The best books on American Indian boarding schools

1 authors have picked their favorite books about the American Indian boarding schools and why they recommend each book.

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Stringing Rosaries

By Denise Lajimodiere,

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

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.


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.

Boarding School Seasons

By Brenda J. Child,

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

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.


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.

They Called It Prairie Light

By K. Tsianina Lomawaima,

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

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.


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.

Education Beyond the Mesas

By Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert,

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

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.


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.

Education for Extinction

By David Wallace Adams,

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

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.


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.

I Am Not a Number

By Jenny Kay Dupuis, Kathy Kacer, Gillian Newland (illustrator)

Book cover of I Am Not a Number

We as a nation and society are on the road to truth and reconciliation. Critical to that journey are stories such as I Am Not a Number. The book tells the heartbreaking story of Irene, the author’s grandmother, and her brothers who were taken away from their home on Nipissing First Nation to live at a residential school, very far from home. At the school, names are not used. All students are known by numbers. This story will inspire important conversations that will help younger generations understand the horrors so many indigenous children endured in the residential schools. It is a dark part of our history, kept secret by past generations, that is only now coming to light through these powerful stories.

Who am I?

I am an author, physician, mother of three, and an advocate for social justice in education. I came to Canada as a refugee from the Vietnam war when I was a young child. I love to write children's stories that convey the humanity in our lives. My books have been shortlisted for the Alberta Literary Award, Red Maple Award, and Blue Spruce Award.


I wrote...

Ten Cents a Pound

By Nhung N. Tran-Davies, Josée Bisaillon (illustrator),

Book cover of Ten Cents a Pound

What is my book about?

Ten Cents A Pound is about a young girl who is torn by her desire to stay home with her family and the familiarity of their village, and her desire to go to school and discover the world beyond the mountains that surround them. Every time the girl insists that she will stay, her mother repeats that she must go—that there is more to life than labor in the coffee fields. Their loving exchange reveals the struggles and sacrifices that they will both have to make for the sake of the young girl’s future.

I feel this book is inspiring conversations about the importance of education and the sacrifices our parents make.

When We Were Alone

By David A. Robertson, Julie Flett (illustrator),

Book cover of When We Were Alone

This book is a conversation between a grandchild and their grandma who is a residential school survivor. With childlike simplicity, grandma explains why her colourful clothes, long hair, and treasured time with her brother are a reaction to being taken “from community” and being sent “far far away”. Grandma talks about students forced to wear uniforms, cut their hair, forbidden from speaking Cree, and separation from her brother.

This is a book I would probably have steered clear of “not wanting to frighten my children” when I was parenting, David Roberson does a masterful job of gently laying out facts without explanation or accusation. The book opens the door to further questions and conversations that have to be had but are very difficult to start. This is a great start.


Who am I?

I really am passionate about children and education. Reading to children is such a joy especially when they snuggle in and get absorbed in the story. Education is the only way to achieve some sort of equity in our world. The world I knew as a child is no more and that is a good thing. Cruel biases and intolerance hurt so many. Today there is more freedom and the potential to live true to yourself whatever that may be. I like books that show the diversity of our humanity, that can be read to children to broaden their understanding, acceptance, and tolerance of family which may be very different from their own.


I wrote...

Basil's Unkie Herb

By Mary Shaw,

Book cover of Basil's Unkie Herb

What is my book about?

Basil’s Unkie Herb is a book about family, perception, and marriage equality. The book uses Basil’s birthday parties to detail how Unkie Herb’s birthday surprises usually have a funny or disastrous ending depending on your perception. The reader learns not to judge by appearances, Fred who owns a donkey and garbage truck is actually a veterinarian; the dangerous motorcycle riders turn out to be Basil’s teacher and Nana’s doctor. 

The book ends with Mom explaining to Basil that Unkie Herb and his boyfriend Ricardo can marry if they love each other because “where we live you can marry whomever you love.” This is a funny, laugh-out-loud book with a happy ending for everyone.

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