Native American boarding schools are a bleak, dark period in U.S. history that not enough people know about — 1 TikToker is trying to change that

Depending on your age and where you went to school in the United States, you may or may not know about Native American boarding schools, or residential schools, and the multigenerational impact they’ve had on Native families and culture. 

In May 2022, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a 100-page report on the Native American boarding schools that were implemented throughout the country from 1819 to 1969. The schools were advertised as a way to “assimilate” and “civilize” Native children to “the American way of life.”

Families were forced to send their children to these schools by the government and the Catholic church. By 1926, nearly 83% of all Native children were enrolled in one of these schools. Children were made to eliminate their entire cultural identities; schools cut their braids, had them wear uniforms, removed traditional foods from their diets and even assigned them new “white” names.

It was not until 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act passed, that Native American parents could even have a legal say as to whether their children could attend an off-reservation school.

Nikki Apostolou, a member of the Kanien’keha community whose great-grandfather attended one of the schools, explained to In The Know: “Many [of these schools] were promoted and operated under the belief that they were helping Native children to become better integrated into Christian, modern society.”

Apostolou has talked about the whitewashing of Native culture through these boarding schools on her TikTok. Her great-grandfather, who died in 1986, and his second wife had both gone through the Native American boarding schools when they grew up but rarely talked about the experience as adults — especially with their children.

“It was so common for people of that time [to go to the schools] that they just didn’t speak on it but the effects were felt,” Apostolou said. “From what my mother has told me, my great-grandfather, while very loving, couldn’t even say, ‘I love you.’ There was a lot of PTSD present.” 

The U.S. Department of the Interior’s study found that the U.S. ran or supported 408 residential schools during that time that housed tens of thousands of Native children. Roughly 500 Native American children died from the abuse endured while they were at the U.S. boarding schools — a number that is only increasing as more investigations are underway.

“Many children were beaten, starved, molested and/or murdered [and] buried right on the same grounds of the school,” Apostolou continued. “Many parents were never given a proper reason for their deaths and were often told it was illness. Many children are still ‘missing’ with no explanation given. It wasn’t until the graves started to be discovered both in the United States and Canada that there was any real recognition that it had ever occurred.”

A 2019 report by the National Congress of American Indians found that 87% of state history standards do not include Native American history after 1900, which adds to why Apostolou is not surprised when her commenters express surprise over her residential school videos.

“I’ve spoken on this topic quite a few times on TikTok, and every time I always get a response that so many [people] had no idea this ever happened,” she said. “For the average reader, residential schools may sound like something innocent, but it was truly an act of attempted genocide against the youngest members of Native communities across North America.”

While Native students across the U.S. today are advocating for more accurate history lessons with more than just a couple of pages dedicated to Native American history, some areas in the country are seemingly moving backward.

For example, in January 2022, Arizona Republican lawmakers introduced a bill that would prevent public schools from teaching certain topics relating to race and sex — including white privilege and structural racism. The Florida State Board of Education also unanimously voted to ban schools from teaching critical race theory, which was defined as “the theory that racism is not merely the product of prejudice, but that racism is embedded in American society and its legal systems in order to uphold the supremacy of white persons.”

“America is always written as the hero,” Apostolou said. “America is shown to be the fighter against injustice and inequality — but in reality, the things that have occurred in this country, not just to Native peoples but to many groups, paints a very different reality.”

Less than a year before the U.S. Department of the Interior’s investigation, the New York Times covered the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves — most of them children — on school campuses in Canada.

“This was a crime against humanity, an assault on a First Nation people,” Chief Bobby Cameron, of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, told the Times after the discovery. “The only crime we ever committed as children was being born Indigenous.”

“It may be a hard topic to read about or even discuss, but as we can learn about other nations, wars and atrocities, we should be able to face what our own country has done,” Apostolou added. “Educating about Native issues, rights, culture and history is necessary.”

Orange Shirt Day, or the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which is observed on Sept. 30 in Canada and the U.S., commemorates residential school survivors and their families. The day started in 2013 after a former student from the St. Joseph Mission Residential School, Chief Fred Robbins, gathered former students and families from surrounding Nations to talk about residential schools. The date, Sept. 30, is significant because it’s around the time Native children were taken from their homes to go to school.

The orange shirt idea comes from a story one of the survivors told at the reunion. Phyllis “Jack” Webstad, who is Northern Secwpemc (Shuswap) from the Stswecem’c Xgat’tem First Nation, was initially enrolled at a residential school when she was 6 years old in 1973. She shared that her grandmother had bought her a “shiny orange shirt” to get her excited for the first day of school. But when Webstad arrived, boarding school officials immediately stripped her of her clothes.

“Since posting [on TikTok] I feel there has been more discussion around the topic as well as [more] awareness,” Apostolou said. “We have to continue to spread light on this as well as other issues that affect Native people today like Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and the Indian Child Welfare Act.”

To learn more about Native residential schools, Apostolou recommends the following resources:

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

The Native American Rights Fund — Boarding School Healing

Indian Residential School Survivors Society

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