An Untold Number of Indigenous Children Disappeared at U.S. Boarding Schools: Tribal Nations Are Raising the Stakes in Search of Answers
Her grandfather and other elders used to recount their experiences at boarding schools, where the government sent hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children, from nearly every Indigenous nation within U.S. borders, to unlearn their languages and cultures. “A lot of them were physically abused, verbally abused, sexually abused,” she said.
At the center of the stories were the children who never came home from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where her grandfather was a student. “My grandpa used to say, ‘Don’t forget these children. Don’t forget my brother — he’s still buried there,’” Soldier Wolf said. She promised that she would remember.
The school, which opened in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and closed its doors 100 years ago this month, was the United States’ most notorious Indian boarding school and the starting point for more than a century of child removal policies that continue to tear apart Indigenous families today. Carlisle, and hundreds of federally funded boarding schools like it, were key to the U.S. government’s project of destroying Indigenous nations and indoctrinating children with military discipline and U.S. patriotism.
It was Soldier Wolf’s closeness to her family and their stories of abuse at the school that inspired her to become the Northern Arapaho tribal historic preservation officer and work on the return of the children lost at Carlisle.
In June, after about a decade of back-and-forth with the U.S. Army, which owns the Carlisle property, Soldier Wolf stood present as Little Plume, the last of three Northern Arapaho children buried there, was exhumed and sent back to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming. The remains of two others, 14-year-old Horse and 15-year-old Little Chief, Soldier Wolf’s great uncle, had been returned the previous August.
The Northern Arapaho Tribe is the first to succeed in bringing home children interred at Carlisle’s military cemeteries — but it won’t be the last, and Carlisle is only the tip of the iceberg.
A coalition of Indigenous organizations — including the National Congress of American Indians, which represents 250 Indigenous nations, the International Indian Treaty Council, the Native American Rights Fund, and the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition — has turned to the United Nations to demand that the U.S. government “provide a full accounting of the children taken into government custody under the U.S. Indian Boarding School Policy whose fate and whereabouts remain unknown.”
After unsuccessful attempts to obtain such information directly through Freedom of Information Act requests to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, the coalition members hope that pressure from the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances will make the difference. An appeal could require the U.S. to report on the statuses of missing Native boarding school children every six months.
“Our greatest hope is to start to raise awareness about this part of American history, but also to get some acknowledgement and accountability from the U.S. government,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, executive officer for the Boarding School Healing Coalition. “The fact that they haven’t willingly done that is disrespectful and a human rights violation.”
The Interior Department, which oversees the Bureau of Indian Education, did not respond to a request for comment.
Those pushing for the U.N. filing and the return of children’s remains acknowledge that it’s only a beginning — a full accounting of Carlisle’s legacy would mean reforming child welfare systems that continue to separate Native children from the land and their communities. Although Carlisle and the boarding schools like it have closed, child removal is an enduring reality for many Native families and their nations. “It’s always worked for colonizers worldwide, you take the children and you break the family tie,” said Madonna Thunder Hawk, a boarding school survivor who now works for the Lakota People’s Law Project advocating Indian child welfare reform in South Dakota. “If we’re fighting for the land, we’re also fighting for our future,” Thunder Hawk said of her community in Cheyenne River. “Who is going to be on the land? We’ve got to keep our children.”
“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”
For Carlisle’s founder, Richard Henry Pratt, an Indian fighter who once served with George Armstrong Custer, the boarding school was another battlefront of the Indian wars. Pratt devised the school’s curriculum of “kill the Indian, save the man” from his experiments in forced education on Cheyenne, Caddo, Arapaho, Kiowa, and Comanche prisoners of war at Fort Marion, Florida, in the early 1870s. The prison experiments impressed Indian reformers in Congress, who authorized the Bureau of Indian Affairs to take control of the Carlisle Barracks to build the nation’s first off-reservation boarding school.
As Pratt assembled Carlisle’s first class of students, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Ezra Hayt ordered him to take children from the Lakotas because of their “hostile attitude toward the government.” Hayt hoped to pressure the Lakotas, and other western Indigenous nations, into opening millions of acres of treaty-protected territory for white settlement. “The children would be hostages for the good behavior of their people,” wrote Pratt of his first Carlisle recruitment mission at the Rosebud and Pine Ridge agencies in Dakota Territory.
From the 1880s through the 1920s, conditions at boarding schools were especially terrible — and deadly. “Routinely, you have students begging for clothes and food,” said Preston McBride, a University of California, Los Angeles Ph.D. candidate working on a dissertation about health conditions in the schools. “There were students sharing spoons and cups in dining halls, sharing bath water,” he added. “Once a disease hit, it rapidly spread.”
The schools tended to send sick kids back to their families — many died en route or within days of arriving home. When students did die in the schools, McBride said, records show that at times the area Indian agent, rather than the family, was informed of the death. Runaways were common, and for children thousands of miles from home, finding their way back would have been practically impossible.
Indeed, determining exactly how many children might have disappeared after they were sent to boarding school is no simple task. “It’s really hard to give an estimate to anything related to boarding schools — because the government doesn’t even know how many children went through them,” McBride said. He estimates those who disappeared number in the thousands.
From Boarding School to Foster Care
Thirty-five years after Carlisle closed, when Sandy White Hawk was 18 months old, she was adopted out to a white missionary family who promised to “save” her from a life of poverty and abuse on the Rosebud Reservation, where she was born. White Hawk did not escape either in her adopted family, and the problems were compounded by a deeper sense of loss over who she was as an Indigenous person.
White Hawk compares her experience as an adoptee to that of her brother, who was sent away to boarding school. “Adoption and boarding schools were about stripping Native people of who they were,” she said. Throughout the 20th century, the two worked in tandem.
After World War II, social workers picked up where boarding schools like Carlisle left off, placing children into state foster care or adopting them into white families. The child sweeps dovetailed with federal termination policy, which aimed to assert state jurisdiction over Native lands and relocate Native people off-reservation. In 1957, Utah Republican Sen. Arthur V. Watkins, a termination advocate, characterized the approach as a “freeing of the Indians from special federal restrictions on the property and the person of the tribes and their members,” which held them back from “the full realization of their national citizenship.”
Once relocated to cities and enrolled in public schools, families came under increased surveillance by state officials and children once again became targets for removal. The practice became so routine that by the early 1970s, according to a report by the Association on American Indian Affairs, more than a quarter of Native children nationwide had been taken from their families. As Amy Lonetree, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, put it, “Every single Indigenous family in the post-World War II era lived with the threat of child removal.”
The practice was particularly acute in states like Minnesota, and today, it has hardly subsided. “We have the highest rate of Indigenous child removal in the United States,” White Hawk, now an Indian child welfare advocate living in Minnesota, said of the state’s foster care system. In 2016, the Star Tribune reported that although Native children made up less than 2 percent of Minnesota’s population, they accounted for a quarter of children in foster care.
Advocates like White Hawk say that while healing from the past is important, stopping contemporary forms of Indigenous family separation is just as urgent. In recent years, the Goldwater Institute, a powerful libertarian think tank based in Phoenix, has led multiple legal attacks on the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978, charging that the legislation — which requires judges and social workers to preserve Native families when possible — does not ensure equal protection under the law because it is based on “race.” ICWA, however, was established to protect children who are members of tribes or whose biological parents are members of tribes in an effort to combat the history of places like Carlisle and the role foster care and adoption agencies play in continuing to remove Native children from their families.
To White Hawk, keeping Native families together today is also about shifting resources from the foster care system to affordable housing, especially in cities like Minneapolis, which is experiencing a housing shortage. “We have always known what we need, but we have not had resources,” she said. Instead of providing effective housing assistance to keep Native families together, the state’s money goes into the foster care system. “It’s a shame that money would go to a stranger to foster an Indian child and not to preserve the Indian family, which is the heart of ICWA.” According to state statutes, Minnesota foster parents can earn anywhere from $650 to $2,410 per child per month, depending on the number of children under their care and a child’s special needs.
In the face of Carlisle’s sweeping legacy, returning some of the children who were taken is a remarkably arduous small step. There is a lack of legal clarity around whether the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which governs the return of property or human remains to Native communities, could be successfully applied to a military institution like Carlisle. So far, only individual descendants, not Indigenous nations, have attempted to appeal for the return of Carlisle students’ remains. Nations interested in bringing home children have to track down individual family members — a huge problem for kids who entered the boarding school as orphans.
McBride acknowledged that no investigation could give a complete account of all the missing children, because records are so inconsistent. But if researchers were able to access the voluminous material that does exist, archived by the federal government and individual schools, they could help bring closure to some families and communities — and obtain important official acknowledgement of the system of child removals that forms a key piece of the nation’s foundation.
According to Andrea Carmen, the executive director of the International Indian Treaty Council, the U.S. government’s failure to account for missing Native boarding school children is “an ongoing human rights violation under international law.” The organizations are currently assembling the U.N. submission, which will include testimony from tribes and individuals whose children were lost.
After the children buried at Carlisle came home, Soldier Wolf resigned her position as the Northern Arapaho tribal historic preservation officer. “I felt I’ve run this path,” she said. The return of her relative Little Chief was more than a gesture to her grandfather; it was about offering her own children a different set of possibilities that didn’t include “this sad story of we never got our uncle back,” she said. “Because we got him back.”
Alleen Brown is New York-based reporter, focused on environmental justice issues. Prior to joining The Intercept, she worked as an education reporter in Minnesota. Her work has been published by The Nation, In These Times, YES! Magazine, and various Twin Cities publications.
Nick Estes, a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, is an assistant professor of American studies at the University of New Mexico.
Published in partnership with High Country News.