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American Indians and the American government have lived with a harsh legacy for 130 years. The government took tens of thousands of Indian children far away from their reservations to schools where they were required to dress, pray, work and speak as mainstream Americans. Many Indians remember those boarding schools as places where they were abused and where their culture was desecrated.

After years of reforms, the government still operates a handful of off-reservation boarding schools, but funding is in decline, and now some Native Americans are fighting to keep the schools open. NPR's Charla Bear has the first of two reports.

CHARLA BEAR: The late performer and Indian activist Floyd Red Crow Westerman was haunted by his memories of boarding school. As a child, he left his reservation in South Dakota for the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota. Sixty years later, he still remembered watching his mother through the window of the government bus.

Mr. FLOYD RED CROW WESTERMAN (Performer and Indian Activist): My first impression, I thought my mother didn't want me. And it hit me hard like that. But when I got on the bus and I sat down and I looked, and she was just crying. It was hurting her, too. It was hurting me to see that. I'll never forget. All the mothers were crying.

BEAR: Westerman's music summed up the feelings of generations of former boarding school students.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WESTERMAN: (Singing) You put me in your a boarding school, made me learn your white man rule, be a fool...

BEAR: The federal government began sending American Indians to boarding schools in the late 1870s, when the United States was still at war with Indians. An Army officer, Richard Pratt, founded the first school that took children far from their reservations. He based it on an education program he had developed in an Indian prison. He described his philosophy in this speech, read by an actor.

Unidentified Man: A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.

In the 1940s, this philosophy was still common. Bill Wright, a Butwin Indian, left his reservation in California for the Stewart Indian School in Nevada when he was six. Wright says matrons bathed him in kerosene and shaved his head. Students at federal boarding schools were forbidden to express their culture - everything from wearing long hair to speaking even a single Indian word. Wright says he lost not only his language, but his native name.

Mr. BILL Wright: And I remember coming home, and, you know, my grandma asked me to talk Indian to me and I told Grandma, I don't understand you. She says, then who are you? I went, my name's Billy. She said, your name's not Billy. She says, your name is Tutum. That's who you are. That's your name. And I went, not what they told me.

Professor TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA (American Indian Studies, University of Arizona): The intent of the school was to completely transform people, I mean, inside out - language, religion, family structure, economics, the way you make a living, the way you express emotion, everything.

BEAR: Tsianina Lomawaima heads the American Indian Studies program at the University of Arizona. She says from the start, the government's objective to erase and replace Indian culture was part of a larger strategy to conquer Indians.

Ms. LOMAWAIMA: They very specifically targeted Native nations that were the most recently hostile. There was very a conscious effort to recruit the children of leaders, and this was also explicit, essentially to hold those children hostage. The idea was it going to be much easier to keep those communities pacified with their children held in a school somewhere far away.

BEAR: The government operated more than 100 boarding schools for American Indians, both on and off reservations. Children were sometimes taken forcibly, by armed police. Lomawaima says other families were willing let their children go.

Ms. LOMAWAIMA: For many communities, for a whole variety of reasons, federal school was the only option. Public schools in many places in the country were closed to Indians because of racism.

BEAR: At boarding schools, most students learned trades - carpentry for boys and housekeeping for girls.

Ms. LUCY TOLEDO (Navajo Indian, Attended Boarding School): It wasn't really about education. We didn't really learn English basic, English or math.

BEAR: Lucy Toledo, who's Navajo, went to Sherman Institute in California in the 1950s. She also remembers some unsettling free-time activities.

Ms. TOLEDO: Saturday night we have a movie. Every Saturday night. Do you know what the movie was about? Cowboys and Indians. Cowboys and Indians. Here we're getting all our people killed, and it's the kind of stuff they showed us.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

BEAR: And for decades, there were reports that students in the boarding schools were abused. Children were beaten, malnourished and forced to do heavy labor. In the 1960s, a congressional report found that many teachers still saw their role as civilizing Native American students, not educating them. The report said the schools still a, quote, "Major emphasis on discipline and punishment."

Bill Wright remembers an adviser hitting a student hard.

Mr. WRIGHT: Bust his head open and blood got all over him. I had to take him to the hospital, and they told me to tell them he run into the wall and I better not tell them what really happened.

Wright says he still has nightmares from the severe discipline. He worries that he and other former students have inadvertently recreated that harsh environment within their own families.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's mostly you do what I tell you. You jump when I tell you to jump, you don't talk back. So you grow up with discipline. But when you grow up and you have families, so what happens? If you was my daughter and if you left your dress over there, you know I'll knock you through that wall. Why? Because I'm taught discipline. And you go, like, ooh, man, better behave. But you have to look at - look what they've done to us.

BEAR: Not all Indians had negative experiences at boarding schools. Some have fond memories of meeting spouses and making lifelong friends. But the scathing government reports led to the closure of most of the boarding schools.

(Soundbite of children playing)

BEAR: One school that remains is Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California, the same boarding school Lucy Toledo attended.

Hershel Martinez and a group of his friends gather casually in a school hallway and begin a drum circle.

(Soundbite of drumming)

BEAR: The school encourages native activities like this. That's one reason Martinez feels more comfortable here than at his former public school in Los Angeles.

Mr. HERSHEL MARTINEZ: And everyone was wondering what nationality, what race am I. And I'll tell them. They're like, oh wow, you're Indian? You're, like, the only guy I know that's native. But here, at Sherman, they know how I feel about being native, and they understand where we're all coming from.

(Soundbite of drumming)

BEAR: But a recent change in federal budgeting means the off-reservation boarding schools are receiving less money, and their future is in doubt.

Charla Bear, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Tomorrow, we'll have more about Native American boarding schools today and what their future might be. You can learn more about the history of the boarding schools and see a photograph of one class on its first day and then how it looked four months later at npr.org.

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