Quaker Indian Boarding Schools

by Liseli Haines
Mohawk Valley Meeting


How had I missed the history of the Native American Boarding Schools? I had not learned about children being snatched or coerced from their parents and driven hundreds, sometimes thousands of miles to a boarding school where they weren’t allowed to speak their own language, participate in their own ceremonies. Their hair, a sign of pride and honor, was cut, and everything they brought with them was taken and burnt while they were issued uniforms. The Indian Boarding School was one policy in a long line of strategies to complete the genocide and erase the Native American culture on this continent. We were not taught about these things in school.


Then I learned that not only did church denominations run some of these schools, but Quakers were one of those denominations. According to Paula Palmer of Boulder Friends Meeting in Colorado, there were about 30 Quaker Indian Boarding Schools in what is now the US. And one of those boarding schools was here in New York State. The Tunessasa Indian Boarding School was in Quaker Bridge, NY, in the Allegheny Territory of the Seneca. The site of the school is now under water held back by the Kinzua Dam.


Philadelphia Quakers were invited to start a school by Cornplanter, a Seneca Chief. A day school was started in 1797 and continued off and on until it became a boarding school in 1852. The boarding school lasted until 1938. Most of the students were Seneca. Even when it became a boarding school, parents were able to come to commencement celebrations and special events. Classes were held for the parents in spinning, weaving. and farming. Quakers were known for not proselytizing and did not try to convert the children but were interested in “civilizing” and teaching English.


Not only were there Quaker teachers in these schools, but many Quakers made philanthropic gifts to help the boarding schools operate. Quakers gave large amounts of money to Carlisle, the largest Indian Boarding School (not Quaker), in Carlisle, PA, where iconic photographs were taken of hundreds of Native children in military style dress and formation. And Philip Thomas, a BYM Quaker who died while living in NY state, gave enough money to a proposed school on the Cattaraugus Seneca territory that the school, run by another denomination, was named after him: the Thomas Indian School.


Under the tutelage of Quakers, the men, who had been hunters, warriors, and protectors of their communities in their intact culture, were now taught how to garden and farm, traditionally women’s work. Everything that gave them honor was gone. They had no land on which to hunt, no way to protect their villages from the encroachment of European settlers; they were demoralized and hopeless, with their way of life taken away. The intent was to “help” the Native Americans, but we know about “good intentions.” The impact of boarding schools and changed gender roles on these already compromised communities was devastating.


So many Quakers with good intentions. So much damage to children and a culture. So much intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools that is still felt today by the survivors who never learned what it was like to be a family, to be hugged, or how to be a parent. Their descendants today are just now beginning to understand why they were often raised without the love and attention needed, why their parents and grandparents still won’t talk about any of it. So many languages lost, so much culture erased. Only in the last few years is it all beginning to be recovered, over two hundred years later.


Now that we know all this, what do we do? How to we make amends for the destruction caused by our coming to this continent? Once seeing, how do we resist the dominant culture hard enough to create change? Is an apology in order? How do we begin?


Let us begin by facing the truths and uncovering our own parts in what happened. Though none of us has done these things, we are responsible for what happens next! Let us move forward in unity and purpose.