As educators and parents, we can agree that knowledge, and an understanding of how to use that knowledge, is a powerful tool. But there are gaps in what we teach today.

There is a need to widen the spectrum of history and focus on how the story is told to fully understand who we are and how we treat all others. Being honest about our past brings integrity to our relationships and changes the way we treat those who have historically been mistreated.

Much of our past has been diluted or hidden from the American history books. Some may say that we don’t want to put light on the injustices endured by indigenous peoples, but instead only focus on how we heroically conquered this “new land.”

We have not been honest with our teaching. Will telling the truth affect how we look at each other – for better or for worse? Yes, it will.

Purely teaching dates, events and statistics will not create the emotional response needed to make change. Storytelling, however, can add emotion to the truth that somehow has not made it into our curriculum.

For example, imaging living on tribal lands during the 1850’s and you have three young children in your family. The grandmother is out collecting strands of tall grasses with the oldest of the three.

As they rest by the river, they take the strands and braid them to honor mother earth for sharing this important resource. Grandmother is passing along ancient wisdom to the next generation. She is teaching the proper way to harvest so the grasses survive and thrive for sharing next year.

As the sun falls in the western sky the grandmother will continue the lessons of making baskets out of those strands which will help them in the fall harvest.

When they return home, they learn that the other two children have been forcibly taken by government agents. The eldest child was taken later that day.

The baskets never got made. The ancient wisdom to be forgotten.

The mother and grandmother did not know that their children, and tens of thousands of others, were taken to one of an estimated 400+ government-funded Indian Boarding Schools in 37 states operated in the 19th and 20th century and how they would suffer – never to return to a life they once lived.

Why were they taken?

The purpose of the boarding schools, funded by the U.S. government and many operated by Christian missionaries, were to totally remove traditional indigenous ways of life and force them to become a part of American culture. If they spoke a single word of their native language they were beaten, starved, abused, or worse.

Native Americans endured this for over 100 years. Mothers over several generations experienced constant fear that a government official or missionary would come snatch their child away at any moment.

This created social, emotional, cultural, and spiritual devastation to native populations.

I was four years old when stolen and taken to Chemawa, Oregon. The matron grabbed me and my sister, stripped off our clothes laid us in a trough and scrubbed our genitals with lye soap, yelling at us that we were ‘filthy savages, dirty.’ I had to walk on my tip toes screaming in pain.” – Elsie, Yakima (Interview by Dr. Denise Lajimodiere)

How does a culture heal from such atrocities?

We begin by telling the truth.

Records for most of the Indian Boarding Schools have not been made public. A survey conducted by The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition estimates that less than 10% of Americans know anything about the US Boarding Schools.

Many children died in those schools, but without access to the records we still don’t know how many. Nor do we know their names. Family names were replaced with English names.

What is the result of that century of abuse on the remaining populations of Native Americans?

There are small groups of elders alive today that escaped the Indian Boarding Schools and speak the language. Some of the younger generation is learning, but mostly they still suffer from the trauma of the past.

Thousands of years of native ways of knowing are largely lost or disregarded including how to have a relationship with earth instead of causing extinction.

Current generations still fear that speaking their native language or practicing their spiritual ceremonies will bring negative consequences.

Our job is to share the truth and begin the healing process. Share their stories and the knowledge of the true history of the country. The following resource list is a great place to begin.


The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Learn more about the history of Indian Boarding Schools, read stories from survivors, and review focused curriculum.

Recommended Reading List:

National Indian Education Association (NIEA)

Their work focuses on finding solutions to improve the education system for Native children. Their Native Education For All project is a collaboration between tribes, state education offices, educators, and Native education advocates to advance legislation in states and guide implementation in the classroom.

National Museum of the American Indian – Smithsonian

Visit exhibitions online and incorporate into all disciplines.