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Ndé (Mescalero Apache) Reservation Created by Executive Order The Fort Becomes a Village

Assimilation: Boarding Schools

1860-present day

Prior to the signing of the Navajo Treaty of 1868, Congress debated whether the U.S. government should assimilate, concentrate, or eradicate tribes. A consensus was eventually reached that peace and assimilation should be favored over war and extermination. The Navajo Treaty reflected federal Indian policy of this era, with an article ordering children to be educated in government boarding school to "ensure the civilization of the Indians." The events at Bosque Redondo marked a turning point for both the Mescalero Apaches and the Navajos, as they were forced from their traditional existence into the confines of the American reservation system.

Federal educational programs sought to destroy Native cultures and eliminate family relationships. Native children were taught to stop speaking Native languages and to abandon traditional religious and cultural practices, and were instead required to speak English and practice Christianity. Article VI of the Navajo Treaty stipulated that all children between the ages of six and sixteen would attend school and receive an English-language education. This provision essentially promoted cultural genocide by removing children from their homes, enrolling them in government boarding schools, and preventing them from practicing their own cultures, customs, languages, and religions. Experiences of individuals varied, but ultimately schools were sites of forced assimilation.

I am a product of the U.S. government boarding schools, brutal institutions that gave us no chance to be who we were. For the very first time you were put into school... you were constantly reminded that who you are was not viable and who you are is less than what you should be. Everything that was used against us, everything that we were taught, was a way of making us step away from our own culture, our own language, our own stories, our own landscape.

Shonto Begay Diné

Religious Missionaries

The first Indian boarding schools were started by religious missionaries, who sought to "civilize" and "Christianize" Native children. The Presbyterian Board of Missions established the first classroom on the Navajo reservation, at Fort Defiance, in the 1870s.

I remember first going to boarding school, there were three little lines on the wall... and you stood against the lines. If you were below the shortest mark, you were deemed to be Catholic. If you stood up to the highest line, you were told that you were Mormon. If you were up to the middle line, you were Presbyterian.

Shonto Begay Diné


When Native children arrived at government boarding schools, many experienced initiation into the military-like culture. Their traditional clothing was replaced with western-style uniforms and their long hair was cut. These changes to a student's appearance were intended to erase their Native identity by assimilating into mainstream American culture.

When I was put in boarding school back in Low Mountain, I remember I got my head shaved off... They came with a clipper and they were shaving my head off, and I was so embarrassed of bald hair that I have. I never wanted to have the long hair because of that embarrassment, and so I never grew my hair long again ever since then.

Roy Smith Diné

How does the Long Walk continue today?