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Boarding Schools Played a Key Role in Spreading Disease in Native Populations

As many as 40,000 Native kids died while attending boarding school, and thousands of others died after going home sick.

Gerald Gladue holds a photo of his mother, Jeannie Gladue, a residential school survivor, while waiting for Pope Francis to arrive at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples where he met with members of the Indigenous community in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on July 25, 2022.

George Little Wound was gravely ill when he was sent home to Pine Ridge from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1889, just three years after arriving at the notorious boarding school.

Little Wound, the son of Chief Little Wound, was among a group of three Pine Ridge students shipped home together with what the school physician described as “incipient consumption” and “scrofula,” a disfiguring infection of the skin and lymph nodes caused by the same bacteria as tuberculosis, according to Carlisle records.

All three appeared to survive their illness for some time after they returned to Pine Ridge, though Little Wound was never the same. Forever weakened by the disease, he struggled to support himself and expressed disgust with his school experience.

“I went to [Carlisle] school to get a good education … but I was greatly mistaken when I went to school,” he wrote in 1911, in a tersely worded survey he sent to Carlisle more than 20 years after returning home.

“I come home with sickness and do not know any thing…. and believe I may never get well from the sickness which I brought from the school,” he wrote. “I am in a miserable place and bad condition living in a one-room log home without floor where I am unable to help myself.”

The decision to ship home students like Little Wound with contagious illnesses also no doubt contributed to the spread of tuberculosis and other diseases across tribal nations, causing deaths across the country linked to boarding schools that go far beyond the numbers of students buried in school cemeteries.

Native populations across the country decreased by more than 100,000 during the early years of boarding schools, with about one third of the total Native population dying between 1860 and 1900, mostly from diseases such as tuberculosis.

On the Pine Ridge Reservation, thousands of people died from about 1860 to 1900, also mostly from tuberculosis, records show.

Scholar Preston McBride, who spent years researching the deaths for his doctoral dissertation at the University of California Los Angeles, estimates that as many as 40,000 Native children died while attending boarding school and thousands of others died after going home sick.

“Sending sick students back to their communities made them deadly pathogen carriers,” McBride wrote in his dissertation. “Indeed, school superintendents routinely infected Indigenous communities across the United States by sending ill children and young adults home. When terminally or terribly ill students approached death, superintendents sent them home to possibly infect others and die.”

Not unlike the smallpox-infected blankets distributed to tribes in the mid-18th century by British forces during the French and Indian War, the boarding school policies used Native America’s own children to spread disease and death.

It was a risk government officials knew well but disregarded, allowing them to avoid reporting the rising school death rates and contributing to the overarching mission to resolve the so-called “Indian problem” one way or another, according to an ICT review of documents from Carlisle and the National Archives.

The devastation at the time was fueled by the growing interest in the eugenics movement, which considered Native people and other people of color as biologically inferior, and a widespread indifference to the plight of Indigenous people.

Repeated Warnings

In 1860, the Native population was estimated to be 339,000, but by 1900, it had dropped to about 237,000, a rapid decline that coincides with assimilation policies during the years of the Dawes Act land policies and the spread of boarding schools.

Although the federal government failed to keep accurate death records for either boarding schools or reservations, schools clearly played a key role in spreading disease in the Native population.

All the while, government officials ignored repeated warnings that they were killing people.

A letter discovered by ICT in Carlisle archives from the Indian agent at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, for example, complained that 20 percent of the population there was infected with some form of tuberculosis, and that 50 percent of the related deaths were among school-age children.

He went on to complain in the 1916 letter about the practice of sending sick children home from Carlisle.

“It is not sufficient to send children afflicted with tuberculosis home from boarding schools without making some adequate preparation for their care,” wrote John Brennan, superintendent at the Pine Ridge Agency in South Dakota to the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

“It is equivalent to sending them home to die.”

Leaders at Carlisle wrote in response that they had no record of students sick with tuberculosis returned to Pine Ridge.

McBride, of Comanche descent, an assistant professor of history at Pomona College in California, combed through school and national archives as well as census data and news reports of four federal Indian boarding schools: the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania; the U.S. Indian Industrial Training School in Haskell, Kansas; Chemawa Indian School in Oregon; and the Sherman Institute in California.

He examined records from 1870 to 1934, and used the information from the four schools to estimate that nearly 40,000 students likely died in the more than 400 boarding schools operated in the U.S.

His estimate far exceeds death and attendance rates reported in the U.S. Department of Interior’s 2021 boarding school investigation, which identified approximately 53 burial sites associated with all schools accounting for more than 500 student deaths.

The Interior Department’s report, however, predicts that future information may show that death rates may have been in the thousands or tens of thousands. Investigators were unable to provide an accurate number of children who attended the schools, although they concluded that by the 1920s nearly 83 percent of school-age Native children were enrolled in the schools.

From the new information collected, McBride was able to estimate that approximately 250,000 Native children attended boarding schools and day schools from 1879 to the present.

McBride’s findings already exceed those found by the Department of Interior. His research found that official records list that 831 students died at just the four schools he examined, and that 3,947 students were sent home from the schools during this period, mostly because of illness.

“I took all the archival material I could find and compared it to school superintendent reports sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs,” McBride told ICT. “Death rates were routinely underreported across all four schools.”

He was also able to determine that at least 1,000 died after being sent home sick, in addition to the number of students reported to have died while enrolled at the school.

“Accurate numbers are hard to come by,” he said. “I describe most of the deaths as ‘administrative disappearance.’”

“Insidious” Disease

ICT’s research of Carlisle records and at the National Archives found numerous examples of official correspondence among school leaders and government officials referring to and often complaining about the practice of sending very sick children home from boarding schools.

The reports are complicated by the fact that vital statistics regarding reports of deaths omitted the children’s connections to boarding school attendance.

But records show that Lt. Richard Pratt, superintendent and founder of the Carlisle school, quietly began sending very sick children home to die rather than continuing to increase the school’s reported death rates and burials on site. Other schools soon followed suit.

As researchers have continued to dig into records, it has become more and more apparent that the children buried in school cemeteries — even those in unmarked graves — represent a small fraction of the children who died as a result of their boarding school experiences.

In a letter to the Commissioner on Indian Affairs requesting funding for the children to travel home, Pratt describes the process as “getting rid of bad timber.” The school’s physician agreed, noting that children with incurable diseases who are likely to die young should be sent home.

They knew it was a death sentence, according to a letter Pratt wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1904.

“Occasionally, students recover who are sent home under these circumstances [sick with tuberculosis] but in most cases they linger awhile then for lack of proper treatment and attention and from being surrounded by the degrading, impoverished and irregular conditions at their homes, pass away,” he wrote.

McBride shared an 1897 government report from the Ho-Chunk Agency physician W. J. Stephenson.

“The prevailing disease is tuberculosis, which is slowly solving the Indian problem,” Stephenson wrote.

James Walker, a physician in the Indian Service who served as doctor at the Pine Ridge reservation from 1896 to 1906, carefully collected data relating to tuberculosis there.

In an 1899 report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Walker said tuberculosis death rates rose by 62 percent at Pine Ridge for each of the years he kept data.

“The prevailing disease among the Lakota is tuberculosis with almost 50 percent infected, mostly children,” he wrote.

A missionary at the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming calculated that between 1881 and 1894, more than half of the 73 children sent to Carlisle died either at the school or shortly after returning home. In 1897, the superintendent at Crow Creek Indian boarding school in South Dakota reported to Washington that the entire school population was infected with tuberculosis, according to ICT research.

By the early 1900s, tuberculosis had grown to epidemic proportions across Indian Country.

“Pulmonary tuberculosis is widespread,” wrote Indian Service Inspector William McConnell in a 1904 report to the commissioner about tuberculosis among Native populations.

“It is common. It is fatal. It is insidious. It is everywhere.”

Placing Blame

The first children attending Carlisle and other Indian boarding schools began to sicken or die almost immediately from tuberculosis, diphtheria, measles and other diseases.

Their diminished immune systems were likely exacerbated by poor food, hard labor and the emotional toll of homesickness. Pratt’s great scheme to “kill the Indian to save the man” soon included killing the man as well. By confining large numbers of children from sparsely populated rural locations into close, unventilated, crowded quarters, Pratt inadvertently created an especially efficient vector for transmission of disease.

The deadliest was tuberculosis. In the years following the beginning of the federal boarding school era, from about 1880 to the 1920s, the rates of tuberculosis infection and death sky-rocketed at schools and on reservations.

Pratt placed the blame on the Natives themselves, accusing them of sending sick children to the school, and railed against what he described as their unhygienic, primitive ways as the cause of death. He blamed one student’s death, for instance, on contagion contracted from a letter from home.

A tuberculosis diagnosis in those days was often a death sentence, since effective treatment with antibiotics didn’t emerge until the mid-1940s.

By 1925, when the overall tuberculosis mortality rate in the U.S. was 87 deaths per 100,000, the rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives was 603 per 100,000, nearly seven times greater, according to the National Library of Medicine.

The high death rates were exacerbated by federal policies such as mass removals from homelands as well as land cessions under the Dawes Act, which effectively cut tribes off from traditional food sources.

McBride said tuberculosis was ‘hands down” the number-one killer at schools and on reservations during the period he studied. Tuberculosis developed through what he called a “disease synergy,” in which waves of measles, pneumonia and other diseases worked in concert to weaken the immune system making people susceptible to more dangerous diseases.

“Children don’t just die,” he said. “Once children get beyond age 5 they are among the healthiest demographic of any population. Between the ages of 11 and 13 children are the healthiest they will ever be. Yet, this is squarely the age when Native children died at boarding schools.”

The U.S. Congress refused to help. Even as evidence mounted of illness and death at schools and reservations, Congress failed to allocate funding to combat disease or improve conditions at the schools. Rather, in 1893, Congress enacted regulations requiring Native parents to send children to school or face penalties that included incarceration or withholding of food rations.

“The high rates of death among Native children were tolerated as acceptable collateral damage in the government’s larger push to eradicate Indigeneity and confiscate Indian lands,” McBride said.

The Role of Eugenics

Many scientists during the late 1800s believed that susceptibility to tuberculosis was hereditary, a reflection of poor constitution and biological inferiority.

The belief was driven by the emerging pseudo-science of eugenics, a term coined in 1883 by Sir Francis Galton, an English explorer and anthropologist who was also a cousin of Charles Darwin, the naturalist who authored, “On the Origin of Species.”

Galton and other eugenicists misapplied Darwin’s theory of natural selection or survival of the fittest to explain high rates of illness and social disparities among the poor and people of color as a matter of “bad genes.”

The growing interest in eugenics supported the governmental indifference to Native lives.

Many White leaders of the era enthusiastically embraced the eugenics theory, citing it as proof of already existing societal beliefs in the superiority of the European population and culture and the physical, social and mental inferiority of people of color.

And although the cause of tuberculosis, tuberculosis bacillus, was identified in 1882, the theory of eugenics continued to inform government policies surrounding social welfare and medical support.

Many prominent Progressives, including scholars and scientists, supported eugenics and sterilization as a scientific way to reduce suffering and improve the common good by improving human heredity through the social control of human breeding.

They relied on research such as the First International Eugenics Congress by American eugenicist Bleecker Van Wagenen in 1911, “Preliminary Report of the Committee of the Eugenic Section of the American Breeder’s Association to Study and to Report on the Best Practical Means for Cutting Off the Defective Germ-Plasm in the Human Population” to inform federal policies.

Van Wagenen’s report included 10 remedies for “cutting off the supply of human defectives,” including involuntary sterilization and euthanasia.

Van Wagenen’s theories were so widely accepted that in a 1927 case, Buck v. Bell, the U.S. Supreme Court found in favor of states’ rights to compulsory sterilization of people with ‘undesirable traits,’ such as epilepsy, feeblemindedness and criminality which ultimately translated into use primarily against women of color including Indians.

Thirty states passed such laws. American eugenicists made no secret of their racist objectives, and their views were prevalent.

And Adolph Hitler was greatly influenced by U.S. eugenics research in his genocide against the Jewish people and others he deemed as “undesirables” during the Nazi regime.

It wasn’t until 1974 that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against use of federal funds for sterilization.

McBride, who does not address the impact of eugenics in his research, said the rhetoric surrounding federal Indian policy focused on a myth of inevitable extinction.

“There was a prevailing notion that Indigenous peoples were expendable,” he said. “The vast majority of government officials couldn’t have cared less about Indigenous lives. They weren’t citizens. They couldn’t elect any representatives. If they died, so be it.”

McBride found a bitter, painful irony in his research about the historical treatment for tuberculosis.

Before the use of antibiotics in the 1940s, the gold standard treatment for patients sick with the disease was advising them to live in tents to afford maximum exposure to fresh air.

“Basically they were telling people to go live in tents, which the Lakota were already doing before government officials forced their children away to boarding schools,” he said.

Canadian Similarities

Canada, which patterned its residential school system after the Carlisle school, was also wrestling with similar problems with the spread of tuberculosis.

Dr. Peter Bryce, chief medical officer of the Canadian Department of the Interior and Indian Affairs, sent several reports about high rates of illness and death from tuberculosis among Indigenous children in residential schools and on reserves after conducting research on the population in 1905 and 1906.

His findings, “Report on the Indian schools of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories,” was published in 1907 without its recommendations for access to physicians and improved sanitary living conditions.

According to Bryce’s report and another in 1909, the mortality rate among residential school students was between 40 and 60 percent, mostly from tuberculosis, and 42 percent in homes where children were sent to die.

The government failed to acknowledge Bryce’s findings or act, but the doctor continued to submit his annual reports. Finally, disgusted by government inaction, Bryce self-published his report in 1922 after his retirement, entitled, “The Story of a National Crime.”

Duncan Campbell Scott, deputy superintendent of Canada’s Department of Indian Affairs from 1913 to 1932, defended the schools against Bryce’s findings.

“It is readily acknowledged that Indian children lose their natural resistance to illness by habitating so closely in these schools, and that they die at a much higher rate than in their villages,” he said in 1922. “But this alone does not justify a change in the policy of this Department, which is being geared towards the final solution of our Indian Problem.”

Scott was an aggressive supporter of the residential schools and was instrumental in expanding the system. He spoke out in favor of a 1920 law mandating school attendance for Indigenous peoples.

“I want to get rid of the Indian problem,” Scott said. “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic and there is no Indian question, and no Indian Department. That is the whole object of this bill.”

Looking Ahead

The boarding school legacy continues to live on in the United States, even as the government works to gather research about the system.

George Little Wound, who was sent home sick from Carlisle, carried on the efforts of his father, Chief LIttle Wound, in tirelessly lobbying the government to build schools ON OR close to reservations as a way of reducing illness and death.

Chief Little Wound died in 1899 but his son successfully helped in establishing a day school in the mid-1930s in Kyle, South Dakota, on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Little Wound School, named after George and his father, is now a tribally run institution still in operation today.

Little is known about the other two students, Lizzie Frog and Adelia Tyon, who were sent home with Little Wound to Pine Ridge. The two girls had arrived at Carlisle together on Aug. 12, 1887, when Lizzie was 10 and Adelia was 7.

They were all three sent home on March 27, 1889, with scrofula and incipient consumption.

Adelia lived on into her 30s, at least, though she noted in a letter to school officials in 1910 that she had been hospitalized for about 1½ years after returning home. Records show that she and Lizzie had gone on to attend other schools closer to home, including a school that burned.

But she noted in the 1910 letter that, at age 29, her health problems persisted.

“I am not healthy and weak eyes,” she wrote.

Details about Lizzie are sparse. Her school files report she died in February 1899, just shy of 10 years after being sent home. Her cause of death is not noted.

Today, rows of tombstones remain at Carlisle as efforts are under way to return students’ remains to their relatives more than 100 years after they went to boarding school. Unmarked graves are continuing to surface in the U.S. and Canada.

Now, the new information points to swelling numbers of boarding school-related deaths that had eluded previous official reports. Many more died as a direct result of the boarding school experience.

McBride, meanwhile, finished his dissertation, “A Lethal Education: Institutionalized Negligence, Epidemiology, and Death in Native American Boarding Schools, 1879-1934,” in 2020 and is working to publish it as a book. Several publishers have expressed great interest in the work, he said.

He told ICT he was inspired to pursue research into boarding schools by his grandfather’s experiences.

“He never talked about his childhood but I wanted to know his story; unfortunately he died before I could figure out any answers,” McBride said.

“At some point in the research, I realized I might never find the answers to his life,” he said, “but I grew hopeful that I could provide some answers and maybe even some closure for other people.”

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