If you’re considering teaching on a reservation in Arizona, there’s a topic you need to know about: Indian boarding schools.
As a fellow non-native who lived and taught on a reservation for five years, I’m here to share with you some of the real, verifiable stories from boarding schools in Arizona – so you can understand several perspectives people have when it comes to boarding schools.
To get SUPER specific here, we’re talking about “Indian boarding schools,” focusing mostly into the late 1800s and early 1900s.
During this time, many tribes were forcibly removed from their ancestral homelands, forced to migrate and relocate to new lands.
These “lands” came to be known as reservations (read more about the history of Indian reservations in what’s now the United States here).
If you’re interested in this topic, I highly recommend checking out the books I have listed on my homepage.
These are books by Native American authors, and some of their stories recall accounts from living at Indian boarding schools.
You might have to buy a few from Amazon, but some might be available at your library if you want to read one for free.
If you’re brand new to the idea of living and teaching on a reservation, start here to get my free ultimate guide.
First, let’s dive into the history of Indian boarding schools.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States government established boarding schools as a way to assimilate Native American children into mainstream American culture.
The idea was to “kill the Indian, save the man,” by stripping children of their cultural identity and teaching them English, Christianity, and other “American” values.
Sounds pretty intense, right?
If we look closely, this colonialism and sense of oppression is still alive and well on reservations today – and it’s something we have to consider as outsiders looking to teach there.
Read more about my thoughts on travel being a form of colonialism here.
Well, it gets worse.
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Why Indian Boarding Schools Were Absolutely Horrible
Many children were taken away from their families and forced to live in unfamiliar environments where they were punished for speaking their own language or practicing their own traditions.
Did you know that the punishments against Native Americans for speaking their own languages didn’t get off the books until 1990?!
It’s easy for us to think that these things were long ago and far removed.
But the truth is, the trauma and effects of these events continue to ring out in American culture today.
Click here to see a complete timeline of indigenous oppression in the United States.
The mortality rate in some schools was shockingly high, and many kids experienced physical and sexual abuse.
It was a time of immense trauma and loss for Native American communities.
In September of 2022, a writer at the New York Times wrote about a mass grave of indigenous children found in Canada.
For a few weeks, people were suddenly more interested in learning about the history of First Nation peoples – and Indian boarding schools became a topic around water coolers and dinner tables across America.
Unfortunately, that fervor and passion left as soon as that news cycle ended – and in a way, it’s understandable.
There are so many things happening all the time, that it’s near impossible to keep up with everything happening here in the U.S.
That’s one of the reasons I started this blog.
We need a place to read, learn, talk, and think about these things.
Because, Indian boarding schools aren’t just a part of our nation’s history.
They’re still around today.
Indian Boarding Schools Are Still Around Today
It’s easy to say, “All Indian boarding schools are bad and we should ban them.”
But it’s a little more complicated than that.
Unless you’ve been on a reservation, or at least driven through one, it’s hard to understand just how rural some of these communities are.
There are towns and communities on the Navajo Nation that are hours away from major big box stores.
Getting to work or school during inclement weather can be a real struggle – especially if there’s been a ton of flooding or ice on the (mostly unpaved) roads.
Electricity and internet can be virtually nonexistent or inconsistent, too.
It wouldn’t take more than a couple of inches of snow for our power to go out for a day or more when I was living near Whiteriver, Arizona.
And on top of all that, it can be difficult to get or keep reliable transportation.
It’s not uncommon to see one or more immobile cars in people’s yards.
They’re too far to tow and too expensive to fix, so they sit and wait until something can be done about them.
So when we bear all of this in mind, we can start to understand why many Native parents choose to have their kids attend “residential schools,” or as we’d say boarding schools.
Sometimes, even if a residential school is an hour or more away, it’s easier to drop a student off on a Sunday, and pick them up on a Friday – than it is to get them to and from school every day.
Consider that families can even carpool or take turns picking up students from residential skills, and we can start to see boarding schools as a more viable option.
What All of This Means for Teachers on Reservations
So, what does this mean for you?
Indian Boarding Schools Hire Non-Native Teachers
The most obvious implication in your life is the fact that, if you apply to work at a residential school, you’ll be living and working at an Indian boarding school.
This is another great resource to educate yourself and be informed of the history – ideally, before you apply – but DEFINITELY before you move there.
The Trauma Lives On
Even if you end up teaching at a public BIE-run school or a state-run school, this is something that families endured just a few generations ago.
In fact, there’s still a generation of elders alive today who are young enough to know people who experienced this.
They couldn’t practice their religion, many Native Americans lost their language, and they lost traditions that were practiced for thousands of years before colonialism.
Even if you don’t end up teaching on a reservation, I believe this is something every American should know about.
It’s a part of our shared history, and it’s something still happening now.
But when we look at the whole picture and shift our perspective, we can go in helpful and without rehatching what they’ve experienced.
Education on reservations in itself carries a lot of emotional baggage.
There’s a heritage of colonialism and cultural erasure that teachers have been a part of, too – both in and out of Indian boarding schools. And, on and off of reservations.
This means that you need to be aware of the history of Indian boarding schools and the trauma that they caused for Native communities.
You need to be sensitive to the cultural identities and traditions of your students, and work to build relationships of mutual respect and understanding with them.
I’ve found this also means building relationships with their parents and grandparents, and knowing what they’ve gone through is a great place to start.
It also means that you can be part of the solution, which is so exciting.
You can be a teacher who helps to preserve and celebrate the cultural heritage of your students, and who works to create a safe and nurturing environment for them to learn and grow.
You can be a part of the healing process for Native communities and help to overcome the legacy of the boarding school era.
So, as you embark on this adventure, remember that the history of Indian boarding schools is a dark one, but that there is hope for the future.
You can be a part of the positive change that is needed in our world today, and that all starts with educating yourself.
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