Forced Into Federal Boarding Schools as Children, Native Americans Confront the Past

Native Americans demand accountability for a federal policy that aimed to erase Indigenous culture.

Native American communities are confronting the legacy of federal policies designed to assimilate them and erase their culture. For decades, families were ruptured as Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and communities and sent to faraway government-run boarding schools. Survivors recall the abuse and exploitation they endured in a setting where their language and traditions were prohibited. They are demanding that the government be held accountable for its role.

Between 1819 and 1969, the U.S. government, with help from religious groups, operated or supported over 400 boarding schools across the country aimed at assimilating Native Americans into white culture.

Dennis Decoteau, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, was 11 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs removed him from his home and took him to the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School. “I wrote down a couple of words when tried to describe my experience there,” he told Retro Report. “Abuse. Neglect. Bullying. Torture, and pain.”

Last year, the Interior Department, led for the first time by a Native American, Deb Haaland, announced the findings of an investigation into the abuses in the boarding school system. The report is the first step, officials say, toward bringing accountability for a policy that has affected Native American families across generations.

“I want America to be aware of what happened to us, said Denise Lajimodiere, a citizen of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, who has studied the boarding school system. “I call it America’s best-kept secret.”

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For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Sarah Weiser
  • Co-Producer: Unknown
  • Editor: Anne Checler

For Educators


Through first-person narratives, students are introduced to federally run boarding schools, institutions created to force the assimilation of Native American children into white society.

Students will learn about the existence of these schools, their prevalence across North America, and the effect these institutions had on young people. The larger goal of this lesson is to develop empathy and to consider how the boarding school experience continues to affect Native American communities today.

Lesson Plan 1: Understanding Boarding Schools for Native Americans

Students will learn about federally run boarding schools created to force the assimilation of Native American children into white society.


Students will:

  • Identify how boarding schools are one component of a larger assimilation policy of the federal government.
  • Develop explanations as to why these institutions existed.
  • Generate and identify investigable and researchable questions.
  • Identify textual evidence to support claims made by speakers.
Essential questions
  • What are federally run boarding schools?
  • Why were Native American children forced to attend these institutions?
  • How do boarding schools fit into the U.S. government’s assimilation policy?
  • In what ways are Native Americans overcoming the impact of boarding schools?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.1:Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.2:Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text.
    • CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.9-10.5:Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in the text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the cumulative impact of specific word choices on meaning and tone (e.g. how the language evokes a sense of time and place; how it sets a formal or informal tone).
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D1.5.6-8.Determine the kinds of sources that will be helpful in answering compelling and supporting questions, taking into consideration multiple points of views represented in the sources.
    • D2.Civ.4.6-8Examine the origins, purposes, and impact of constitutions, laws, treaties, and international agreements.
    • D2.Civ.6.6-8Describe the roles of political, civil, and economic organizations in shaping people’s lives.
    • D2.Civ.7.6-8.Apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school and community
    • D2.Civ.10.6-8.Explain the relevance of personal interests and perspectives, civic virtues, and democratic principles when people address issues and problems in government and civil society.