Native American Boarding Schools: An Updated Primary Source Set

Flandreau Indian School Choir, South Dakota

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Native American children were sent to boarding schools run by the U.S. government. These schools were usually located far away from Native American reservations, and were intended to remove children from the influence of tribal traditions and to assimilate them into what the schools’ proponents saw as American culture.

A newly updated primary source set, Native American Boarding Schools, uses artifacts from the collections of the Library of Congress to support students’ exploration of these boarding schools and the young people who attended them. Photographs, newspaper articles, cartoons, and interviews provide glimpses into boarding school life and the ways in which the schools were debated and discussed. A brief essay helps teachers – and their students – put the items into historical context, and teaching ideas offer starting places to analyze the primary sources and construct knowledge.

Students relaxing on the lawn, United States Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania

These primary sources also reveal some of the challenges of teaching about Native American boarding schools. It can be difficult to find first-person accounts from boarding-school students that were not interfered with by non-Native writers and editors. Administrators often sought to shape their schools’ public image, and many of the photographs of students and campus life that can most easily be found today were created with school officials’ involvement.

Primary sources can provide powerful insights into past events and underrepresented populations. However, they can also serve as a reminder to consider the sources that are excluded from the historical record. The teaching suggestions included in this primary source set not only prompt students to observe and draw inferences based on what they discover in the primary sources; they also encourage students to speculate about what is missing from the sources and from the set.

As your students explore this primary source set, please share their insights in the comments.

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