Credit: Historical Photo of Carlisle Indian School from National Archives

September 30th is recognized as the National Day of Remembrance for Indian Boarding Schools. This is a day to honor the victims and survivors of U.S. Indian boarding schools and recognize the ongoing trauma resulting from federal Indian boarding school policy.

In the United States, 367 Indian Boarding Schools existed and were operational between 1860-1978. According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), by 1926, more than 80% of Indigenous school-age children were attending boarding schools that were run either by the federal government or religious organizations.

Credit: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition Event Flier

Indian Boarding Schools and the legacy of Intergenerational Trauma

Indian boarding schools were designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into white society. “Kill the Indian- Save the Man” was the doctrine of forced assimilation and boarding school policy. In boarding schools, Indigenous children were stripped of all connections to their culture. They were prohibited from speaking their language, wearing traditional clothing, or practicing their spirituality. Violence and corporal punishment, along with physical, mental, and sexual abuse were routinely used against children. 

According to Deidre Whiteman, Director of Research and Education for NABS, “Indigenous people are still experiencing the impacts of intergenerational trauma caused by Indian boarding schools. Many survivors are alive today, sharing their stories and experiences. The National Day of Remembrance is a day to remember what these children experienced, how they survived, how they didn’t survive and how we can move forward together on a path of healing so that no child is forgotten.”

Deidre Whiteman, Director of Research and Education for NABS (Photo credit: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

Indian boarding schools have profoundly harmed the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual health of Indigenous peoples, creating a legacy of chronic trauma and unresolved grief passed down across generations. As part of our ongoing commitment to advance racial and health equity in Minnesota, Blue Cross is supporting NABS through the Racial Equity Action Committee for Health (REACH). With support from Blue Cross, NABS is providing culturally based healing and mental health resources for survivors of Indian boarding schools and their families.

“NABS helps support survivors by talking with survivors one-on-one, providing local resources to survivors, hosting an ongoing virtual healing series, and distributing yearly care packages,” said Deidre Whiteman. “There is also currently a congressional bill in both houses of congress that proposes the formation of a Truth and Healing Commission on US Indian Boarding Schools, Senate Bill 2907 and House Resolution 5444.”

Credit: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Boarding Schools Impact on Health

When looking at health inequities in Indigenous communities, including suicide, depression, and addiction, we need to understand the root causes─ colonial violence, intergenerational trauma, and systemic racism.

In 2019, suicide was the second leading cause of death for American Indian/Alaska Natives between the ages of 10 and 34. Indigenous people report experiencing serious psychological distress 2.5 times more than the general population and have the highest rates of suicide of any racial/ethnic group in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“Health disparities and adverse health conditions didn’t just happen overnight to American Indian people,” said Deidre Whiteman. “It was a systematic approach to genocide and assimilation, dating back all the way to first contact. As Europeans encroached across North America, American Indian’s health, lands, and ways of being were undoubtedly assaulted and disrupted.”

Historical trauma, particularly from boarding schools, continues to directly impact the health of survivors, their families and all Native communities today. The Running Bear Studies, funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), are the first medical studies to systematically and quantitatively examine the relationship between American Indian boarding school child attendance and physical health status. Indian boarding school attendees had a 44 percent greater count of past-year chronic physical health problems (PYCPHP) as adults compared with adult non-attendees. Adults who attended boarding school as children were more likely to have cancer (more than three times), high cholesterol (95 percent), diabetes (81 percent), anemia (61 percent), and arthritis (60 percent) than non-attendees. Children of boarding school attendees were also found to suffer disproportionate rates of adverse health outcomes.

Increasing Understanding of Indian Boarding Schools as a Pathway Towards Healing

Indigenous peoples have been living with the traumatic legacy of boarding schools for decades. Yet, the vast majority of Americans are unaware or know very little about U.S. Indian boarding schools, or how they continue to impact the health of Indigenous communities today.

According to Sandy White Hawk, board president of NABS, “a day of remembrance is important for educating people, because this history has not been taught in our society and it is integral to our health and wellbeing as Indigenous peoples. When we educate about boarding schools, and begin to share our stories, we open up pathways to healing.”

Sandy White Hawk, board president of NABS. (Photo credit: National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition)

Supporting boarding school survivors in being able to share their stories and creating greater understanding of the lasting impacts of Indian boarding school policy are critical steps towards healing. “Understanding the legacy of federal Indian boarding school policy and how trauma is passed down through generations is a starting point for those who work in healthcare,” said Deidre Whiteman.

Learn more about how you can educate yourself and your family, take action, and support National Day of Remembrance

US Indian Boarding School History
National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Boarding School Resource Database Center
National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

Truth and Healing Curriculum
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has developed a curriculum on U.S. Indian Boarding Schools for teachers and parents to use with their students and children.

About the author: Sasha Houston Brown is a  Senior Communications and Advocacy Consultant at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota, Center for Prevention.