory, lighted with electricity. I had never seen so much light at night….Evenings we would gather in a corner and cry softly so the matron would not hear and scold or spank us…I can still hear the plaintive little voices saying “I want to go home. I want my mother.” We didn’t understand a word of English and didn’t know what to say or do. …we were a group of homesick, lonesome, little girls.”

There are some school accounts that speak well of their education and experiences at the schools. Some even argue that an off-reservation boarding school experience encouraged pan-Indianism. But most reports revealed the dire conditions, substandard educations, and overwhelming evidence of abuse. By mid 20th century, most schools had closed their doors.


Thankfully, when I examine the methods and pedagogy for educating 21st century teachers, it looks remarkably different than the “kill the Indian and save the man” ideology of Indian boarding schools. But the good intentions of the teachers at these schools remains puzzling. We all live in a particular time and place and marinate in the ideas and values of that time frame. I am not certain that those of us living in late 2020 are immune to this. But it is still difficult to imagine teachers seeing the misery of the Native children and continuing their methods of stripping down their identity.
I wonder what our good intentions look like and how often we examine those intentions.



Richard Pratt, “Official Report of the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction,” 1892.

Paul Jentz, Seven Myths of Native American History, (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Inc., 2018), chapter 4: The End of the Trail: The Myth of the Vanishing Indian, 84-114.

Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History, 6th ed., (Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2019), 370-393.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

16 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Miserere!

  • Horrifying. Necessary. Thank you.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for pointing out lessons from history that we’ve learned with hindsight. How we perceive and treat LGBT people, in the name of religion, will probably be a similar story in the future.

  • Rebecca, I am always blessed by your writing. I am examining Native American issues for the Commission on Christian Action. Thank you for this historical perspective.

  • Tom says:

    Excellent piece, Thank you for writing it.
    “I am not certain that those of us living in late 2020 are immune to this.”
    I think we can be absolutely certain on that one. Hopefully the current defense of abortion as a issue of women’s rights will be one future example.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    When I researched the history of Christian Reformed Home Missions as part of my writing a book to mark the 100th anniversary of such missions in 1996, I spent a lot of time looking into the Christian Indian Boarding School the CRC established at Rehoboth in New Mexico. Rehoboth may be a rare example of an erstwhile Boarding School that later morphed into a regular school. But one thing I could not ignore in my research is that Rehoboth had a model to follow for a Boarding School–the Pratt model–and they may have followed it too closely. The uniforms, the haircuts, the bulldozing of native culture, punishments for being caught speaking Navajo . . . Well, it was all done in the love of Christ and with, as you say, the best of intentions. But when even the best intentions are built on a fundamentally flawed and vandalistic chassis, the odds of achieving a holy result start to get vanishingly small.

  • John Kleinheksel says:

    Thank you Rebecca, for focussing on Native Americans.
    I was recently introduced to N. Scott Momaday, the noted Native American spokesperson for voicing his/their true identity.
    I finished his novel, House Made of Dawn (1968) and am now into his “The Way to Rainy Mountain.” He gives voice to how native Americans make up the colorful fabric of American identity. And how they have been marginalized through American colonialism.
    My wife Sharon Van’t Kerkhoff’s parents, Harry and Luella, taught for years at the Cook Christian Training School in Phoenix, AZ, another iteration of the Christian Boarding school phenomena. Native Americans came from many tribes for “training” in order to go back to their tribes as Christian leaders. Harry taught Bible. Luella taught music. They did the best they could.
    My friend, the Rev. Leroy Koopman has done an exhaustive study of the RCA efforts with Native Americans. I just talked to Lee. His study is: Taking the Jesus Road: the Ministry of the RCA among Native Americans (2005), available through the Distribution center in GR.
    My friend Ray Smith, former Hope football coach and a full-blooded Native American, is insistent that the Black Lives Matter movement should include rectifying US treatment of Native Americans as well as Blacks and Asians.
    Again, thank you Rebecca, for turning the spotlight on this important topic for us to talk and do something about.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks, John. I have the Taking the Jesus Road book and also have Momaday’s book, House Made of Dawn on my desk. Both excellent. I’m also reading Mary Crow Dog’s Lakota Woman. It’s all very troubling and difficult to navigate between good intentions and often disastrous consequences.

  • Helen P says:

    I think the quote is “The road to hell is paved with ‘good intentions.’”
    Native American re-education may have been the norm and a policy, but not everyone believed in it.
    Having stolen their land, the least we could have done was leave them their history & their culture.
    I never cease to be appalled at our arrogance.

  • Rev. Nick Miles says:

    Thank You Rebecca. I am glad that someone in the academic field is alerting others some truths about Native American History. Yes, there were some who had Good Intentions probably, but I would guess that there were MANY who felt Native People were inferior and believed in the
    Christian Doctrine of Discovery. I can’t remember the author off the top of my head, but I think many today think of Native people as
    THE INCONVENIENT INDIAN. I am a member of the Pamunkey Tribe, Powhatan Nation in Virginia.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Thanks for sharing, Nick. Very true. There is quite a bit of evidence (Richard Pratt, for one) whose ‘good intentions’ were really just ideologies of white superiority and native inferiority. I recently read Mark Charles new book with Soong-Chan Rah, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery. I’ll discuss that in my next post 🙂

  • Gary Nederveld says:

    10 to 15 years ago I had the opportunity to hear the angst of teachers at Rehoboth who more than 60 years ago had to enforce the policy requiring students to speak English. They asked me with tears in their eyes, “what was I to do?” except follow a policy meant to provide a constructive environment, language wise, in regard to educational development. I also have talked with students from that era who concluded that that educational experience prepared them to succeed in a diverse world. Should we ever take away a student’s culture? No. That boarding school, Rehoboth, that “morphed” into a parent run school, now teachers Navajo language and culture.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, This is an important address. We are so guilty of harming the Black people by making them slaves and the Native Americans by not showing any respect for their culture, language, customs and ways. It is shameful of us to hide behind what we did. We and all of us should ask for forgiveness in some way. It could be reparations along with words so humble. Thank you.

  • […] history of Native Peoples in the United States. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about so-called ‘good intentions’ and explored the ways that Indian boarding schools and leaders like Richard Pratt articulated […]

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