The boarding school concept can be traced to Civil War Army Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, who led a unit of Buffalo Soldiers near Oklahoma. Together they captured 72 men from the Caddo, Cheyenne, Comanche, and Kiowa Nations, and transported them to Fort Marion, Florida. Upon arrival, the captives were forced to cut their hair, dress in military uniforms, and learn English. In essence, they were being groomed to resemble their white captors in an effort to “civilize” them. During a time in U.S. history when the policy toward Native Americans was usually one of forced removal and even extermination, the idea of assimilation, was considered progressive. The famous quote “Kill the Indian, save the Man,” is attributed to Pratt.
“I think that was a time when the government really felt like they could deal with the so-called ‘Indian problem,’" says Amanda Blackhorse, a Navajo who is a social worker from Arizona. “And it was the last option to go for the children.”
Assimilation practices began immediately. Children were separated from siblings. Hair was cut. Uniforms were distributed. No traditional dress was allowed. The students marched to class in the mornings, and had trades training in the afternoons. Students were forced to learn and speak English; their native languages were to be unspoken.
In 1890, ten years after the creation of the Carlisle schools, the Santa Fe Indian School was founded. It became one of many boarding schools, including the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon; the Pueblo Indian School in Pueblo, Colorado; and the Haskell Indian School in Lawrence, Kansas. All of them followed the Carlisle model of trying to eliminate all native culture and influence.
Toward the end of the Progressive Era the policies affecting the First Nation peoples were being reevaluated. In 1922, Senator Holm Bursum of New Mexico proposed S.R. 2274, known more commonly as the Bursum Bill. It effectively legalized all land claims for land that was originally occupied by the Pueblo tribes when New Mexico became a state. The bill passed the Senate without public discussion, but the House of Representatives demanded hearings.
These hearings opened one of the first modern opportunities for Native Americans to have a voice in what had happened to them. The Pueblo people of New Mexico reconvened the All-Pueblo Indian Council, an inter-tribal group formed in 1592 but not active since 1680. Arguing on their behalf was John Collier, a sociologist who felt that traditional cultures — immigrant and native — were important to the national identity. The Bursum Bill was overturned with the passing of the Pueblo Lands Act. Later, both the All-Pueblo Indian Council and Collier would move the conversation of Indian rights forward.