The best books on U.S. Indian boarding school experiences

Who am I?

My Diné (Navajo) family stories drew me into history including studies of Indigenous experiences in boarding schools. Two of my uncles were Navajo Code Talkers, and I loved asking them about their life stories. My uncle Albert Smith often spoke about his memories of the war. I was struck by the irony that he was sent to a boarding school as a child where the Navajo language was forbidden, and then he later relied on the language to protect his homelands. I then became interested in all my relatives' boarding school stories, including those of my father, which led me to write my first book The Earth Memory Compass about Diné school experiences. 

I wrote...

The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century

By Farina King,

Book cover of The Earth Memory Compass: Diné Landscapes and Education in the Twentieth Century

What is my book about?

The Diné, or Navajo, have their own ways of knowing and being in the world, a cultural identity linked to their homelands through ancestral memory. The Earth Memory Compass traces this tradition as it is imparted from generation to generation, and as it has been transformed, and often obscured, by modern modes of education. An autoethnography of sorts, the book follows Farina King’s search for her own Diné identity as she investigates the interconnections among Navajo students, their people, and Diné Bikéyah—or Navajo lands—across the twentieth century.

Critical to this story is how inextricably Indigenous education and experience is intertwined with American dynamics of power and history. As environmental catastrophes and struggles over resources sever the connections among peoplehood, land, and water, King's book holds out hope that the teachings, guidance, and knowledge of an earth memory compass still have the power to bring the people and the earth together.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable, and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors

Why did I love this book?

For this book, Lajimodiere dedicated much time and effort over years to listen and record boarding school experiences of Native Americans, especially in the northern Plains, acknowledging different forms of schools that threatened Native American lives, families, and peoplehood. Her book encapsulates the voices of the survivors who testify of their struggles and those who did not survive the boarding school colonizing machine that sought to control Indigenous youth and their communities.

Lajimodiere epitomizes an activist scholar who has worked to trace as many Indian boarding schools in the United States as possible, and she has been foundational to the development of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition that is spearheading efforts for truth and healing from the adverse impacts and legacies of boarding schools.

By Denise Lajimodiere,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Stringing Rosaries as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Denise Lajimodiere's interest in American Indian boarding school survivors stories evolved from recording her father and other family members speaking of their experiences. Her research helped her to gain insight, a deeper understanding of her parents, and how and why she and her siblings were parented in the way they were. That insight led her to an emotional ceremony of forgiveness, described in the last chapter of Stringing Rosaries.

The journey to record survivors stories led her through the Dakotas and Minnesota and into the personal and private space of boarding school survivors. While there, she heard stories that they…

Book cover of They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School

Why did I love this book?

As soon as I read Lomawaima’s They Called it Prairie Light, I knew that I wanted to work with oral history among my Diné relatives and Native American communities to better understand their voices and perspectives of Indian boarding schools. Lomawaima’s book brought together oral histories and stories that she gathered from her father and relationships that she sustained with former boarding school students of the Chilocco Indian School. She offers a platform for boarding school students to tell their own stories; and, most importantly, she exemplified how to do such significant work.

By K. Tsianina Lomawaima,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked They Called It Prairie Light as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Established in 1884 and operative for nearly a century, the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma was one of a series of off-reservation boarding schools intended to assimilate American Indian children into mainstream American life. Critics have characterized the schools as destroyers of Indian communities and cultures, but the reality that K. Tsianina Lomawaima discloses was much more complex.

Lomawaima allows the Chilocco students to speak for themselves. In recollections juxtaposed against the official records of racist ideology and repressive practice, students from the 1920s and 1930s recall their loneliness and demoralization but also remember with pride the love and mutual…

Book cover of Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940

Why did I love this book?

Child draws strong connections between boarding schools and Native American communities and families through generations in ways that are accessible and clear-cut for every reader. Her work delves into sources that other scholars overlooked such as letters between boarding school students and families. One of the greatest takeaways from Child’s book and other related studies that I also recommend is how boarding school legacies and impacts continue into the present, affecting not only the boarding school students but also their posterity and American society at large.

By Brenda J. Child,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Boarding School Seasons as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Boarding School Seasons offers a revealing look at the strong emotional history of Indian boarding school experiences in the first half of the twentieth century. At the heart of this book are the hundreds of letters written by parents, children, and school officials at Haskell Institute in Kansas and the Flandreau School in South Dakota. These revealing letters show how profoundly entire families were affected by their experiences.

Children, who often attended schools at great distances from their communities, suffered from homesickness, and their parents from loneliness. Parents worried continually about the emotional and physical health and the academic progress…

Book cover of Education Beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929

Why did I love this book?

Gilbert worked closely with his Hopi people and nation on this book, and he demonstrates how a book can take different forms such as a documentary film, blog, and other more publicly accessible projects. In his book, Gilbert shows how to apply Indigenous methodologies and intellectual processes to understand Indigenous perspectives of boarding schools. He contextualizes Indian boarding school experiences as part of larger historical dynamics and a sense of being for Hopi who have faced and navigated challenges of colonialism for generations.

By Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Education Beyond the Mesas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Education beyond the Mesas is the fascinating story of how generations of Hopi schoolchildren from northeastern Arizona "turned the power" by using compulsory federal education to affirm their way of life and better their community. Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, one of the largest off-reservation boarding schools in the United States, followed other federally funded boarding schools of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in promoting the assimilation of indigenous people into mainstream America. Many Hopi schoolchildren, deeply conversant in Hopi values and traditional education before being sent to Sherman Institute, resisted this program of acculturation. Immersed in learning…

Book cover of Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928

Why did I love this book?

Adams’s book exposed the Indian boarding school agenda and system as genocide for many readers. His book was one of the first publications that I read about Indian boarding schools as it represents a significant historiographical shift and approach to Indigenous experiences in boarding schools since the first writings of Native American boarding school students such as Zitkála-Šá, Charles Eastman, and Luther Standing Bear. The revised edition of his book could not have come at a better time with the announcement of the Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative that followed about a year later in June 2021.

By David Wallace Adams,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Education for Extinction as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The last 'Indian War' was fought against Native American children in the dormitories and classrooms of government boarding schools. Only by removing Indian children from their homes for extended periods of time, policymakers reasoned, could white "civilization" take root while childhood memories of 'savagism' gradually faded to the point of extinction. In the words of one official: 'Kill the Indian and save the man.'

This fully revised edition of Education for Extinction offers the only comprehensive account of this dispiriting effort, and incorporates the last twenty-five years of scholarship. Much more than a study of federal Indian policy, this book…

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