Quakers and Boarding Schools for Indigenous Children in the U.S.

Quakers founded and operated at least 30 day schools and boarding schools on Indigenous nations’ lands beginning as early as 1796. After 1819, when the “Indian Civilization Act” was passed by Congress, some received federal funds. Collaboration with the federal government increased after 1869, with the launching of President Grant’s “Peace Policy.”

The Peace Policy was initiated in the wake of the Civil War, when the federal government faced continuing wars to drive away or “contain” Native peoples. President Grant’s 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 the 1870s 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. Most of these schools are now closed; some are under tribal management, and a few are still operated by the federal government.

How the Plan Worked Out

  • More than a hundred thousand Indigenous children were sent to these boarding schools during the century between the mid 1800s and the mid 1900s. By 1926, nearly 83% of school-age Indigenous children in the U.S. were enrolled in these schools. Some children went with the reluctant permission of their parents, but more often the parents’ permission (if given at all) was coerced by a threat of denial of food and health care. 
  • The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition lists 367 boarding and day schools in operation between the 1860s and the present. (The Department of the Interior has now identified 408 schools.)
  • The writings about these schools, from both survivors and 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.  Daily life in the schools was – at best – harsh, and was intensified by physical and psychological abuse.
  • The children did not go home in the summers or for winter holidays — instead, they worked as servants in nearby homes and farms of White settlers. The complete separation of children from their families, traditions, identity, and spiritual beliefs caused enduring injuries.
  • Surviving boarding school students still carry those 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.
  • Intergenerational impact of these schools is evident today in the loss of Native languages, injury to tribal governance and cultures, and the high suicide rate especially among youth.
  • Quakers and other Christian denominations that operated these schools carry a significant responsibility for the injuries done to the children, their families, their descendants, and their tribal nations.

Confronting the Truth

As the United States and Canadian governments now begin to confront the truth about the attempted cultural genocide of the “assimilation era,” Quakers and other religious groups must also come to terms with the involvement and responsibility of their own denominations in this era. Some Protestant denominations have already begun searching out records of the schools they ran and the monies they invested in this policy. Since Quakers do not have a centralized governing body, our responsibilities fall to the yearly meetings that supported, contributed to, and operated the schools.

Decolonizing Quakers has created a “model minute” for Yearly Meetings to consider, in response to a call from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, for churches to find their records, and to estimate the current value of the contributions they made to these schools. Meetings will then be able to consider — in the light of truth — their current-day responsibility for the damage done in the assimilation era. Here is the Model Minute for Consideration by Yearly Meetings.

There is also a bill in the U.S. Congress that calls for a Commission on Truth and Healing on the U.S. boarding school policies of the 1870s through the late 1960s. Introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren in the Senate (S. 2907) and Representative Sharice Davids in the House (H.R. 5444), the bills establish a commission to learn about the impact of the boarding schools on Native peoples, their communities and families, and their tribal governments. As Christian denominations and congregations that participated in the boarding schools examine their own histories and responsibilities; many are also expressing their strong support for this legislation.

Resources for Information and Action