Confronting the Past
Recovering from Native American boarding school trauma
Story by Griffen Smith
Photos by Antonio Ibarra
When the school bus dropped off then 15-year-old Bob Burns for the first time at the Cut Bank Boarding School, he had already heard about the bad reputation of government-run schools from his parents.
Up until then, he had avoided boarding schools by living in the rural area of Babb, Montana, a small town cornered between Canada and the east side of Glacier National Park, where he could attend local schools. But Cut Bank was the only high school available to him. It was 1966 and the federal government had just transferred jurisdiction of the school to the Blackfeet tribe. Yet the legacy of oppressing Indigenous children remained.
The white instructors punished the students for anything they could. Once, after someone snatched a jar of peaches from the school’s kitchen, the teachers made Burns and every other student walk to the basement of the residential hall.
Everyone sat on a long concrete bench. Nobody could leave — even to use the bathroom — until the guilty student confessed. Burns watched the younger students pee themselves. After hours of waiting, he contemplated pretending to be guilty, but two boys eventually confessed. That was only half the punishment.
1. St. Ignatius Mission School, St. Ignatius, Montana, 1864-1962 2. Willow Creek Boarding School, several miles west of Browning, Montana, 6. Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School, 20 miles west of Great Falls, Montana, 1893-1910 7. St. Paul Mission, Hays, Montana, 1884-2021 8. Fort Peck Boarding School, Poplar, Montana, 1881-1930s 9. Bond’s Mission School/Montana Industrial School, Custer, Montana, 1886-1896 10. St. Labre Indian School, Ashland, Montana, 1884-present 11. Tongue River Reservation Boarding School, 1904-1970s, Northern Cheyenne tribe reopened it as the Busby Tribal School in 1972, now known as Northern Cheyenne Tribal School, Busby, Montana 12. Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921 13. Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy, St. Xavier, Montana, 1961-1965 14. St. Charles Mission School, Pryor, Montana, 1891-present 15. Pryor Creek Boarding School, Pryor, Montana, 1903-1919 16. Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921 17. First Crow Agency Boarding School, one of three locations, 1883-1921 18. St. Xavier Mission, St. Xavier, Montana, 1887-1917. Holy James Mission, no known location.1892-1909 3. Cut Bank Boarding School, Cut Bank, Montana, 1905-1960s, now known as Blackfeet Boarding Dorm 4. Holy Family Mission, Southeastern Blackfeet reservation, 1890-1936 5. St. Peter’s Mission, Cascade, Montana, 1860-1898
Source: Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and “Indian Education for All” by John P. Hopkins
Source: Archives & Special Collections, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana, National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and “Indian Education for All” by John P. Hopkins
“They made us all stand spread- legged,” Burns, now 78, recalled. “The [two boys] had to crawl between our legs and we took our belts o to give them a whack as they went through. If you didn’t give them a good hard whack, then you had to crawl through, too. Those were the kinds of shit they did.”
The school required every student to stay during the weekdays year-round. Some could not go home because of how far away they lived. Burns often ran away when the bus dropped him off, hitchhiking the 30-mile trek back to Babb. After a year, he convinced his family to let him do school from home, and never looked back.
It’s been 50 years since Burns left the Cut Bank School, now named the Blackfeet Boarding Dormitory. The dormitory pivoted from forceful education to giving enrolled Blackfeet children a stable place to live, all while encouraging more students to stay there.
Burns’ generation contained some of the last children to attend aggressive and assimilating Native American boarding schools, which were created by a U.S. government campaign to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children into white society during the 1800s and 1900s.
Their goal: To use education as a tool to eradicate Indian culture by prohibiting Indigenous children from using their native languages, practices and cultures.
Many tribal officials and members agree the intergenerational trauma caused by Native American boarding schools has been hard to heal from. The immeasurable levels of abuse, neglect, death and cultural assimilation initiated by the federal government have largely been undocumented. The boarding schools have had long-term effects on Indigenous communities, limiting cultural knowledge and identity.
For years, Indigenous advocates have been working to heal these wounds, but they are making new strides now to tell the tales of boarding schools — to close the wounds of trauma through outreach, reclamation of the schools and giving survivors a space to tell their stories.
The Civilization Act passed by Congress in 1819 aimed to educate Native American tribes and authorized the “civilization process” of Indigenous communities. The act, which in part established the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), initiated the systematic opening of boarding schools across the country.
The options for tribal communities were slim. Many traditional food sources like buffaloalso had been eradicated by colonizers who overhunted, including some operations by the U.S. military. Disease brought by European colonizers left many Indigenous nations weak.
For some, the only way to keep their child fed was sending them to a boarding school. By 1926, 83% of American Indian and Alaska Native school-age children were enrolled in Indian boarding schools.
In Montana, 17 documented boarding schools operated in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS). Most revolve around the seven reservations in the state and can be divided into three types of schools: missions, government boarding centers and day schools.
The Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School, based in a decommissioned frontier-era fort 20 miles northwest of Great Falls, received its resources from the federal government. Like most government schools, the highly regimented programming taught English and industrial training like agriculture and metal work.
Many Indigenous children were taken without permission to government schools, according to tribal history committees. Some as far as Alaska came to Fort Shaw. Others from across the West were taken even farther to schools in the eastern half of the U.S.
The Carlisle Indian Industrial School, based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, brought thousands of Indigenous children from across the U.S. Some tribal members still tell the stories of their grandparents walking hundreds of miles home after escaping the school.
More than half of the Montana schools were run by church groups. The missions often moved to locations in isolated countryside. They taught Christianity hand in hand with English. For some students, there was no going home.
One of the earliest boarding schools in the United States was the St. Ignatius Mission in the south of the Flathead Reservation. Founded in 1864, the school housed 325 children at its peak from different Mountain West tribes. Many did not get to leave except for a small break in August.
The mission lasted until the 1970s. By that point, generations of Mountain West Indigenous tribes had gone through the school. Many were abused. In 2011, 45 men and women sued the school for suffering physical, sexual and emotional abuse. The plaintiffs won millions of dollars in a 2015 settlement.
In the St. Ignatius’ lawsuit, three other Montana boarding schools were listed as defendants. Patrick Matt Jr., a member of the Salish and Kootenai and Pend d’Oreille tribes, recalled the time between the 1940s and ’70s when the missions recorded most of the abuse.
“The kids who were most at risk were the ones who never left,” Matt Jr. said. “If you’re an orphan, you don’t have anybody to go home to. It seems that then they became targets because nobody was picking them up for holidays. Nobody was picking them up over the weekends. And there wasn’t anybody to be accountable to.”
Matt Jr. is the director of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes’ Families First Program. He’s filled the soft-lit walls of his Pablo, Montana, office with photos of his family, food drive flyers and posters of past concerts he planned for the families and young people across the Mission Valley.
During the summer, Matt Jr. and other members of the Mission Valley braved a heat wave on a July 4 evening as they gathered for a community-led vigil in the courtyard of the mission to remember lost children and survivors of Native American boarding schools.
Matt Jr. knows he’s been affected by boarding schools.
At the vigil, he spoke of growing up as the child of boarding school survivors and how it affected him both culturally and personally. His father, Matt Sr., attended a school in Oregon in the 1950s. Matt Sr. returned to the Mission Valley, in many ways, Matt Jr. said, more mature than when he left. But he noticed his dad did not remember many of the tribes’ cultural traditions.
Instead, Matt Jr. learned the traditions from his grandfather. The degree of separation made it more difficult, but he still remembers the dancing circles and tribal stories from the past. The collective culture of the tribe brought him in, and now he hopes to continue educating those who did not get the same cultural knowledge as he did.
His work is practical. He drops off food to families in need and runs clothing drives. But he also runs cultural events, helping young people make regalia — colorful and detailed traditional clothing worn for tribal events. Matt Jr. said his time working with people in need has illuminated the longstanding issues on the reservation.
“There’s six million plus registered Native Americans in the United States,’’ he said. “A huge sector has no idea who they are. They may not be able to say anything in their tribal language, or they may know nothing about who their ancestors were because they’ve been so enculturated and assimilated and removed. A lot of that had to do with the boarding schools.”
On a recent Wednesday night, Matt Jr. sat at the head of a long table in the back of The Spirit of Truth Church in Pablo. About a dozen tribal members gathered around the long table for a healing circle. Matt Jr. bowed his head and said a prayer to bless the food, both in his native Pend d’Oreille dialect of Salish and English.
The group relaxed, ate a dinner of homemade enchiladas and each took turns delving into their personal struggles from substance abuse to their work life. It was their second meeting ever, but that didn’t prevent the circle from being unapologetically honest. Matt Jr. said these groups are essential to healing.
Matt Jr. told them stories of their ancestors. How they liked to sit in a large prayer circle with a drummer in the middle, and how the pounding rhythm symbolized a beating heart for the Salish and Kootenai peoples.
The group smudged themselves, wafting smoke from a pine using an eagle feather, a long-standing tradition used in many Indigenous cultures. While there are many interpretations, Matt Jr. said the overall theme is to cleanse oneself, and to hold the time after the smudging as sacred.
“This time set apart is special,” he said. “We can all meet together and talk out our diffculties, many of which come from long-standing issues from past trauma.”
While Matt Jr. holds weekly meetings to help families through the healing process one at a time, the national movement to uncover the hard truths of boarding schools continues to pick up speed.
Last summer, the trauma Indigenous people have held onto for generations made headlines with the discoveries of children’s remains and hundreds of unmarked graves at boarding school sites in British Columbia and Saskatchewan.
U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the department’s first Indigenous head, announced in July a sweeping probe into U.S. boarding schools called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe, said the project will include gathering historical records to identify past boarding school locations, locating burial sites surrounding those schools and uncovering the names and tribal affiliations of victims.
NABS has worked to illuminate the history and implications of boarding schools for the last eight years. The group, a nonprofit started in the Navajo Nation in New Mexico, wrote in an Indian Country Today Op-Ed that the schools played a large role in the loss of Indigenous language and culture, health disparities and mental distress that contributes to cyclical rates of addiction, suicide and sexual violence among tribes.
“We are in a moment in history where the wound of unresolved grief from Indian boarding schools is being ripped wide open. The truth is being unearthed and yet so much more is still unknown,” said Christine Diindiisi McCleave, CEO of NABS. “The Truth and Healing Commission on U.S. Indian Boarding School Policies will be the beginning of profound healing for the Indigenous peoples of this country.”
The coalition hopes to collect data on all 367 boarding schools officially recognized by the organization. In a September press release, the group assigned seven researchers to create an interactive map by the end of 2021, and a central digital archive of every school by the end of 2022.
“What I am coming across is that any documents on the boarding schools are very much through a non-native, western lens,” said Ashton Smith, a graduate student at the University of Montana and researcher with NABS.
Smith, an enrolled member of the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma and a descendant of the Kiowa and Blackfeet tribes, started looking into every boarding school in Montana and some parts of Oklahoma and Alaska this fall.
Her goal is to track down the locations, names, active years and the tribes that attended the schools. She also identifies where cemeteries are located, a near impossible task with schools that moved frequently.
At the St. Peter’s Mission, outside of Cascade, Montana, a grid of small white crosses marks the area of unmarked graves from the mission starting in 1866, when the school moved to its final location.
Another boarding school, Fort Shaw, restored its cemetery in 2017. Many previously unmarked graves were remade with new headstones, and listed the names and tribes of some of the lost children, those who never came back to their families. Many were still unmarked.
NABS said in a study that less than 38% of 367 known Native American boarding school records have been located. Smith said some documents for these schools have been destroyed by fires, while others were kept private by the Mission schools. Instead, she has interviewed many elders who went to the schools.
She said only half of recovering from the trauma of these schools is uncovering the facts of the schools themselves. The other half is getting recognition from the U.S. of the atrocities the government sponsored.
“There hasn’t been acknowledgment from the president to our local officials,” Smith said. “They tried to get rid of native people, and I feel like the public continues to ignore that.”
As Smith continued to nail down the details of the tribal boarding schools, NABS continued to push the issue into Congress. On Sept. 30, 2021 the group endorsed a bipartisan bill titled “The Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies in the United States Act.”
Reintroduced from the 2020 session by the co-chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus, Reps. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), alongside U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), the act would establish a 10-person federal body appointed by the U.S. president and other officials.
If the bill passes, the commission would continue the process of researching and obtaining documents on boarding schools. Eventually, many of the suspected mass graves would be recovered and those identified could be reburied in traditional funerals. For Smith, a true point of recovery is giving the lost children a proper burial.
“If you look at the way people have recovered bodies in the U.S., the retrieval of some kids in South Dakota, they had an Indigenous ceremony for each of the kids lost,” she said. “They weren’t buried by whoever, they could go home. That is important to recovery.”
Daryl Croff attended the Blackfeet Boarding Dorm on the Blackfeet Reservation in the 1980s, and still remembers the four-hour long cleaning assignments meant to discipline students. He quickly learned how to stay in line during his four years, and graduated from the school.
But that wasn’t his last time at the east Browning school.
Croff returned to the center in 2000. He coached the sports teams, but also helped manage the children who stayed at the dormitory. After the start of the pandemic, Croff began filling in as the interim supervisor. His goal is to get more kids in the center.
“We are different now,” Croffsaid. “This is a safe place for our kids.”
After the school was shut down in the 1960s, the tribe began using remodeled parts of the school as a weekday dormitory for enrolled Blackfeet children, who were bused to the local high school. In 2016, the tribe upgraded the dormitory with a new building beside the old dorms.
As Croff walked down the dormitory hallways filled with Fatheads of superheroes and sports stars, kids mingled freely in television rooms and activity halls. The staff hosts an archery club in their back gym, and regularly take the kids on weekly swims and fishing trips.
There is also a dedicated cultural room where the students make traditional art and learn about tribal history. For the seven staff members, the school is a place for students who do not always have a stable home. Yet, the school has faced a problem with enrollment.
“We can comfortably fit 160 kids here, and only 40 are enrolled,” Croff said. “Some of the elders still think this was the same place as 100 years ago, and it’s not.”
The school is only open to enrolled members of the Blackfeet tribe, which Croff said is a barrier to children considered “descendants” of the tribe. The Blackfeet, alongside other tribes, require an enrolled member’s heritage to be at least a quarter from their home nation, a term called blood quantum.
Croff suggested letting the tribe sponsor descendants to go to the school. But even if those students could come to the dormitory, Croff said he didn’t think every student would want to stay in the structured setting.
He said the strict rules negatively affected him and his classmates.
Bob Burns, who went to the Cut Bank School in the 1960s, agreed that the current dormitory has changed for good. He related it to a progression of independence the tribes received. Though he had to go to a boarding school for a year, he said his experience was not as harsh as his parents’ and grandparents’ experiences.
Burns’ mom was taken to a school in Nebraska when she was eight. She was not allowed to leave the school for holidays, weekends or summers, and didn’t return to her Blackfeet homeland for six or seven years.
“It was cutting off the Indian identity,” Burns’ wife, Charlene, said. “The more you submitted to the Western identity, the better you got treated. Even in the agency, you got the best farmland and got everything if you did away with your Indian identity.”
Bob Burns still lives in Babb, now with his wife, Charlene. It’s Burns’ ancestral homeland. They own an isolated ranch and the local restaurant.
Charlene Burns said active healing is happening now because more people are making connections in the Indigenous community. There has been a reintroduction of bison, more young people attending tribal colleges and many cultural stories and traditions have been reestablished.
“You start realizing how beautiful our language is, the philosophy that’s maintained within the language, and in the end you begin to understand all of your own,” she said. “When we remembered who we were, then we could go out and get an education.”
Inside the couple’s restaurant, now run by their kids, a long, painted timeline wraps the dining area, telling the history of the Blackfeet nation.
The couple said they are also healing by adding a second floor to their round barn. When it’s complete, the room will act as a meeting place and ceremony center for their extended family and neighbors.
And while the door to Native American boarding schools still hangs open, tribes, non-profits and individuals are doing their part to confront the realities of the school. With every harsh truth of the schools, members of the Indigenous community are making steps to process and heal from the 100-year school system.