Historical Trauma and Healing from Boarding School Abuse

From the 1890s to the 1970s, the U.S. government sought to “Christianize” Native Americans by separating children from their Native culture, which ultimately led to one of the darkest chapters in Native American history: boarding schools.[1] Many Native American children suffered from both physical and emotional abuse while attending boarding schools, which has given rise to historical trauma.[2]

Historical trauma is unresolved grief from past experience that negatively impacts the emotional and physical welfare of survivors and the next generations.[3] Thousands of children in both the United States and Canada suffered from many acts of cruelty, including severe emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.[4] Many children were forced to live in unsanitary and unsafe conditions, as well as given  insufficient meals from food of very poor quality.[5] In addition to these horrific, disease-filled living conditions, the children were forced to do hard labor to teach them the meaning of hard work.[6] Boarding schools attempted to eradicate the Native American culture, traditions, and languages by punishing or beating children for practicing their culture.[7] As a result, one of the major impacts of the boarding schools was the loss of culture and personal identity.[8]

Today, depression, substance abuse, and suicide are common issues in Native American communities.[9] One research study on historical trauma interviewed elders who attended boarding schools as children.[10] Most of the elders participating in this interview stated that they suffered from depression and alcoholism as adults.[11] Some also shared that they developed a strict parenting style with their children similar to the strictness that they were treated with growing up in the boarding schools.[12] Survivors often struggled as parents because the forced separation from their families deprived survivors of the opportunity to learn their culture, traditions, and parenting skills from their families.[13]

In another research study that focused on healing from historical trauma, boarding school survivors discussed ways of healing from the historical trauma of boarding schools.[14] A participant suggested creating awareness of the cruelties suffered at the boarding school to start a dialogue about the effects of the boarding schools and to educate future generations on the history of boarding schools.[15] Another participant discussed returning and reconnecting to traditions and spirituality.[16] The power of language was also discussed by one participant, who stated that relearning the language helped to heal the trauma of the forced assimilation of the boarding schools.[17] As survivors heal from their experience at boarding schools, the path to legal remedies becomes more complicated due to the government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the physical and emotional damage caused by the boarding schools.

Hundreds of survivors have brought suits against individuals from the boarding schools and institutions responsible for physical and sexual abuse.[18] However, some states have attempted to prevent lawsuits from boarding school survivors. South Dakota, for example, passed legislation that set the statute of limitations to three years after the survivors turned twenty-one.[19] Sadly, this is not the first  attempt to avoid consequences from the abuses from the boarding schools. In 1948, the UN Convention on Punishment and Prevention of the Crime of Genocide expanded the definition of genocide to include more than the mass killing of groups of individuals.[20] As a result, the U.S. could have faced punishment for its treatment of both Native Americans and African Americans. To avoid punishment, however, the U.S. did not ratify this 1948 Genocide Convention until 1988.[21]

Many survivors suffered unthinkable forms of abuse, and they have continued to feel the effects of the trauma they experienced as children. Reconnecting with culture, traditions, and language has helped survivors to heal from the physical and emotional abuse committed at the boarding schools. Today, we can create awareness of the effects of historical to better understand this dark time in history.

By Savanna Duran

Savanna Duran is a 2L at UNM School of Law. She was born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and double majored in English and Spanish at UNM. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, watching movies, and listening to music. She would like to thank her family, husband, and son for their support.


[1] Andrea A. Curcio, Civil Claims for Uncivilized Acts: Filing Suit Against the Government for American Indian Boarding School Abuses, 4 Hastings Race and Poverty L. J. 46 (2006).

[2] Lisa Greyshield et. al. Understand and Healing Historical Trauma: The Perspectives of Native American Elders, 37:4 Journal of Mental Health Counseling 295 (2015).

[3] Id. at 296.

[4] Curcio, supra note 1, at 46-47, 68.

[5] Id, at 63-64.

[6] Id. at 64-67.

[7] Greyshield, et. al., supra note 2, at 296; Curio, supra note 1, at 60-61.

[8] Curio, supra note 1, at 59-61.

[9] Greyshield et. al., supra note 2, at 296.

[10] Barbara K. Charbonneau-Dahlen, John Lowe & Staci Leon Morris. Giving Voice to Historical Trauma Through Storytelling: The Impact of Boarding School Experience on American Indians, 25 Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma 598, 602 (2016).

[11] Id. at 611.

[12] Id.

[13] Curcio, supra note 1, at 73-74.

[14] Greyshield et. al., supra note 2, at 303.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Charbonneau-Dahlen, John Lowe & Staci Leon Morris, supra at note 10, 612-613.

[19] Id. at 613.

[20] Curio, supra at note 1, at 111-112.

[21] Id.

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