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History of Family Separation: Native American

An academic guide on the history of family separation


"Understanding psychological trauma begins with rediscovering history."
-Judith Herman

From the 1860s through the 1960s Native American children were separated from their families and taken from their reservations. They were forcibly enrolled in boarding schools in an effort organized originally by Christian missionaries and alter by the United States government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. The stated purpose of this policy, in the words of Richard Henry Pratt was to "Kill the Indian, Save the Man." In these schools children were severely punished for speaking native languages and practicing native religions, although some found methods of resistance in community. They were forced to cut their hair and wear Western styled clothing.  Many children suffered physical, religious, and/or sexual abuse. The schools were meant to strip children of their native cultures through forced assimilation that destroyed many families and communities for generations.

Herman, J.L. (1997). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence from domestic abuse and political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books, p. 2.
US Indian Boarding School History. (n.d.). Retrieved from


  • Native American Boarding Schools
  • Native American Studies
  • American Indian Boarding Schools
  • American Race Relations
  • Off-Reservation Boarding Schools
  • American Indian Education
  • Haskell Institute
  • Carlisle School
  • Indian Child Welfare Act


Before Carlisle

George Conner Carlisle Indian School collection, NMAI.AC.250; National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

After Carlisle

George Conner Carlisle Indian School collection, NMAI.AC.250; National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Basket-Ball Squad

Front of a postcard circa 1890-1914 from the Dale Jenkins Postcard and Photograph Collection


Collins, C. (2000). The Broken Crucible of Assimilation: Forest Grove Indian School and the Origins of Off-Reservation Boarding-School Education in the West. Oregon Historical Quarterly, 101(4), 466-507. 

 "Off-reservation education institutionalized assimilation, the underlying principle being that separation from family and immersion in non-Indian culture were essential for effective acculturation."  Using biographical information of school founders, school records, and full personal correspondences to portray life (and death) at Forest Grove Indian School and the establishment of off-reservation schools.

Colmant, S., Schultz, L., Robbins, R., Ciali, P., Dorton, J., & Rivera-Colmant, Y. (2004). Constructing Meaning to the Indian Boarding School Experience. Journal of American Indian Education, 43(3), 22-40.

Using grounded theory methodology, a multimember research team conducted and analyzed interviews and observations with 30 alumni of various Indian boarding schools, and 16 students and seven staff in one Indian boarding school currently operating in Oklahoma. Five main factors emerged that appear central to constructing meaning to the Indian boarding school experience. These factors were: (1) background context, (2) perception of reasons for attending, (3) severity, (4) coping during experience, and (5) coping after experience. Explanations and excerpts from the data are provided to illustrate each of the factors. Potential use of these factors to practitioners working with survivors of Indian boarding school abuses in counseling and therapy is discussed.

Lomawaima, K.T. (1993). Domesticity in the Federal Indian Schools: The Power of Authority over Mind and Body. American Ethnologist 20(2), 227-240.

This study of off-reservation boarding schools for Native Americans illustrates how Indian students contested federal authority. Analyzing domesticity training and notions of proper dress for female students, it sheds light on the relations of power within the schools as the U.S. government tried to train Indians for subservience according to 19th-century racist theories of their circumscribed physical and mental development. Archival records document federal practice; narratives by alumni of the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma provide student perspectives. The bloomer story, an important shared narrative, symbolizes student cooperation within (and competition between) gender-defined peer groups.

White, L. (2018). Who Gets to Tell the Stories? Carlisle Indian School: Imagining a Place of Memory Through Descendant Voices. Journal of American Indian Education, 57(1), 122–144.

Most Indian boarding school research emphasizes student experiences. When descendants are considered, the intergenerational impacts on subsequent generations are emphasized. The discussion in this article privileges descendant voices. I analyze a descendant survey paying attention to how descendants recollect their family's experience at Carlisle. I argue stories passed on to descendants become our own stories, informing how we make sense of boarding school history and integrate narratives into our lives. Memories and recollections are co-constructed, reconstructed, and sometimes contested while making significant contributions to Carlisle's legacy.

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