In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Christian churches collaborated with the government to create hundreds of boarding schools for Native American children. The idea, rooted in white supremacy, was that Native children would be better served if they were stripped of their culture and forced to assimilate into white, Christian society.
The treatment of children at these schools was unspeakable. When Richard Henry Pratt founded the first of them in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, he famously stated that the purpose of these schools was to “kill the Indian, and save the man.”
We must acknowledge our complicity in the historic trauma of the boarding school era.
But, like many others, this dark chapter in American history has largely been unacknowledged by the government—until now. On June 22, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced the creation of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. Its primary goal will be to investigate the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools.
Haaland framed the importance of this initiative well: “I know that this process will be painful. It won’t undo the heartbreak and loss we feel. But only by acknowledging the past can we work toward a future that we’re all proud to embrace.”
This reckoning must extend to the Quaker community, too. As chronicled in Friends Journal, Quakers managed at least 30 of these schools, and conditions were brutal. As Lakota physician Charles Eastman said, recalling his experience at a Quaker school: “We youthful warriors were held up and harassed … until not a semblance of our native dignity and self-respect was left.”
This trauma did not fade away when the schools were closed. It is an open wound that endures in tribal communities today.
We must acknowledge our complicity in the historic trauma of the boarding school era, and work in solidarity to advance congressional efforts to establish a truth, reconciliation, and healing process for the families and tribal nations affected.