Digital Archive launched in U.S. spotlights Indigenous boarding school history

Indigenous children line up before entering an Indian boarding school in the United States. Photo believed taken in 1899 or 1900. (Library of Congress)

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition has launched a digital archive they hope will educate people about Indian Boarding Schools in the U.S.

“It’s a pretty dark chapter of our country’s history and the ripple effects of these schools still exist today,” Fallon Carey, the Interim Digital Archives Manager, said.

“What the database is trying to do is illuminate what was once hidden.”

Similar to Canada’s residential school system 

The U.S. Federal Indian boarding school system ran from 1819 to 1969 and included 408 federal schools.

For Indigenous Alaskans, some attended schools within the state, while others were sent to schools further south in the Lower 48.

Similar to the residential school system in Canada, the system in the U.S. aimed to suppress Indigenous languages and assimilate children into the dominant culture. Many students suffered from being removed from their families and communities, and also by abuse inflicted in the institutions.

Students at a residential school in Fort Resolution in Canada's Northwest Territories. (Library and Archives Canada))
Residential school students are seen in an archival photo of a classroom in Resolution, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The Canadian system had many similarities to the Indian Boarding School system set up in the United States. (National Archives of Canada)

The project was launched by the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, an organization advocating for Indigenous people affected by the institutions.

The archive, five years in the making, includes documents, photographs, and other records about the boarding schools, gathered from various national archives.

“To heal the wound you have to know what caused it”

Fallon said the archive can play a crucial role in educating the general public about the institutions and serve as an important resource for educators and researchers, but that the primary goal of the project is to make the records accessible to Indigenous people across the U.S., wherever they are.

“It’s hard to heal the wound when you don’t know what’s caused it and I think that’s what this tool can do for Indian Country,” Fallon said.

“It’s a way to understand our own histories and to heal and move forward in a better way with more understanding of why we are struggling with some of the issues that we are struggling with inter-tribally, like violence and addiction in our communities.”

Plans for future

Additional records will be included as digitization continues and the organization gains access to more archives.

“This database can give people access to their own truth,” Fallon Carey, the Interim Digital Archives Manager, said. (Courtesy Fallon Carey)

Fallon said there are also ongoing discussions about ways to expand the archive and include as many oral histories as possible.

“The archive has a lot of capabilities and we’re constantly brainstorming; but one of the main ones is looking at oral history projects,” she said.

“Our elders are getting old, so time is of the essence to support elders who want to tell their story.”

Fallon, a member of the Cherokee Nation, said the project has had deep personal significance to her beyond her professional role.

“Digitizing some of these materials, I discovered that I’m a descendant of 10 boarding school survivors,” she said. “For example, I had no idea that my great grandmother went to boarding school, ended up running away, and that there was a legal battle to get her back home.

“I learned that my great uncles also went. [The archive] is truly a discovery tool. I think a lot of people don’t know their own family connections to the boarding schools and this database can give people access to their own truth.”

The National Indian Boarding School Digital Archive can be consulted here.

Write to Eilís Quinn at eilis.quinn(at)

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: “We still have a lot of healing to do with our fellow Canadians” – National Day for Truth and Reconciliation observed September 30, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Truth and Reconciliation Commission should continue says Sami Parliament in Finland, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Danish PM apologizes to Greenlanders taken to Denmark as children in 1950s, Eye on the Arctic

Norway: Can cross-border cooperation help decolonize Sami-language education, Eye on the Arctic

Sweden: Sami in Sweden start work on structure of Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Eye on the Arctic

United States: Alaska reckons with missing data on murdered Indigenous women, Alaska Public Media

Eilís Quinn, Eye on the Arctic

Eilís Quinn is an award-winning journalist and manages Radio Canada International’s Eye on the Arctic news cooperation project. Eilís has reported from the Arctic regions of all eight circumpolar countries and has produced numerous documentary and multimedia series about climate change and the issues facing Indigenous peoples in the North.

Her investigative report "Death in the Arctic: A community grieves, a father fights for change," about the murder of Robert Adams, a 19-year-old Inuk man from Arctic Quebec, received the silver medal for “Best Investigative Article or Series” at the 2019 Canadian Online Publishing Awards. The project also received an honourable mention for excellence in reporting on trauma at the 2019 Dart Awards in New York City.

Her report “The Arctic Railway: Building a future or destroying a culture?” on the impact a multi-billion euro infrastructure project would have on Indigenous communities in Arctic Europe was a finalist at the 2019 Canadian Association of Journalists award in the online investigative category.

Her multimedia project on the health challenges in the Canadian Arctic, "Bridging the Divide," was a finalist at the 2012 Webby Awards.

Her work on climate change in the Arctic has also been featured on the TV science program Découverte, as well as Le Téléjournal, the French-Language CBC’s flagship news cast.

Eilís has worked for media organizations in Canada and the United States and as a TV host for the Discovery/BBC Worldwide series "Best in China."

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