During the late 19th century, when most Native Americans were confined to reservations, the federal government engaged in a cultural assimilation campaign by forcing thousands of Native American children to attend boarding schools. In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was founded by Richard Pratt, who believed that Native people would not succeed unless their traditions, habits, and beliefs were eradicated. Based on Pratt’s “kill the Indian in him and save the man” philosophy, the Carlisle school became a national model.
More than 400 day and boarding schools were built near reservations, most run by religious organizations, while at least 25 off-reservation boarding schools were established between 1880 and 1902. Some 100,000 Native Americans were forced to attend these schools, forbidden to speak Native languages, made to renounce Native beliefs, and forced to abandon their Native American identities, including their names. Many children were leased out to white families as indentured servants. Parents who resisted their children’s removal to boarding schools were imprisoned and had their children forcibly taken from them. Chief Lomahongyoma and 18 other Hopi Indians were imprisoned on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay for refusing to send their children to government-run boarding schools and resisting the Bureau of Indian Affairs’s efforts to force them to adopt farming practices that were inconsistent with their cultural values.
A 1928 investigative report commissioned by the Interior Department condemned the conditions of Native American boarding schools, citing insufficient food, overcrowded dorms, substandard medical care, and exploitative child labour practices. By the 1930s most off-reservation boarding schools were closed.