When Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) schools are discussed, often the infamous off-reservation boarding schools, such as the Carlisle Institute, are typically the first to come to mind. However, the BIA ran several different types of schools, so hopefully this blog can act as a quick introduction for those researching individual students, school employees, or education in general.

Reservation Boarding Schools

Girl’s Dormitory at Rosebud Boarding School, Rosebud Indian Reservation, South Dakota, 1897

(National Archives Identifier 76046399)

The reservation boarding schools were those built on the reservation. These were the earliest of the boarding schools, emerging from many treaties in which the text called for the creation of schools or education programs. Within the spate of treaties in the 1850s came the first reservation boarding school, on the Yakima reservation in 1860. From these schools came the idea that educators needed to remove the students even further from their people to fully assimilate them, thus bringing about the non-reservation boarding schools. Yet these reservation boarding schools continued – they were run under the respective BIA agency, so while there may be dedicated series, the records are often mixed in with general agency records.

Non-Reservation Boarding Schools

Albuquerque Indian School, New Mexico ca. 1885 (National Archives Identifier 292865)

The non-reservation boarding schools started in 1879 and were built apart from reservations, often located at former army fort sites. The student body tended to be diverse, with students from a variety of tribal nations. These schools operated independently of BIA agencies, reporting directly to the commissioner, so non-reservation boarding schools will often have their own dedicated record series in our collection and are therefore the most researched and referenced. That said, given their separate nature, if one was shuttered prior to the 1940's, and many were closed from 1910 through 1940, often no records were directly saved and what is left is whatever smattering of related records were saved by other BIA agencies and offices.

Day Schools

Pueblo of Sandia Day School, New Mexico, 1936 (National Archives Identifier 2669383)

Day schools were by far the most numerous and least controversial, given they were based on the traditional concept of a student going to school during the day and returning home at night. As BIA education efforts were standardized, day schools became somewhat equivalent to elementary schools, feeding students into either boarding schools or local high schools. You could have dozens of day schools on one reservation. Records for individuals attending these schools often moved with the student to their next school, so finding strictly day school student case files is rare. As with the reservation boarding schools, records of these schools are usually mixed in with general agency records.

Mission Schools

St. Ann’s Mission Day School, North Dakota, Undated (National Archives Identifier 118972317)

Mission schools were the earliest attempts at Eurocentric education and assimilation of Native Americans and some of these schools date back before the Revolutionary War. Early on, many were boarding schools but later switched to the day school model. Mission schools were not run by the BIA but rather by various church denominations so researchers often erroneously assume that mission schools are not documented in our collections. While our holdings do not provide the level of detail we have for other schools, mission schools were required to submit monthly attendance reports to their respective agency, so depending on the agency these were sometimes saved. Many of these schools and the accompanying churches are located deep in tribal lands, as part of the allotment process during the assimilation era granted allotments to schools and churches.

Public Schools

If an individual does not appear in any BIA school records, there is a strong chance they attended a public school and due to curriculums and prejudices, the assimilation aspect was often just as acute as at BIA schools. As with mission schools, the local BIA agency required reports from public schools so proof of attendance and some limited information may be available, if these reports were saved. Public school records sometimes show up in BIA financial files; since reservations are exempt from property taxes, some school districts required the BIA to pay for each student, setting off a complicated formula for that exact cost.

The growing prevalence of students attending public schools can be seen

in this excerpt from a 1931 report of the Fort Belknap Agency.