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American-Indian Families

Boarding Schools

There have been several generations of both physical and psychological parental loss affecting American-Indian families. This parental loss has occurred across tribal communities, whether on reservations or in urban centers, in which a large percentage of American-Indian families live. There have been three primary contributing factors that can be attributed to this parental loss for American-Indian families: the abrupt removal and placement of Indian children in foster and adoptive homes, the education of Indian children in boarding schools, and the impact of alcohol on American-Indian families.

The forced removal of Indian children from their families of origin by Bureau of Indian Affairs agents, and later missionaries acting on behalf of the government, was the single most damaging action taken against American-Indian families. Boarding schools were initially established in the late nineteenth century and continued to exist throughout the mid- to late 1960s. These schools were meant to educate American-Indian children in the European-American tradition.

The government's strategy was to remove American-Indian children from their families of origin and place them in boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away from their families and communities, with the goal of breaking up the traditional family as well as the transmission of their cultural way of life. If the children were not around for the parents to teach cultural ways, then slowly, over time, the government would achieve its goal of exterminating American-Indian culture and traditional family life and replace it with total assimilation to European-American society. Parents had sporadic or virtually no contact with their children while they were in the boarding schools.

Over the years, the impact of the boarding school experience on American-Indian families and their children has been of interest to researchers, educators, family scholars, and the more than five hundred tribes in the United States. Families were tragically disrupted; the children were raised in an institutional setting that promoted isolation and lack of appropriate interaction between females and males, as well as various methods of assimilation tactics. Often, when children were released from the boarding school environment they had no knowledge or skills to survive in the larger society. If they did find their way back to their families or tribal communities, they often experienced ostracism and feelings of not belonging due to perceptions of being a "red apple"—red on the outside for Indianness and white on the inside for acting according to the ways of the European-American society. Parents of these children did not know how to deal with them and often could not communicate with their children because they did not speak English, and their children no longer spoke their native dialect.

The end result was loss of family, parents suffering from unresolved grief and loss, high incidence of mental health problems and alcoholism, children who grew up not knowing their culture or how to parent when they became adults, identity struggles, and generational transmission of the ramifications of boarding school experiences from fear or shame about identifying as an American Indian to an inability to be good parents to their children through healthy and nurturing relationships.


Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAmerican-Indian Families - General Points Of Interest, Boarding Schools, Family Life Today, American-indian Child Welfare