Omaha Girls

Native American Families: Forced Separation Long Before Trump

A look back at a dark and often-forgotten chapter of American history in which parents and children were forcibly parted.

While President Trump's new policy of forcibly separating immigrant parents and their children continues to roil the nation, it's worth looking back an another time the government actively split-up families. Beginning in the late 19th century—and continuing in some cases until the 1970s—Native American children were frequently required to attend federal boarding schools far away from their families and homes. At a time when the government was still at war with some tribes and hoping to pacify future generations of Native Americans, the aim of the boarding schools program was a dark one: to force the children to abandon their native culture and language and "assimilate." (Above: Girls from the Omaha tribe who were sent to the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania. The Omaha tribe was centered in the Midwest, in an area that's now Nebraska and Iowa.)

LESSON PLAN Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images LESSON PLAN The Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, pictured here, was the first such boarding school: It was founded in 1879 and led by an Army officer named Richard Pratt. (The great athlete and Olympian Jim Thorpe was an alumnus.) Pratt summed up the disturbing ethos behind all of the schools in an oft-quoted speech from 1892: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man." The students, all sporting western haircuts and wearing western clothes, face away from a blackboard that has a drawing of a teepee. PLAY TIME Historical/Corbis via Getty Images PLAY TIME Children on a playground at a boarding school in Kansas. The federal government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs touted Carlisle as a model school to "civilize" Native American children. Some reports estimate, that at the program's height, there were 150 such schools. In a 2008 NPR report, one professor and historian explained, "There was a very conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was it would be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away."

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SLEEPING QUARTERS Hulton Archive/Getty Images SLEEPING QUARTERS In the 1920s, the U.S. government commissioned a study of Native American policies. The resulting report was scathing on the subject of the schools, describing harsh discipline, rampant disease, poor diets, military-style drills, heavy labor, and overcrowding. "The survey staff finds itself obliged to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate," the report said (via NPR). Pictured: Children at a Canadian boarding school in 1950. CLASS PHOTO Historical/Corbis via Getty Images CLASS PHOTO Sioux boys arrive at the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania in 1879. (The Sioux tribes were generally centered in the upper Midwest, so it was no small journey.) Nearly 10,000 students were taught at the school, which was closed in 1918. But the Carlisle School was in the news again just this month: In a story that perhaps give a hint of how brutal the conditions could be, the U.S. army disinterred the remains of four Native American students who'd died at the school over a century ago. The students' descendants had requested the remains which were then transferred back west, finally returned to their homeland. STRIKE UP THE BAND Buyenlarge/Getty Images STRIKE UP THE BAND Despite the harsh conditions, some students managed to thrive. The musicians of the famed Carlisle school band — shown here in 1901— played at a world's fair, several presidential inaugurations, and even at the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. RAISING THE FLAG Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images RAISING THE FLAG Many alumni of boarding schools would go on to serve in the U.S. military — including the famed code talkers of World War II, who used Native American languages like Navajo to obscure secret communications. It was a bitter irony that they'd managed to retain these crucial language skills even as the schools they attended seemed bent on stamping them out forever. Pictured: Students at a boarding school in South Dakota. LEARNING LETTERS Historical/Corbis via Getty Images LEARNING LETTERS In 1969, the federal government issued another withering report about the Native American schools policy, finding that they were often still operating under the racist notions of the previous century. From the NPR report: "When asked to name the most important things the schools should do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an important goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of 'civilizing the native,'" the report read (via NPR). It wasn't until the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 that tribes finally got autonomy over their children's education, and the era of boarding schools began to fade away. Pictured: Children play a word game at a boarding school.

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