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American Crime Case #40: Native American Boarding Schools: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”

Bob Avakian has written that one of three things that has “to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better: People have to fully confront the actual history of this country and its role in the world up to today, and the terrible consequences of this.” (See “3 Things that have to happen in order for there to be real and lasting change for the better.”)

In that light, and in that spirit, “American Crime” is a regular feature of Each installment focuses on one of the 100 worst crimes committed by the U.S. rulers—out of countless bloody crimes they have carried out against people around the world, from the founding of the U.S. to the present day.

See all the articles in this series.

From the moment of their arrival at boarding school the children were stripped of their indigenous identity, and simultaneously indoctrinated to view their own heritage—and themselves— as something to be despised, and eradicated. The boys’ heads were shaved; all the children’s clothes were taken, replaced with uniforms. Their real names were changed to European names to both “civilize” and “Christianize” them. They were taught English and forbidden to speak their Native languages—even to each other—and they were forced to abandon their Native beliefs and take up Christianity. All of this contributed to a sense that they had lost themselves.



Above: Native Americans from an Apache tribe entering Carlisle School in 1890.  Below: The same Native Americans four months later. (Photos: John N. Choate)



THE CRIME: The cultural genocide of the Native Americans

The near extermination of the Native Americans in the centuries following 1492 is one of the great historical crimes committed by the rulers of this country—or any country. Credible estimates of the indigenous population in North America in 1492 are between 12.5 and 18.5 million. Through the combination of massive epidemics and the “Indian Wars” waged by the U.S. Army through the decades after the Civil War, by 1890 the estimated Native American population had been reduced to fewer than 240,000 in the U.S., and in Canada a third of that—a population reduction of 95 to 99 percent.

Beginning in the 1870s and lasting a century or more, the weight of U.S. policy toward the Native American population shifted from military annihilation to the forced “assimilation” of the survivors—making them “suitable” to be members of the society that had devastated and despised them.

“Education” became the key ingredient in the systematic process of cultural genocide of the remaining Native Americans. During the 1860s, schools organized by religious orders began to appear on reservations, aiming to convert the children to Christianity, teach them English, and train them to assimilate into the nation that had conquered and now dominated them.

But the U.S. Indian Commission concluded that assimilation could not be successful as long as the children still lived at home and returned to their families at the end of each day. Thus from the 1870s to the mid-20th century, it became U.S. policy that every Native American child would be taken from his/her home, family, community, and culture—beginning as early as five years of age—and sent to off-reservation boarding schools, where they were to remain for up to a decade in state-sponsored “educational” facilities. It is estimated there were as many as 500 Indian boarding schools in the U.S.: 153 federal Indian boarding schools and many more religious schools run by Christian denominations and paid for through contracts with the government. At its peak, this complex of boarding schools could hold nearly half of all Native American children at one time. A total of about 150,000 children attended these schools over their century-long existence.

Forced Assimilation through Education: Children on the reservations were taken from their parents and communities by force. Parents who didn’t cooperate had rations, clothing, and other assistance withheld. Police were sent to round up any children who weren’t made available. Beyond its enormous emotional trauma, the tribal leaders understood that the impact threatened the continued existence of their tribes.

From the moment of their arrival at a boarding school, the children were stripped of their indigenous identity and simultaneously indoctrinated to view their own heritage—and themselves—as something to be despised and eradicated. The boys’ heads were shaved and the children’s clothes were taken, replaced with uniforms. Their real names were changed to European names to both “civilize” and “Christianize” them. They were taught English and forbidden to speak their Native languages—even to each other—and were forced to abandon their Native beliefs and take up Christianity. All of this contributed to a sense that they had lost themselves.

Death by Hunger, Disease, and Overwork: The schools were run like military schools, marching to meals, and the “virtues” of patriotism and obedience were instilled. Their “education” was designed to serve an extreme assimilationist agenda, aiming to inculcate subservience. The curriculum in the self-described “industrial schools” focused on training, not education. The young women learned to become maids and household servants, or to work in commercial laundries. The young men were taught the skills needed to work for ranchers and farmers, or for factory, mine, and mill operators throughout the western U.S. And when the schools were required to be self-supporting, they functioned as factories or labor camps making money to pay for the schools' expenses.

Children were systematically found to be underfed and underweight—the result of the strict limits put on funds for food, together with the money taken by staff for their own use. This, together with forced labor, contributed to staggering disease-driven mortality rates. Epidemics of deadly infectious diseases were common, including tuberculosis and at times, smallpox. At the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, of the 73 Shoshone and Arapaho children enrolled between 1881 and 1894, only 26 survived. A 1908 study by the Smithsonian Institution found that, overall, only one in every five students was likely to be “entirely free” of symptoms of tuberculosis. Another study found in 1912 that 30 percent of all boarding school students had contracted trachoma, a contagious eye disease that can cause blindness.

Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of the children by those who ran these schools was widespread. Many of the youngsters died trying to escape the schools and return to their reservations. Those who were captured and brought back to the schools were brutally beaten. In fact, brutal physical abuse—torture—was brought down on boys and girls alike for any number of “violations.”

The Legacy of Cultural Genocide: Medical research links the boarding school experience with the current conditions of Native American society today. They associate the traumas of abuse, neglect, and separation from family and culture with high rates of suicide, substance and alcohol abuse, sexual abuse and violence, and other health problems such as high blood pressure and diabetes. One Native American scholar described “‘residential school syndrome’—a complex and intractable blend of devastated self-concept and self-esteem, psychic numbing, chronic anxiety, insecurity and depression.”

This scholar concluded that the magnitude of the destructive effects of the boarding schools on Native people individually and collectively, not only in the immediacy of their existence but in the aftermath, was and remains immeasurable. You cannot truly appreciate the impact of the genocide suffered by Native Americans unless the impact of the boarding schools is understood.





The U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs were responsible for the creation, operation and oversight of the system of Native American boarding schools and the treatment of the children brought there for nearly a century. The abuse and trauma inflicted on these children were consistent with the purpose for which they were established—to carry out the forced assimilation of the survivors of a genocide into the society that despised and sought to destroy them completely. Theodore Roosevelt, as president, prior to taking office, said: “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every 10 are. And I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

Col. Richard Pratt created and ran the model for these “schools”—the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Pratt’s qualifications were based on his having been in charge of the Fort Marion military prison for Apache prisoners of war. The Carlisle school became the prototype of the comprehensive network of boarding schools which systematically brutalized, traumatized, and devastated 150,000 Native American children.

Various Christian denominations were complicit in the operation of the boarding schools. The majority of the schools were contracted out to a variety of Christian denominations, given responsibility for the “Christianization” of the Native Americans. Each church supervised the operation of the boarding schools within its area, making each complicit in carrying out the policies of cultural genocide that took place there. Physical, emotional and sexual abuses took place at Christian-run boarding schools. Students suffered beatings, physical restraint and isolation in dark cellars. Many students chose to run away. A Native American woman who survived the experience said they were taught that their language belonged to the devil; all things she’d learned at home were “ugly”; and that she “became ashamed of being Indian.” She learned to hate herself and her race as well.


Reform-minded white people argued that education in these schools was a key tool to help Indian tribes “assimilate” into the mainstream of the “American way of life.”  Indigenous culture was thought to be inferior, so people had to be taught the importance of private property, material wealth and monogamous nuclear families. The reformers assumed that it was necessary to “civilize” indigenous peoples, make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems. That meant teaching them the skills, values, and beliefs of possessive individualism, meaning you care about yourself and what you as a person own. This opposed the basic Native American belief of communal ownership, which held that the land was for all people. As an 1856 U.S. Indian Commissioner put it: for assimilation to occur, it was necessary that Indians learn to say “I” instead of “we,” “me” instead of “us,” “mine” instead of “ours.”


Because the intention of the colonizers was to take everything possessed by the Native Americans, only the most thorough-going assimilation would substitute for the campaigns of physical extermination that had been relied on until then. This meant totally stripping Native Americans of their cultural identity and using “education” to inculcate subservience among the surviving population. An “education” designed to systematically deculturate these youths and simultaneously indoctrinate them to see their own heritage—and themselves—in terms deemed appropriate by a society that despised both to the point of seeking as a matter of policy their utter eradication.

In 1910, the U.S. Indian Commissioner described their policy as “a mighty pulverizing engine for breaking up [the last vestiges of] the tribal mass.” An 1892 speech by Col. Pratt captured both the purpose and the consequences of the Indian Boarding Schools:

A great general [Philip Sheridan] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one... In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

Pratt’s dictum—“Kill the Indian, Save the Man”—captured the meaning of assimilation—Americanization—as applied to Native Americans.


The main source for this article is

Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools, by Ward Churchill, 2004, City Lights Books.

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