Helping Students Visualize the Violence of Residential Schools

By Emily Uruchima, Research Associate, Curriculum Development, Center for Education and Schools
May 16, 2022

The Center for Educators and Schools at the New York Public Library aims to provide curricular materials you can easily integrate into your classroom teaching. The team of curriculum writers and research associates are diving into the archives, special collections, and millions of items in the research libraries to create curricula for K-12 classrooms and beyond. Stay tuned to the For Teachers blog channel for upcoming posts that highlight the Library’s collections as well as resources from other institutions that we think will be useful for educators. In this blog post, we feature a pair of photographs held in Picture Collection of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

Historical Context

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of Native children in the United States and Canada were forced into residential schools that sought to strip them of their Native heritage and assimilate them into "American" culture. In response to the Civilization Fund Act of 1819, which sought to introduce the “habits and arts of civilization” to Indigenous tribes through instruction, residential boarding schools in the United States were created to, in the words of Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, "kill the Indian, and save the man."

Many Native children consequently died from disease, starvation, or physical abuse. Their bodies and graves were unmarked and unidentifiable. They were stripped of any livelihood, and thus their fate was unknowable to their families and tribes. Recently, excavation projects have unearthed hundreds of bodies in the United States and Canada. 

A new federal program, called the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative was created in June of 2021, to identify the facilities and sites where there may have been student burials, as well as the tribal affiliations of the children, throughout the United States. It will also work with tribal nations, Alaska Native corporations, and Native Hawaiian organizations to mine records from 1819 to 1969 that were kept by the department. 

The residential boarding school experiment began when Capt. Richard Henry Pratt opened the doors of Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1879 in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Funded by the Department of Defense, the school took over the Carlisle Barracks, which had previously been used as military headquarters for training the U.S army. Native students were forcibly removed from their families, given entirely new names, and forced to lose all vestiges of their Native identity. Carlisle staff cut off the long braids of children and took away the children’s personal or tribal clothing, moccasins, and family belongings. Students could not keep medicine bags, jewelry, or ceremonial rattles, which often held spirits of ancestors and elders. The school administrators also assigned a new English name to each child and did not allow children to speak in their Native languages. To learn more about what happened in residential schools, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has prepared an overview of the issues at stake in their publication "Healing Voices Volume 1: A Primer on American Indian and Alaska Native Boarding Schools in the US." 

The New York Public Library's Digital Collections contain valuable photos that visually indicate the violent forms in which assimilation efforts took place. Two photos powerfully demonstrate this: "Sioux boys as they arrived at Carlisle'' and "Sioux boys 3 years after arrival at Carlisle,"  issued in 1892, taken at the Carlisle Indian School. Elsewhere, we find an image that shares the boys’ names, from left to right: Wounded Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear, and Chauncy Yellow Robe.  

The photos show the three Sioux boys before and after attending Carlisle Indian Industrial School. Three years of boarding school resulted in stark changes in appearance. They were stripped of their traditional Sioux clothing, replaced with militaristic uniforms. Their hair was also completely cut off, kept short, and made identical to one another. 

Sioux boys as they arrived at Carlisle

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 807115

Sioux boys 3 years after arrival at Carlisle

NYPL Digital Collections, Image ID: 807138

Ideas for the Classroom

In addition to inviting students to compare and contrast the two photos, students should consider the ramifications of these changes on Native culture and identity. Questions to consider:

  • What do the photographs communicate to the viewer? 
  • Do the photographs depict a kind of violence? If so, how?
  • Why do you think these photos were taken? Who might they have been for?
  • Why do you think children were the focus of the boarding schools? 
  • Is destruction of a culture the same as the destruction of a people? 
  • Can there be such a thing as a cultural genocide? 

Older students should consider how residential schools worked in tandem with forced removal to both physically and psychically remove Native communities from their ancestral lands. “American Indian Removal: What Does It Mean to Remove a People?” from Native Knowledge 360 by the National Museum of the American Indian is an incredible resource for student inquiry into these topics. 

These images provide a rich conversation starting point for educators in classrooms, and also touch on the topic of Indigenous history as it relates to youth. Indigenous history lessons have often been relegated to the stories of "Thanksgiving" and "Columbus Day." Yet, the history of residential boarding schools encompasses a reality Indigenous people have faced whose repercussions are still unfolding today, as the nation finally begins to uncover the truth and identities of the children who lost their lives at these schools. 

To continue student learning after discussing the two photos, consider the following resources: 

The American Mosaic - The American Indian Experience

  • Database available with NYPL library card credentials 
  • Includes more photos and brief secondary source materials 

Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center 

  • Includes testimonies and photos of the school
  • Modules for teaching before-after photographs 
  • News and publications about recent scholarship and research 

Native Knowledge 360 by the National Museum of the American Indian

  • Provides educational materials, virtual student programs, and teacher training that incorporate Native narratives

Native American Indian and Alaska Native E-Resource Guide

  • Created in honor of Native American Indian & Alaska Native Heritage Month, this guide provides only a portion of the vast array of online resources available at NYPL. To learn more, take some time to explore our many other e-resources.

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