“Kill the Indian, Kill the Deaf”

Teaching about the residential schools

By Wendy Harris

Chiricahua Apache children on arrival at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1886 (left) and the same children after they were forced to adopt “Boarding School Ways” (right).

As students in my middle school social studies classes examined American Indian and Deaf boarding schools at the turn of the 20th century and began to imagine themselves in similar situations, the reactions were visceral.

“I would refuse to go to school!”

“I think students and families would destroy the schools.”

At Metro Deaf School—a bilingual school in St. Paul, Minnesota, for Deaf students from ages 2 to 21—our primary language of instruction is American Sign Language (ASL). Alongside ASL, we teach written English as a second language. In addition, some students work on oral English in speech therapy.

Many Deaf students come from hearing families that don’t know or aren’t fluent in ASL. This means some students at our school don’t have access to the language their family uses at home (English, Hmong, Spanish, and Somali, among others), so their primary exposure to information and language happens at school in ASL and written English.

Developing Deaf Identity

As a white, hearing person who learned ASL as an additional language, my experiences with ASL and Deaf culture are different from those of my students. Knowing how important it is for Deaf students to connect to the broader Deaf world, I work to explicitly develop Deaf cultural consciousness. This ranges from knowing one’s right to have access to information, to feeling part of a larger Deaf culture. In Deaf studies lessons, ASL lessons, and my social studies lessons, students are immersed in the process of developing Deafhood—defining their place and identity as Deaf people within the intersections of multiple cultures, identities, and languages in their homes, communities, and school. I want my students to understand how these worlds fit together, and how they fit within these worlds.

As part of this process, I work throughout the year to honor the missing voices and history of Deaf, hard of hearing, and DeafBlind people. I decided it was important to teach the English-only and oralist policies at the turn of the 20th century and the impact this had on Deaf people.

In accordance with Minnesota middle school standards, I was already teaching local Native American history, focusing on the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples. Because of the similarities in the way education was used to oppress Native Americans and Deaf people in the late 19th and early 20th century, I developed curriculum that helps students compare and contrast the goals and impact of Deaf and Native American schooling in this period.

Historical Photos as Text

I decided to start the unit with photographs. To do this, I selected images from the American Indian Boarding Schools collection at the Library of Congress website (see Resources). I chose photographs from the “Native Ways” and “Boarding School Ways” sections in the three categories suggested by the Library of Congress: Appearance, Homes, and Daily Life. Then I prepared a two-column graphic organizer.

“Remember how we talked about the experiences of different groups in Minnesota when white people started to come in large numbers in the 1860s?” I reminded my students. “Today we will be talking about life for Native Americans at the end of the 1800s.” I explained that we would be looking at education, an issue that affected many different Native American cultures, not just those in Minnesota. Then I distributed copies of the graphic organizer and the photographs.

I wanted students to pick a “Native Ways” image and a “Boarding School Ways” image to analyze for each category. We did the Appearance category together. I chose a pair of portraits of three Lakota boys from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. In the “Native Ways” photo, two of the boys sit on the floor, one stands; the boys are wearing leggings, moccasins, and shirts; two have feathers in their hair, which hangs past their shoulders. In the “Boarding School Ways” photo, two of the boys are seated and one still stands. They are wearing military-style school uniforms: European-style pants, jackets with metal buttons, European-style shoes, and short haircuts.

“What differences do you notice between ‘Native Ways’ and ‘Boarding School Ways’?” I asked.

One student said, “At the school, the clothing is fancy.”

“What do you mean by fancy?”

“You know, normal.”

Another student, added, “The Indian clothes are dirty.”

I paused, wondering how to discuss cultural relativism. I also thought of the comparison to Deaf students, who see other people refer to hearing people as “normal,” implying that they are not. Not wanting to squash students’ reactions but also not wanting to let the issue go, I asked, “If your family was sending you away to school, do you think they would send you in your best clothes, or in dirty, old clothes?”

“Best clothing,” someone said. Others nodded in agreement.

“Do you think these students’ families sent them to school wearing dirty, old clothing, or their best clothing?” The students agreed it was likely these students had been wearing their best clothing when they got to the schools.

As we continued to discuss the radical change in students’ appearance, a student referred to “the picture with the girls” (Native Ways) and then the one with “the boys” (Boarding School Ways). I pointed out that it was the same three youth in both photos. The students didn’t believe me until I showed them the two photos again, named the students, and pointed out that two had swapped positions, but that they were the same students.

Then students completed the graphic organizer, picking images to compare in the Homes and Daily Life categories. They wrote paragraphs summarizing what they had noticed. One student’s work repeatedly referred to “Indians” and “people.” I asked her what she meant by “people,” and it became apparent she thought the boarding school images were white people and the other photos were Native Americans. I clarified that they were all Native Americans, and pushed her to think about what made her decide the boarding school students were white. “Perhaps,” I suggested, “those factors are part of white culture. What do you think? How could you describe that?”

Home to Medicine Mountain

Next, we read the picture book Home to Medicine Mountain, by Chiori Santiago, based on illustrator Judith Lowry’s family history. The book describes experiences at the American Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, in the 1930s.

First, I gave students some context: “We’ve looked at photographs of Native Americans in schools and at home. This book is another look at Indian boarding school life. It is the true story of two brothers and their experience in the 1930s. While I read, I want you to think of ways that things in this book are similar or different from the photos you analyzed.”

At our school, reading aloud an English text requires translation into ASL. There are a variety of ways I do this. Depending on students’ levels of fluency in written English, I might have them read passages independently and then discuss them in ASL (translanguaging). Or I might have students work through the text together, producing an ASL equivalent of each sentence (translating). Or, as I did with this particular book, I might translate the text into ASL as I read aloud. I wanted students to focus on the content.

I read the preface and showed the students the map to help them place the story in time and space. As I read the story in ASL, I paused every few pages, asking the class if they had noticed anything similar or different from the photos.

“They aren’t wearing shoes.”

“They have uniforms.”

“School is very different from home.”

As our third glimpse into American Indian boarding schools, I turned to three excerpts from “School Days of an Indian Girl,” by Zitkala-Sa. Zitkala-Sa (also known as Gertrude Bonnin) was a Lakota woman from South Dakota who went to Carlisle Industrial Indian School and seemed to assimilate, even becoming a teacher there for a while. But later she changed her perspective and wrote a short memoir about her experiences. She was well-known as a writer and political activist in the early 20th century. This piece was originally published in Atlantic Monthly.

I created a glossary for each selection and also had the students watch an ASL translation, with copies of the English text available for reference afterwards. The first excerpt described the moment Zitkala-Sa learned her hair would be cut, the second the actual experience of the haircut, showing her resistance, and the third talked about her struggle to fit in at school and at home.

To help them process Zitkala-Sa’s story, I asked students to pick an excerpt and draw a picture showing all the details in the scene. This is an approach I often adopt to see if they understand a complex concept, one it would be difficult for them to explain in written English. One student, who herself has long hair, chose to illustrate Zitkala-Sa’s description of her haircut experience:

I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while, until I felt the cold blades of the scissors against my neck, and heard them gnaw off one of my thick braids. Then I lost my spirit. Since the day I was taken from my mother I had suffered extreme indignities. People had stared at me. I had been tossed about in the air like a wooden puppet. And now my long hair was shingled like a coward’s! In my anguish I moaned for my mother, but no one came to comfort me. Not a soul reasoned quietly with me, as my own mother used to do; for now I was only one of many little animals driven by a herder.

The student chose to present the scene in two images—the first with Zitkala-Sa sitting, facing the viewer with long braids over her shoulders, and the second with tears flowing and one braid cut chin-length.

Getting Rid of the “Indian”

Next, to help students generalize what they had learned about the boarding school experience so far, I assigned them to groups of two or three to put their information into a three-part Venn diagram made on chart paper. Most of the students were experienced with two-part Venn diagrams, so I introduced a three-part diagram using fruit—apple, orange, banana—and asked the students to help me start to fill it out. Then I encouraged them to refer back to their graphic organizers for the photographs, Home to Medicine Mountain, and “School Days of an Indian Girl” while working.

In one group, gender identification came up again. It happens that I identify as a woman and have very short hair; Roger, the paraprofessional in my room, identifies as a man and has long hair. I asked, “Short hair means boy?”

“Yes,” the student confirmed.

“So I’m a boy? And Roger is a girl because he has long hair?” The student paused and then finally suggested, “Maybe I could use ‘long hair’ and ‘short hair’ to describe them instead.”

I wanted to encourage students to think about the motivation behind establishing Indian schools. Earlier in the year, we had studied Anishinaabe and Dakota experiences in Minnesota with missionaries and settlers, their loss of land due to treaties, and the U.S.-Dakota war. I hoped my students would see the connection between destroying Native American cultureÑby forcing children to live apart from their families and communities, adopt U.S. clothing and hairstyles, and speak only English—and their loss of land and human rights. In other words, to see the push for assimilation as part of a genocidal strategy.

“What details did you note in the overlapping parts of the diagram? I’ll record them here in a class list.”

After the groups had taken turns sharing their notes, I asked: “Are any of these similar? Could they be grouped as a category? Let’s work as a class to group what you think is similar.”

Once they had reduced the list to a few general themes, I asked, “OK, now that you have themes, can you think of a hypothesis? Why do you think the schools were established? What did the founders want to happen?”

“The schools want Indians to be American,” they wrote.

“What is ‘American’?” I asked. “Were the Indian schools Mexican American? Hmong American? Did they value Spanish or Hmong as languages at the school? Did they value the home languages of the Native American students who attended?”

“The people who made the school wanted the students to have white culture,” they decided.

In another class, I worried that analyzing data to find a motive would be too difficult, so I provided them with a sentence starter: Indian schools want American Indian students to _________.

After a long wait, one student suggested, “The higher-up people, the white people, wanted them to cut their hair.” I added the words “white people” above “cut hair” to our list, and asked students which other items would be “white.” They chose “English-only,” “uniforms,” and “don’t like school food.” Then we went back to the sentence starter and the class created a hypothesis: “Indian schools want Indian students to become like white people.”

To test their hypotheses, I had students watch an ASL translation of two quotes from Captain Richard Pratt, who founded Carlisle. I projected the quotes in English on the board:

All the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

Carlisle fills young Indians with the spirit of loyalty to the stars and stripes, and then moves them out into our communities to show by their conduct and ability that the Indian is no different from the white or the colored, that he has the inalienable right to liberty and opportunity that the white and the Negro have. Carlisle does not dictate to him what line of life he should fill, so it is an honest one. It says to him that, if he gets his living by the sweat of his brow, and demonstrates to the nation that he is a man, he does more good for his race than hundreds of his fellows who cling to their tribal communistic surroundings.

Students worked in groups to make sense of the formal language and determine Pratt’s purpose. Then I called the class back together. “Why did Pratt set up the school?”

“He wanted them to be like white people.”

“Yeah, he wanted them separate from their group.”

“He wanted to take out everything Indian from them.”

“A Deaf Variety of the Human Race”

Next, we moved to a discussion of Deaf schools of the same period. Carlisle Indian Industrial School was established in 1879. The following year, the second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf was held in Milan, Italy. The participants were nearly all hearing and voted overwhelmingly to endorse only oral (not signing) education for Deaf students. Schools in the United States—which had been producing well-educated and successful graduates for years and were largely run by Deaf people—resisted this move until the early 1900s, when Deaf leaders were gradually replaced by hearing people, largely with oralist perspectives.

Once again, I used photographic images, this time scanned from a history of the Minnesota School for the Deaf and from Minnesota Reflections, the Minnesota Digital Library online database. One of the photos we looked at, in a style popular in that era, showed Deaf students signing a message, each person with a different sign. Another photo showed a class of students spelling out “First Oral Class 1906.” I pointed out the difference between using ASL and fingerspelling English, which some schools used at the time.

As I projected each image, I asked: “What are they doing? What clothes are they wearing? Where was the picture taken?”

As the students responded, I asked: “Is that similar or different to what we saw in pictures from American Indian boarding schools? How?”

Students noted similarities: “English-only,” “military drills.” And differences: “sewing class,” “farms,” “Deaf students didn’t have uniforms.” I had hoped that students would see similarities of preparation for manual labor and servant-type jobs as well. They didn’t seem to be able to generalize about the career preparation. I realized that this is something I need to draw out from the beginning the next time I teach this unit.

As our final historical comparison, students watched an ASL translation of quotes from Alexander Graham Bell’s Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. Bell had a Deaf mother and Deaf wife, and was involved in Deaf education. He was also a staunch oralist and an early supporter of the eugenics movement, who wanted to end inherited Deafness by stopping Deaf people from becoming couples and having children together. I chose four quotes, including these:

Those who believe as I do, that the production of a defective race of human beings would be a great calamity to the world, will examine carefully the causes that lead to the intermarriages of the deaf with the object of applying a remedy. (p. 41)

The immediate cause is undoubtedly the preference that adult deaf-mutes exhibit for the companionship of deaf-mutes rather than that of hearing persons. Among the causes that contribute to bring about this preference we may note: 1. segregation for the purposes of education, and 2. the use, as a means of communication, of a language which is different from that of the people. These, then, are two of the points that should be avoided in the adoption of preventive measures. Nearly all the other causes I have investigated are ultimately referable to these. (p. 46)

I asked students to write a one-sentence summary for each of the quotes and we discussed them. Then I asked: “How were Richard Pratt’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s motivations similar or different?”

“They wanted them to go away.”

“Yeah, they had to speak English.”

I tried to push the issue: “What about where Pratt and Bell wanted the Native American people and the Deaf people to live?”

There was a pause. Finally one student said, “With hearing people.”

“With white people,” another student added.

I wanted to guide students into seeing the removal of culture and identity, often by violence, as a connection between the experiences of Native people and Deaf people in this era. I wasn’t sure if my students understood the connections to the depth I’d hoped, but clearly they saw similarities. And they were angry about what they were learning. “I would refuse to go to school!” and “I think students and families would destroy the schools” were just two examples of that anger. I wanted to make sure they knew that there was resistance by Native Americans and Deaf communities and individuals then, and that resistance continues to the present.

Resistance by Deaf and Native American Communities

I asked the students to brainstorm possible acts of resistance that students, families, or communities could take. It took a while for students to offer suggestions.

In one class, someone suggested that students could “refuse to take oral classes,” which opened the floodgates to ideas of how to resist. With my prompting to refer back to the stories we had read and things we had learned, students came up with additional ways to resist: run away, yell/cry, refuse to speak English, use sign language, tell the teacher they want another language, refuse to eat or sleep, destroy the school.

Then I shared photos and information about ways students, families, and communities have resisted assimilationist policies. I included the formation of Deaf organizations, including the National Association of the Deaf (established in 1880), Deaf sports teams, and clubs. I told the stories of Hopi leaders who were sentenced to a year at Alcatraz for refusing to send their children to government schools, students rioting at Haskell Indian School, and kindergarteners at Fort Mohave using a log to break down a locked door to let out their classmates.

To connect our historical study to the present, students analyzed the National Association of the Deaf position paper on schools for the deaf. The first paragraph states: “Deaf schools are critical to the education of deaf and hard of hearing children, and every effort must be made to preserve them.” We looked at recent statistics on educational placements for Deaf students in the United States (mainstream, partially mainstream, separate schools) and discussed the implications.

We also read a 2012 article about a 12-year-old Menominee student who was reprimanded for speaking Menominee in the classroom. The article focuses on the family’s perspective. I asked students to work in pairs to think of two reasons why the family is mad and two reasons why the teacher is mad, deciding which side they think is right and why.

“I think the student is right because you have to respect language.”

“It’s her culture.”

Thinking Ahead

The next time I teach this, I would like to incorporate more analysis of how language policies and course programming affect students’ self-identities and ability to learn successfully. What did it mean to generations of students who were punished for speaking their Indigenous languages? How does what courses schools decide to offer affect what students learn? What does it show about expectations for students?

I was hoping the students would be able to make deeper connections between the material we were learning and their own lives; I struggled to get them to express a personal connection. I saw righteous indignation, so I know I struck a chord, but in discussion, they replied more simplistically than I would have liked.

Pressured by the school year timeline, I jumped from the turn of the 20th century to current issues, without making the connection of organizations like the American Indian Movement (started in Minneapolis) and the 1988 Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet College. I also missed the opportunity to discuss the shift in language policies for Deaf students: the increasing acceptance of the use of signing in the 1970s, and the development of bilingual programs in the early 1990s—including Metro Deaf School—which were designed to value ASL and English equally.

Since I work with these students over multiple years, I can take advantage of the opportunity to weave discussions of linguicism, racism, and audism into other lessons. Developing Deafhood is not something done in the course of one unit; it needs to be at the core of everything I teach.


  • Bell, Alexander Graham. 1884. Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race. National Academy of Sciences. Available at archive.org.
  • Indian Country Today Media Network. March 2, 2012. “Apologies Not Enough for Native Language Debacle.” indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com.
  • Library of Congress. Indian Boarding Schools. loc.gov.
  • National Association of the Deaf. “Position on Deaf Schools.” nad.org.
  • Santiago, Chiori. 2002. Home to Medicine Mountain. Children’s Book Press.
  • Zitkala-Sa. 1921. “School Days of an Indian Girl.” American Indian Stories. Hayworth Publishing House.

Wendy Harris teaches at Metro Deaf School in St. Paul, Minnesota. Student and staff names have been changed.