HAIDERER, G. (Artist). (2020). Mt. Pleasant Industrial School. [Image of painting]. Mt. Plesant, Mi; EPICENTER. Retrieved June 17, 2022, from https://www.secondwavemedia.com/epicenter/features/mtpl-indian-indboardingschool.aspx

Image above:  Mount Pleasant Industrial School

While we might often think of Native American boarding schools (or residential schools as they were called in Canada) as educational institutions for Native American children that included a residential component, it is important to remember that they were, and in some ways still are, a key component of educational and spiritual colonization. As non-human actors employed as initiatives, these schools were/are parts of diabolical systems designed to disenfranchise Native people from their homelands through assimilation and conversion in the United States and Canada.   


A recent report by the US Department of the Interior (2022) lists 408 boarding schools and 431 specific sites (some schools existed in multiple locations). As of the writing of this document, the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has identified 497 boarding schools in the US (Lacey Kinart, personal communication, 5/11/2022). The Truth and Reconciliation Report states there were over 130 residential schools across Canada (TRC). According to the Department of the Interior (2022), “for an institution to classify as a Federal Indian boarding school for the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative investigation, it must meet each of the following four criteria: 


1. Housing – The institution has been described as providing on-site housing or

overnight lodging. This includes dormitory, orphanage, asylum, residential,

boarding, home, jail, and quarters.


2. Education – The institution has been described as providing formal academic or

vocational training and instruction. This includes mission school, religious training, industrial training school, manual labor school, academy, seminary, institute,

boarding school, and day school.


3. Federal Support – The institution has been described as receiving Federal

Government funds or other Federal support. This includes agency, independent,

contract, mission, contract with white schools, government, semi-government,

under superintendency, and land or buildings or funds or supplies or services



4. Timeframe – The institution was operational before 1969 (prior to modern

departmental Indian education programming including BIE).


It is important that the definition of boarding schools be as inclusive as possible given the varied approaches that were used by the US and Canadian governments to educate Native American children. In some cases it is clear that a school was a boarding school due to the presence of dormitories. In some cases it is less clear. For instance, for students that were housed at an orphanage or a convent while attending schools that may or may not have been run by the government. 


In the State of Michigan, for example, the recent report from the US Department of the Interior lists five boarding schools. Among them was a federal Indian boarding school known as the Mt. Pleasant Industrial Indian Boarding School, and a Catholic boarding school located in Harbor Springs called the Holy Childhood of Jesus Boarding School. These were the obvious ones. However, there were also situations like the one at the Catholic Holy Name Mission in Baraga, where the school was established primarily as an orphanage, but included an educational component that was both assimilationist and religious in context. The list also includes Catholic Otchippewa Boarding School in Schoolcraft County, and the Mackinac Mission School on Mackinac Island.

US Department of the Interior. (2022). Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative

Investigative Report. (Combined Appendix A & B, p.10).


An example of a situation that may be overlooked if not expanding the definition of boarding schools is the Holy Family (aka Holy Cross) Orphanage in Marquette. In this situation, Native American children were brought to the orphanage and sent to local schools or attended classes at the orphanage. The conditions were so bad, that some children recall their classmates being beaten to death or left out in the cold overnight. This orphanage was not included in the list of schools in the recent report from the Department of the Interior. Lastly, some boarding schools like the Ursuline Academy in St. Ignace may get lost in the terminology. Terms like academy and convent may distract from the fact that it was built and operated as both a day school and boarding school for Native American children. This school was also not included in the recent report (US Department of the Interior, 2022).  


Mt. Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.


Early colonial perspectives on Native American education can be found in the Law of the Burgos of 1512, which held that all Native American people would have “the virtues of Christianity and civilization” (Utter, 1993, p. 195) impressed upon them. Not long after, Jesuit missionaries opened a school in Havana, Cuba whose primary mission was the civilization of Indigenous children  (Utter, 1993, p. 195).


Early colonial practices included taking Native American children away from their family and community and housing them in the homes of European colonists while they were being educated. One of the earliest examples was the British Indian school established in 1619 by the Virginia Company (Utter, 1993). 


U.S. education policy for Native American people officially began in 1776, when the Continental Congress made the first federal U.S. appropriation for Native American education (Reinhardt, 2004). In an Act of March 30, 1802, the US Congress appropriated $15,000 to “promote civilization among the friendly Indian tribes” (2 Stat. 139).  An Act of March 3, 1819, empowered the President of the United States to “employ capable persons of good moral character to instruct [the Indians] in the mode of agriculture suited to their situation; and for teaching their children in reading, writing, and arithmetic” (25 U.S.C. § 271). This act also included an annual appropriation of $10,000 known as the civilization fund.


In 1860, the US Bureau of Indian Affairs opened the first government run school for Native American Indian people. It was located on the Yakima Reservation in the State of Washington (Utter, 1993). In 1879, the first government run, off-reservation boarding school was opened at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, under the direction of Henry Pratt whose motto was “kill the Indian and save the man” (Utter, 1993, p. 196). The off-reservation boarding school program was, undeniably, the most disruptive US government action towards Native American people to date and has had significant lasting negative impacts on Native American health since.  


Carlisle Indian Boarding School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. 


Littlefield (1989) explains that the predominant view of politicians in the US during the late 1880s was that Native American people should be assimilated into the dominant European-American society. The off-reservation boarding schools were designed to speed up the assimilation process by separating children from their families and communities(p. 431).


Utter (1993) explains that “regimentation, reading, writing, arithmetic, the manual trades, and home economics were drilled into the students” at these schools (p. 196). Lomawaima (1994) asserts that the boarding school initiative was "an educational crusade - vast in scope, military in organization, fervent in zeal, and violent in method - to transform young Indian people” (p. xi). 


In 1928, a national study of Native American boarding schools was commissioned by the Institute for Government Research (also known as the Brookings Institution). The Problem of Indian Administration, as the report was titled (more commonly known as the Meriam Report) criticized the BIA for the deplorable conditions of Native American boarding schools. 


The length of time over which a community engaged with boarding schools and European education is one factor that must be considered in these comparisons (Woolford, 2015) however there are several recurring patterns of abuse observed in survivors in various communities. Deplorable health conditions in boarding schools reported by Merriam and by boarding school attendees themselves include the following: 

  • Abuse including sexual, mental, physical
  • Contaminated and deficient water supplies, including bathing in dirty water and no hot water
  • Extreme and inordinate punishments including imprisonment, isolation, and torture often for just speaking Native languages 
  • Forced abortions resulting from rapes by staff and other students
  • Improper, worn and soiled clothing and bedding
  • Inadequate ventilation, heating, and lighting
  • Malnutrition based on quantity, quality, and variety of foods
  • Overcrowded dormitories
  • Overflowing sewer/septic
  • Rushed medical exams and use of experimental drugs on children
  • Shaming and renaming
  • Suicide and homicide


Boarding school attendees and their family members have characterized the condition resulting from boarding school experiences as spirit sickness. According to Woolford (2015), Intergenerational experiences of residential schools resulted in multiple layers of trauma stretching across extended families, often inspiring silence rather than discussion of the schools among family members. This pervasive condition is seen as a causation of drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, anxiety, depression, and suicide. It is intergenerational, causing similar issues for subsequent generations. Boarding school attendees report that they are haunted by their feelings of loneliness and helplessness, and turn to drugs and alcohol, sex, and other distractions to take their minds off of their experiences. 


Boarding school attendees also report that they feel damaged in their ability to love. This is echoed by their descendants who report that their family members have difficulty showing care and compassion. Subsequent generations have even reported vicarious memories of boarding school related events that they were not directly involved in.


At the time of this writing, over 10,000 Native American children have been found in unmarked graves located at residential boarding schools in Canada and the US. This number will only increase as more locations are examined and efforts continue to hold the colonial nations accountable for these atrocities. 


The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (September 30, 2022) states that it “supports the re-introduction of the bill for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the U.S. Act”. The author explains that “this bill, along with the Department of the Interior’s Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative announced this June, signals that the federal government is finally ready to acknowledge the devastating consequences of the assimilative boarding school era and begin to address the ongoing intergenerational impacts of the boarding school policies. NABS urges all members of Congress to support this legislation as a first step towards the truth and healing process”.

NMU Faculty and Staff Publication:

Reinhardt, M., & Morseau, A. (2022). An Introduction to Tribal Health. In M. Lietz (Ed.). Kalamazoo, MI: Homer Stryker M.D. School of Medicine.