Quakers and Boarding Schools for Indigenous Children

Quakers were founded and operated day schools and boarding schools on Indigenous nation’s lands as early as 1796, receiving some funding support through the “Indian Civilization Act” after it passed in 1819.

Fifty years later, in the wake of the Civil War and facing continuing wars to drive away or contain Native peoples, President Grant adopted what he called a “Peace Policy.” The plan, strongly supported by Quakers and other Christian bodies, was to assimilate Native peoples into the ways of White settlers, by instructing their children to leave traditional ways behind. From 1869 to the 1960s, the federal government ran a system of on and off-reservation boarding schools, designed to permanently separate Indigenous children from their families, their tribal nations, their faith, their culture, and their Indigenous identity.

Prior to 1869, many of the schools on reservation lands were managed through “Indian agents” – government employees who received payments that were due to the tribes under treaties to assure their health, education, and welfare. Fraud was common; much of the money never reached the tribes. Quakers and other reformers pressed President Grant to turn the agencies over to “men of high moral character,” such as members of their own congregations.

New York, Philadelphia, Genessee, and Baltimore Yearly Meetings had formed a Joint Committee on Indian Affairs that had been active in support of the land rights of the northeastern tribes -especially the Seneca – against illegal land grabs and fraudulent treaties around the 1840s. Later, Benjamin Hallowell of Sandy Spring Meeting, a former clerk of Baltimore Yearly Meeting and clerk of BYM’s Indian Affairs Committee, led the Joint Committee’s delegation that met with the President to support the “Peace Plan.” When the President invited Hicksite Quakers to take over 6 agencies and Orthodox Quakers 10, both Quaker bodies accepted the invitation. In all, 73 agencies were parceled out to various religious denominations.

Information to Consider

  • Thousands of Indigenous children were sent to these boarding schools during the century between the mid 1800s and the mid 1900s. Some children went with the reluctant permission of their parents, but many times the parents’ permission was coerced, or the children were taken by force. 
  • The writings about these schools, both from survivors and from former teachers and administrators, show that the U.S. schools followed the same patterns as the schools in Canada.  From the time of arrival, the children’s hair was cut, and they were scrubbed “clean.” They were forbidden to speak their own language, practice their own traditions, or even to wear their own clothing or traditional hair styles. 
  • Survivors who are still living carry deep wounds; many have never been able to discuss their experiences with their families.  The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition works to support these survivors, to listen to their stories, and to gather data and facts about their experiences in the boarding schools.
  • Since 1869, Quakers operated at least 30 schools, mostly in the Midwest.  Many of the teachers came from eastern Yearly Meetings.
  • Quakers and other Christian denominations who operated these schools carry a significant responsibility for the injuries done to the children, their families, their descendants, and their tribal nations.

Resources

  1. The Truth and Healing Commission bill from 2020:  (HR 8420)  https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/8420/text
  2. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition lays out a clear call to the U.S. government and to churches to learn about and acknowledge the truth about Indian boarding schools. Research and surveys are beginning to document the stories, the impact of historic trauma, and historical summaries.
  3. Interior Secretary Haaland Op Ed: My grandparents were stolen from their families as children.
  4. Paula Palmer’s video “The Quaker Boarding Schools: Facing our History and       Ourselves.”   https://vimeo.com/192219802/376f2f1ddb
  5. Paula Palmer’s article “Quaker Indian Boarding Schools, Facing Our History and Ourselves,” Friends Journal,October 1, 2016.  https://www.friendsjournal.org/quaker-indian-boarding-schools/
  6. Toward Right Relations with Native Peoples.
  7. The Life and Adventures of a Quaker Among the Indians,  Thomas Battey. This book (first published in 1876) is based on Thomas’s journal about his time spent as a teacher, largely among the Caddoes and Kiowa, and his sense of calling to find a peaceful way forward for the settlers and the native peoples. Available for Kindle at Amazon.com.
  8. As They Were Led: Quakerly Steps and Missteps Toward Native Justice 1795 to 1940, by Martha Claire Catlin, 2021.
Statements, Minutes and Letters on Boarding Schools

Here, as they become available.