Student Experiences

These stories are complex and nuanced. The diversity of students in age, tribal affiliation, personality, time when they attended boarding school and their personal situation creates a range of experiences and responses.

Academics and Vocational Training

“It was very difficult for me at first, for students at the school were not allowed to speak the language of the Indians. At the time I understood nothing else.”
-Wayquahgeshig (John Rogers; White Earth Ojibwe), 1974

Children were taught to march, to pray, and to speak, read and write English. The Indian Service attempted to standardize the boarding school curriculum with the Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States, 1901 by Estelle Reel, Superintendent of Indian Schools. The introductory letter to Agents, Superintendents and Teachers of Government Schools states:

Estelle Reel

“The aim of the course is to give the Indian child a knowledge of the English language, and to equip him with the ability to become self-supporting as speedily as possible. . . Hoping that better morals, a more patriotic and Christian citizenship, and ability for self-support will result from what this course of study may inspire.”
-Estelle Reel, Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States, 1901

Estelle Reel was Superintendent of Indian Schools from 1898 to 1910, appointed by President William McKinley. She was responsible for hundreds of federal boarding and day schools, both on and off reservations. She wrote the Uniform Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States (1901) to standardize the schools’ curricula.

The course of study emphasized vocational and domestic instruction equally with academic subjects. Boys’ study focused on trades such as shoemaking, and girls studied domestic arts such as sewing.

Estelle Reel, n.d. Wyoming State Archives, SUB NEG 2502.

The Outing Program

“One day I was called up to the first floor where a little glass house was built. Mr. Walker took me inside. There were several large trunks there. Inside the trunks was considerable valuable jewelry. Mr. Walker instructed me that my new work was to put price tags on this jewelry. So every day I was locked inside this little glass house, opening the trunks, taking out the jewels and putting price tags on them. How the white folks did crowd around to watch me! They were greatly surprised to discover that John Wanamaker could trust an Indian boy with such valuables.”
-Luther Standing Bear, student at Carlisle Indian School, on Outing at Wanamaker’s Department Store in Philadelphia, 1884

The Outing Program was developed to supplement classroom instruction. Students received practical experience in local homes as domestic helpers and on farms as laborers during summer months and holidays. They sometimes were paid a small salary that went directly to the schools to be placed in savings accounts for the students. They were given a small amount for spending money. This system effectively kept students away from their families and homes while immersing them completely in the “civilization” process.

The Outing Program reflected the federal intention to fit Indian people into the lower economic sectors of American society, to work as farmers, manual and unskilled laborers, or domestic workers. The Outing Program varied from school to school and changed over the history of boarding schools. What was a summer-long program at Carlisle Indian School was one day or weekend labor throughout the school year at Phoenix Indian School, working in someone’s home or business.

Even the youngest students had work details. Details included gardening, cleaning, kitchen chores and laundry. The U.S. Indian Schools depended on student labor to remain in operation.

Knowing the Drill

The model for the federal boarding schools established by Richard Pratt, an army officer, was based on the U.S. military. Students’ hair was cut short and they were dressed in military uniforms and organized into companies separated by gender. Drills and inspections were part of the regimented lifestyle, marked by bugle calls and a bell system. Students looked and acted like soldiers, and they were favorably viewed as good candidates for recruitment by the military. Life at the Indian boarding schools prepared students for military service.

“Too much praise cannot be given to the merits of military organization, drill and routine in connection with the discipline of the school; every good end is obtained thereby. It teaches patriotism, obedience, courage, courtesy, promptness, and consistency; besides, in my opinion, it outranks any other plan or system in producing and developing every good moral, mental, and physical quality of the pupil.”
-Superintendent Harwood Hall, Phoenix Indian School, to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1897

Phoenix Indian School like all of the U.S. Indian Schools established in the late 1800s was based on a military school model, with uniforms, inspections, drill routines, and daily schedules managed by bells or whistles. Military discipline was a sign of “civilization.”

In 1912 an Arizona National Guard unit, Company F was formed, comprised of older Indian school students and former students who lived in the Phoenix area. In 1915 Company F was sent to Clifton-Morenci during the copper mine strike. Once the strike was settled, the unit was sent to southeastern Arizona, in response to raids by Pancho Villa. The unit was stationed in Naco for a year. In April 1917 President Wilson declared war on Germany, and 64 students from Phoenix Indian School volunteered to serve, despite the fact that they weren’t citizens.

Memorial Hall, a Mission and Romanesque Revival style building, erected by student labor, was built in 1922 to honor the students who served in World War I. In 1924 American Indians were recognized as citizens.


Guardhouse at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, 1908. Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Beginning at Carlisle and until the reforms of the 1930s, students were prohibited from speaking their language, wearing Native clothing or participating in any cultural traditions, such as singing or praying. Discipline was severe and often meant confinement in a guardhouse or lock-up room, “bread and water” meals and corporal punishment. Punishment was forcibly detailed to the older students, who strapped the “delinquents.” The older boys would be lashed if they were found to be “going light” in issuing punishments.

Change in Diet

“When I first went to school there, I was horrified at the way they ate. They sat you down at a table about six or eight to a table … and they put the food on and then they blew a whistle or rang a bell and you started. You were supposed to eat. If you weren’t fast … about the first three days I almost starved to death, because I’d sit there and they’d ring this bell and by the time I looked up, the food was all gone. They’d just reach out and grab it.”
-Curtis Carr, Chilocco Indian School, 1927

A major change from home to boarding school was the change in diet. Children were accustomed to indigenous foods and the natural and cultural milieu surrounding food preparation, seasonal gatherings and basic sensory ambience—the sounds, smells and tastes which closely connected to human emotions.

At the U.S. Indian Schools, vegetable gardens, cow and poultry barns were established and worked by the students. Child labor kept the school kitchens self-sufficient and allowed students to eat fresh food.

Yet the nutritional offerings at U.S. Indian Schools varied dramatically from school to school and over time. Even with fresh vegetable gardens, the plantings were usually a starch—like turnips, parsnips and potatoes—which were beneficial but could have been balanced with a mix of greens. Students complained frequently about not having enough to eat.

With reforms in the 1930s, which discouraged student labor, Indian School administrators ended the farm programs and relied on government-issued commodity foods. A food distribution program under the federal government, which included canned and dehydrated foods with a long shelf life, impacted not only U.S. Indian Schools but urban and reservation American Indians.

Canned beef or pork and many dehydrated foods had a high fat content. The combination of high carbohydrate and fatty foods filled students’ stomachs at the federal schools, but provided little in the way of variety and few nutrients in their diets.

“The first three years, all we ever ate, I think, were turnips and parsnips, [which] raise themselves in the farm, and to this day I just hate turnips and parsnips.”
-Geronima Cruz Montoya, Ohkay Owingeh, student at Santa Fe Indian School, 1927 to 1935

“Well at the Indian School I was already used to being away from home [after being placed in a mission school at age 5]. I did miss the Winter Feast Days and I guess at Christmas was the loneliest because I knew that they would be dancing and eating all that good Indian food and here we’d be eating the usual beans and gravy at the Indian School. They never made a big thing for us at the Indian School when I was going to school.”
-Pablita Velarde at Santa Fe Indian School, 1930 (age 12) to 1936

Choose a Church

“I was asked through an interpreter, ‘What denomination are you? What church do you belong to?’ I said, ‘Methodist.’ My uncle had warned me that at Indian School you had to attend church whether you wanted to or not, and he advised me to go Methodist as he had at Carlisle.”
-Fred Kabotie, Hopi, at Santa Fe Indian School, 1918

As the federal government built off-reservation boarding schools, “Christianizing” was a continuing objective of assimilationist policy. Students recited prayers before each meal and sang Christian hymns. Kneeling bedside for nightly prayer and attending a church service on Sunday were mandatory. In 1934 federal policy allowed religious freedom, but in practice, students at residential schools were punished for not attending church up through the 1960s.

Children praying before bedtime at Phoenix Indian School, June 1900. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. RC125(7)

Dorm Life and Resistance

Rebellion was a common response to the strict, regimented lifestyle of American Indian boarding schools. Documented student protests include cases of setting fire to a boys’ dormitory at Flandreau Indian School (South Dakota) and cutting electrical cables at Haskell Indian School (Lawrence, Kansas). Most rebellions were small and personal. Sometimes a student would find a fellow tribal member in the dormitory to speak their forbidden Native language. Other students gathered in the woods to hold ceremonies or dances. A Navajo student at Phoenix Indian School collected tassels of corn plants growing on campus and used the yellow pollen to pray.

Visual Arts

The art programs at U.S. Indian Schools had varying tolerances for production of traditional American Indian art. Estelle Reel, author of the Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States (1901) encouraged production of Native art while maintaining assimilationist beliefs. She directed superintendents of Indian Schools to use Native artists as teachers.

Assimilation through visual art was promoted by Estelle Reel as an opportunity to teach Western aesthetics and dexterity. She promoted the Native Industries Curriculum to prepare students to be economically independent and productive laborers.

“The Indians as a people must be led to see the importance of developing the work they are so gifted in doing, and to help supply the market’s demands; and thus take a long step in the direction of self-support, which, after all, is the end of all Indian education.”
-Estelle Reel

The market Reel refers to is the strong interest by mainstream society to collect and furnish their homes with displays of Indian art. Many of the schools had sales catalogs and sales rooms. Indian school students also demonstrated at World’s Fairs. The World’s Columbian Exposition (Chicago, 1893), Pan-American Exposition (Buffalo, 1901) and Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis, 1904) all featured full-sized Indian schools, visual symbols of the federal government’s achievements in assimilation.

Performing Arts

Music, art and drama were mechanisms to “Americanize” Indian School students. By developing good marching bands and drill teams, supporters and politicians were convinced of the successes of the U.S. Indian School programs.

Pageants and drama programs attempted to replace tribal stories with “American” stories, such as the First Thanksgiving, the saga of Hiawatha and oral traditions about George Washington. Students were dressed in costumes and performed in the roles of both colonized and colonizer in insensitive dramatizations.

Hampton students in a pageant on Indian Citizenship Day, 1892. Front row, left to right: Thomas Last (Sioux) as Samoset; David Hill (Onondaga) as Miles Standish. Middle row, left to right: Harry Kingmon (Sioux) as the White Mingo, a friend of Kenernal Washington; Laura Face (Sioux) as Pocahontas; James Enouff (Pottawatomie) as Columbus; Juanita Espinosa (Piegan) as Columbia; Addie Stevens (Winnebago) as pilgrim; Priscilla Alden; Lucy Trudell (Sioux) as Quakeress. Back row, left to right: Frank Bazhaw (Pottawatomie) as Captain John Smith; Ebnezer Kingsley (Winnebago) as John Elliot; William Moore (Sac and Fox) as the Herald of Fame; Frank Hubbard (Penobscot) as George Washington; Adam Metoxen (Oneida) as William Penn; Joseph Redhorse (Sioux) as Taminend, a friend of William Penn. Hampton University Archives, Hampton, Virginia. RC125(6)1.15.14

Athletic Programs and Miss Indian Pageants

In the early years, the boarding school program used sports and princess pageants to teach American values such as competition, physical training and school pride. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Indian children did not know sports such as baseball, basketball and football. In their Indian communities they participated in sports such as lacrosse, foot racing and hoop-and-pole, which reinforced cultural values and traditions.

American Indian boarding schools like Carlisle and Haskell recruited athletes to promote their sports programs and schools. They invested considerable resources in sport facilities. The success of the sports teams brought positive publicity for the schools and engendered support among administrators, the local community and the federal government.

In the early 1900s, school sports programs included football, basketball, track, boxing, wrestling, baseball and tennis. Sports traditions at the schools remained strong over generations and continue to bring together the school and the Native and local communities, who all supported the teams.

Miss Indian Pageants

Christine Begay, Miss Sherman Indian High School, 1999 at Sherman Indian High School Reunion and Powwow. RC125(7)1.2.74.
The phenomenon of the Indian school “princess” grew out of parallel pageants or beauty contests at public high schools. The Indian princess title at boarding schools began as a simple sash in the late 1890s. By the 1920s, a stereotypical “Indian princess” dress was worn—the buckskin and fringe outfit seen on the silver screen. Changes over the decades, coinciding with recognition and acceptance of cultural distinctions, resulted in incorporation of traditional elements from home communities, such as beadwork, leatherwork or silverwork. The transformation in the pageant itself included a restoration of traditional community knowledge as part of the competition, including language and cultural practices. The Indian princess contest has emerged from a stereotypical view of Indian women and a focus on physical beauty to a celebration of cultural knowledge and community values.
thin banner of photographs of the inside of the Boarding School exhibition