Eyewitness Accounts

Sun Elk, from Taos Pueblo, told of his experiences at Carlisle in 1890:

“They told us that Indian ways were bad. They said we must get civilized. I remember that word, too. It means ‘be like the white man.’ I am willing to be like the white man, but I did not believe Indian ways were wrong. But they kept teaching us for seven years. And the books told how bad the Indians had been to the white men burning their towns and killing their women and children. But I had seen white men do that to Indians. We all wore white man’s clothes and ate white man’s food and went to white man’s churches and spoke white man’s talk. And so after a while we also began to say Indians were bad. We laughed at our own people and their blankets and cooking pots and sacred societies and dances. I tried to learn the lessons and after seven years I came home.” (Nabokov, 1991, p. 222)

Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Jefferson Morgan described his procedure for taking the children from their families. He said:

“I would…use the Indian police if necessary. I would withhold from [the Indian adults] rations and supplies…and when every other means was exhausted…I would send a troop of United States soldiers, not to seize them, but simply to be present as an expression of the power of the government. Then I would say to these people, ‘Put your children in school;’ and they would do it.” (Josephy, 1994, p. 432)

Lone Wolf, Blackfoot, tells this story:

“It was very cold that day when we were loaded into the wagons. None of us wanted to go and our parents didn’t want to let us go. Oh, we cried for this was the first time we were to be separated from our parents. I remember looking back at Na-tah-ki and she was crying too. Nobody waved as the wagons, escorted by the soldiers, took us toward the school at Fort Shaw. Once there our belongings were taken from us, even the little medicine bags our mothers had given to us to protect us from harm. Everything was placed in a heap and set afire.

“Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor. All of the buckskin clothes had to go and we had to put on the clothes of the White Man.

“If we thought that the days were bad, the nights were much worse. This was the time when real loneliness set in, for it was when we knew that we were all alone. Many boys ran away from the school because the treatment was so bad, but most of them were caught and brought back by the police. We were told never to talk Indian and if we were caught, we got a strapping with a leather belt.

“I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge of us pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt, and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar-bone was broken. The boy’s father, an old warrior, came to the school. He told the instructor that among his people, children were never punished by striking them. That was no way to teach children; kind words and good examples were much better. Then he added, ‘Had I been there when that fellow hit my son, I would have killed him.’ Before the instructor could stop the old warrior he took his boy and left. The family then beat it to Canada and never came back.” (Nabokov, 1991, p. 220)

Alvin M. Josephy Jr., 500 Nations (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).Peter Nabokov, Native American Testimony (Viking, 1998).


Teachers who want to gain a deeper understanding of the boarding school experience and its impact on families and culture, the following books provide an accurate and complete picture of life at boarding schools, from the atrocities to the forms of resistance.

My Name is Seepeetza, Shirley Sterling (Douglas & McIntyre, 1997).

Daughter of Suqua, Diane Johnston Hamm (Albert Whitman, 1997).

“Mush-hole,” Memories of a Residential School, Maddie Harper (Sister Vision Press, 1993).

The Middle Five: Indian Schoolboys of the Omaha Tribe, Francis LaFlesche (Omaha) (University of Nebraska Press, 1900/1978).

Teachers may also want to read biographical information of Native children’s books authors who went to boarding school. Two of these authors are Shonto Begay and Lucie Tapahonso.

Finally, teachers may want to read

One House, One Voice, One Heart: Native American Education at the Santa Fe Indian School, Sally Hyer (Museum of New Mexico Press, 1990).

Indian School Days, Basil H. Johnston (University of Oklahoma Press, 1989).

They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School, K. Tsianina Lomawaima (University of Nebraska Press).