Reforms and Changes

From the beginning days of American Indian boarding schools, individual leaders emerged from these institutions who had a vision of self-governance and citizenship.

Early Reformers

Carlos Montezuma/Wassaja

Carlos Montezuma/Wassaja (Yavapai, c.1865-1923) was kidnapped and adopted by an Italian photographer who homeschooled him as they traveled the West. Wassaja enrolled at Northwestern University and earned a medical degree. He worked briefly for Carlisle Indian School. Montezuma was a founding member of the Society of American Indians, the first national American Indian rights organization run by and for American Indians. In 1916 Montezuma established a magazine, Wassaja, which addressed topics on American Indian education, civil rights and citizenship.

Portraits of Wassaja (Carlos Montezuma) in the catalogue of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, 1902. J.N. Choate, photographer. Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut.

Luther Standing Bear/Ota Kte

Luther Standing Bear/Ota Kte (Oglala Lakota, 1868-1939) was one of the first students enrolled at Carlisle Indian School and in the first graduating class. He published numerous books and articles about his life. He was an activist for preserving Lakota heritage and sovereignty. Standing Bear was a part of the Progressive movement and Indian Rights Association of the 1930s.

Luther Standing Bear, Dakota, c. 1891, Library of Congress.

Susan La Flesche Picotte

Susan La Flesche Picotte (Omaha, 1865-1915) attended Hampton Institute in Virginia, graduating in 1886 as class salutatorian. She attended medical school and took a position as physician at the Omaha Agency Indian School. Working in the community, she addressed public health reforms, educating about hygiene, food sanitation and efforts to combat tuberculosis.

Portrait of Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte, n.d. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution.

Charles Eastman/Ohiyesa

Charles Eastman/Ohiyesa (Santee Dakota, 1858-1939) attended a mission school and later graduated from Dartmouth College in 1887. He was a physician with the Office of Indian Affairs. In 1911 he co-founded the Society of American Indians which pushed for freedom and self-determination for American Indians.

Dr. Charles A Eastman, c. 1920. Minnesota Historical Sociey, St. Paul, Minnesota

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/Zitkala-Sa

Gertrude Simmons Bonnin/Zitkala-Sa (Yankton Dakota, 1876-1938) attended a Quaker boarding school in Indiana. She became a writer, musician and educator. Her written contributions and leadership in reforms relating to education, health care and legal standing of Native American people are significant as well as the preservation of Native values and beliefs.

Zitkala-Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), Dakota, n.d., Library of Congress
"Care of Indian children in boarding schools is grossly inadequate."
-Meriam Report, 1928

Federal Reforms: The Meriam Report

American Indian boarding schools have slowly changed over the past century and half. Reforms to the boarding schools accelerated after a 1928 report criticizing conditions and policies. The Meriam Report (official title: The Problem of Indian Administration) was commissioned by the Secretary of the Interior and funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. Lewis Meriam, of the Institute for Government Research (known later as the Brookings Institution), directed the survey of conditions of Native Americans across the country. The compiled data was used to reform federal Indian policy. The report criticized the boarding schools for poor diet, overcrowding, insufficient medical services and dependence on student labor.

Read the full report via the National Indian Law Library website.

Cover, Meriam Report (“The Problem of Indian Administration”), 1928. The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Maryland.
Henry Roe Cloud (Ho-Chunk) appointed Field Representative of the Indian Service of the Department of the Interior, 1931. Underwood & Underwood, photographer. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Henry Roe Cloud (Ho-Chunk) attended Genoa Indian School, Santee Mission School and Mount Hermon Preparatory School in Massachusetts. He financed his education through work-study and graduated a salutatorian in 1906. He earned many degrees, including bachelor of arts and master of arts from Yale College, bachelor of divinity from Auburn Theological Seminary and Doctorate of divinity from Emporia College. Cloud contributed as a reformer and educator. He influenced federal Indian policy, working as a commissioner on the Meriam investigation. In 1933 he became superintendent of Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas.

Reforms in the Arts

Art and music programs changed with implementation of reforms. Art classes frequently allowed production of traditional arts as part of the Native Industries Curriculum. In the 1930s and 1940s, production of art at U.S. Indian Schools to meet market demands was a goal for self-sufficiency. Classes ranged from lace-making, beading commercially produced objects and wheel-thrown pottery. Sales rooms or trading posts at schools were exemplified by Wa-Pai-Shone Trading Post from Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nevada.

Student Publications

Many of the larger American Indian boarding schools, such as Carlisle, Hampton, Phoenix, Chilocco and Haskell, had print shops, some spanning a century, 1880s to 1980. The shops printed publications for many federal agencies as well as the school newspaper and publications.

The student newspaper was a place for Native students to create an identity as a printer, writer or editor. Although the content of the student newspapers was very controlled, former students liked keeping in touch with the school through subscriptions.

Starting in the late 1930s into the 1940s Indian School presses printed cultural and bilingual material, reflecting reforms in the presentation of Native heritage and languages.

Student operating printing press at Phoenix Indian School, c. 1950-1960. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Phoenix Area Office, Phoenix, Arizona. RC125(6)1.22.162.
Student operating printing press at Phoenix Indian School, c. 1950-1960. Bureau of Indian Affairs, Phoenix Area Office, Phoenix, Arizona. RC125(6)1.22.162.

Boarding Schools Today

Changing political and cultural trends brought about more reforms. The rise of Native activism and involvement in education by tribal nations in the 1960s and 1970s resulted in a peak enrollment of 60,000 in 1973. The passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 emphasized decentralization of students from distant boarding schools to local schools. Many of the federal boarding schools closed in the 1980s.

Today, there are four off-reservation boarding schools run by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). These schools are supported by Native communities. In fact, some students come from families who have attended the same boarding school for generations.

Over the decades, Native Americans have forged an intense and meaningful relationship with the boarding school system. The students took what was given them and made something better of it. The boarding schools that survived into the 20th century changed substantially. New policies encouraged schools to celebrate Native heritage, with more emphasis on American Indian art, culture, language and history.

“[Boarding schools] were started to stamp out the Indian from the Indian, you know, make us all into white people, and you know, it didn’t work. Actually … it was the exact opposite: it made us stronger as Indian People. It made us more aware of and more proud of who we were.”
-Ruthe Blalock Jones (Delaware/Shawnee/Peoria)

Leading the Way in Self-Determination

For more than a century, American Indian responses to boarding schools moved from resistance or tolerance, to a love for, participation in, and desire for control of the schools. Indian children feared, hated, endured and loved the schools. Boarding school experiences were as varied as the students themselves.

As more Native people rose to control the schools by the 1970s and 1980s, a gradual change occurred, fostering, in a limited way, students’ cultural knowledge and Native identity. Education was the front line for Native self-determination.

Santa Fe Indian School, 2005, Michael Barley, photographer. Van H. Gilbert Architect with W. H. Pacific, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Santa Fe Indian School

Santa Fe Indian School, established by the federal government in 1890 under the assimilation policy mantle, became the first school to be contracted by an Indian organization—the All Indian Pueblo Council (AIPC)—under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975. The AIPC, a governmental body comprising the nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico (and later, Texas), eventually obtained complete control of the school and curriculum, including ownership of the land. The AIPC achieved educational sovereignty of Santa Fe Indian School.

In the early 2000s, the AIPC began demolition and renovation of the school. The rebuilding encompassed the entire campus as a community learning place and boarding school. The new architectural design was developed with consultation from tribal members, students and architects, including Santa Clara Pueblo architect Rina Swentzell. The Pueblo-style architecture dominates all structures. Pathways and windows across campus capture views of surrounding sacred mountains. The dormitories have prayer or meditation spaces and circular fireplaces. The renovated school is a learning environment designed to support students in their cultural, educational and traditional values.

thin banner of photographs of the inside of the Boarding School exhibition