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Away from home: Indian boarding schools leave lasting legacy

Away from home: Indian boarding schools leave lasting legacy

Mary Smith Sneed was just four or five years old the day a wagon rolled up as she played outside near the family home at Mingo Falls. The wagon stopped, and a Cherokee man named John Crowe greeted her. Crowe, who also happened to be a truant officer employed by the Cherokee Boarding School, invited her to get in the wagon.

“Without looking for her mom, who was doing her own work, they just took her on the wagon and took her to school,” Roseanna Belt, Mary Sneed’s daughter, said during a Sept. 29 talk on the Indian Boarding School experience at Western Carolina University’s Rooted in the Mountains Symposium, which she gave together with her sister Sarah Sneed. 

The school was only 10 or 12 miles away from Mary’s home at Mingo Falls, but it may as well have been 100 miles. It was right around 1920 in Western North Carolina — roads were rough, automobiles uncommon, and travel slow. 

The transition to boarding school was a terrifying experience for Mary, a small child who spoke only Cherokee and was used to sleeping in a trundle bed, curled up with her pet chicken. At Cherokee Boarding School, the children slept in tidy, white-sheeted beds arranged in straight rows. The first time Mary was served macaroni for dinner, she vomited all over the other students— she’d never seen macaroni before, and to her it looked like worms. Speaking Cherokee was a punishable offense. 

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Mary Sneed. Donated photo

“I also remember her telling me that she had her mouth washed out with soap when she was caught speaking Cherokee,” Belt said, “How in the world could a 4 or 5 year old learn English overnight?”

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Erasure as the aim 

Mary Sneed’s experience was far from unique. Over the course of the federal government’s century-long effort to “kill the Indian, and save the man,” it was the rule — not the exception — for Native American children. 

“It’s a bad story,” said Pam Meister, director of WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center. “It’s a horrible story. It was fueled by greed.”

An exhibit on display at the Mountain Heritage Center through Oct. 20 tells that story in detail, using words, photos, artifacts, audio and art to help visitors understand what the Indian Boarding Schools were, why they existed and what happened inside their walls. Titled “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” it’s a traveling exhibit adapted from a permanent display at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, its arrival at WCU made possible by NEH on the road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The boarding school movement began in the late 1800s, but in her presentation Sept. 29 Sarah Sneed began all the way back in the 1400s, when European explorers first began arriving in North America and observed the “doctrine of discovery” when dealing with the land’s native inhabitants. That doctrine, Sarah Sneed said, stipulated that inhabitants could remain on the land for the duration of their lives but could not pass it down to their children — once they died or abandoned the land, the title was clear for the colonizing nation to take possession. 

When the United States of America was formed, that philosophy gave way to “Civilization Policy,” an idea put forth by President George Washington that prevailed through 1830. Washington’s motto was “expansion with honor.” This meant that the United States would foster a government-to-government relationship with Native Americans — with the ultimate goal of acquiring their land. Washington’s government undertook an effort to “civilize” tribal nations, promoting domestic work like weaving for women and farming for men. 

“It flipped traditional Cherokee society on its head, where the women farmed and the men took care of activities outside the home,” Sarah Sneed said. 

But the Cherokee adapted to the federal government’s demand, she said, shifting their traditional lifestyles to become the “yeoman farmers” the U.S. government desired. Then Andrew Jackson became president, ushering in the era of removal. Jackson’s actions would cause tens of thousands of Native Americans, including the Cherokee, to be forced from their homelands and along the Trail of Tears to barren reservations out west. Thousands died along the way. 

Thus began allotment policy, under which the boarding school era began. This policy focused on breaking reservations into allotments granted to individual tribal members — a typical method of land use in European culture, but not in native ones. The policy was fueled by the idea that if Native Americans adopted “white” lifestyles, they would assimilate into the prevailing culture, relieving the federal government of the need to oversee Indian welfare. 

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A group of people watch a blowgun dart move toward a target during a blowgun competition on the grounds of the Cherokee Boarding School on the Qualla Boundary. Hunter Library/WCU photo

This idea dovetailed nicely with the philosophy espoused by Richard Henry Pratt, the U.S. Army officer who founded the infamous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Over the course of his career, during which he worked closely with the regiment’s Indian scouts and was tasked with maintaining order on government Indian reservations, Pratt developed a sympathy for Native Americans and their plight. He eventually concluded that assimilation was their only option for survival, birthing the now-infamous rallying cry of “kill the Indian, save the man.”

Life at boarding school 

Carlisle Indian School opened in 1879 in a building that originally served as an army barracks. Over the next 40 years, more than 10,000 children from more than 142 Indian nations would attend — and not by choice. Uniformed police would forcibly remove children from their homes. Authorities would coerce parents and kidnap children to maintain enrollment numbers, placing them on trains bound for strictly regimented schools hundreds or even a thousand miles away from home. 

Once they got there, their hair would be cut — something that in many Native cultures is a sign of mourning or cowardice — and their traditional clothes confiscated in exchange for Western-style uniforms. They’d be given new, English names, and forbidden from speaking their native language — for most, the only language they knew. 

“Then they were sent to dormitories and divided up by age and by gender,” said Meister. “So even if you were with a sibling, you wouldn’t be with them. You were totally, totally cut off.”

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The student body of the Carlisle Indian School gathers in March 1892. Cumberland County Historical Society photo

Life at the boarding schools — especially early in the movement — often had a military flavor, with uniformed children marching in formation as they moved through the day’s structured schedule. A boarding school schedule on display at the Mountain Heritage Center gives the outline for a typical Monday, starting at 6 a.m. with the rising bell and reveille and ending at 9:30 p.m. with taps and lights out. In between, students participated in school, band rehearsal, work, religious instruction, roll call and prayers. 

“There was a feeling that, we are going to teach you to drill because that’s just the right thing to do, and then we’re going to give you a trade, and forget about trying to be a doctor or a lawyer or anything like that,” said Meister. “We’d like you to be a carpenter or a housekeeper, or those sorts of things.”

Children suffered horribly from the boarding school experience. Aside from the trauma of separation from family, language and homeland, health conditions at Indian schools in the late 1800s and early 1900s were deadly. 

The schools were overcrowded, the diet poor, conditions unsanitary. In the late 1800s, hundreds of students died from communicable diseases like tuberculosis and influenza. In 1915, the rate of tuberculosis at boarding schools was nearly four times the non-Indian rate, and three out of 10 students had a contagious eye infection called trachoma, according to the exhibit. 

Nearly every school had its own graveyard. 

Schools also had their own jails, and one of their functions was to confine students who attempted to run away — a frequent occurrence. Chilocco Indian School had a standing agreement with the local police department, offering bounties for captured students that ranged from $1.50 to $5. 

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Tom Torlino, a Navajo, looked markedly different at his entrance to the Carlisle Indian School in 1882 compared to 1885, after three years at the school. Cumberland County Historical Society photos

At Fort Mojave Indian School in Arizona, a group of kindergarteners tried to run away, got caught, and were imprisoned in the jail. Their classmates then went outside, found a dead tree to use as a battering ram, and freed their imprisoned classmates. They all ran away together, though they were later caught once more.  

Freedom and capture were not the only outcomes of students’ escape attempts. Others died of exposure as a result of their attempts to flee. A painting on display at the exhibit commemorates an 11-year-old girl who died alone, despite being very close to home when the elements overpowered her. 

In the later decades of the boarding school era, which stretched into the 1970s, conditions did get better. Enrollment was more often by choice than coercion, health conditions improved, and the establishments became less militaristic, offering expanded educational opportunities and extracurricular programs like clubs and athletic teams. 

This was partially due to the increasing numbers of former boarding school graduates who returned to their alma matters with reform in mind. 

“The ones that really were academically inclined left the boarding schools and sought higher education, then came back and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to run boarding schools now and change them,’” Meister said. 

Mary Sneed and her sister Rose S. Curley were two such students. 

Mary Sneed spent most of her career as an instructional aide and counselor at the Intermountain Indian School in Utah, where Rose was an administrator. However, their shared ancestry didn’t mean they always agreed about exactly how the boarding school experience should change. 

“In the 1960s when Mom worked there, she filed a complaint with the ACLU because cutting of hair with a restrained student was a continued disciplinary practice at Intermountain School,” Sarah Sneed said. “And so she filed a complaint with the ACLU and they took the complaint on.”

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Students sketch during an art class at Students sketch during an art class at Carlisle Indian School, around 1901. Cumberland County Historical Society photo

However, said Sarah Sneed, Rose wasn’t happy about that. 

“They were both products of this school program. They were both successful. They were also sisters,” she said. “So naturally disagreements arise at times.”

School in Cherokee 

Like her siblings Roseanna and Woody Sneed, Sarah Sneed would go on to earn a post-graduate degree at Harvard University. She became a lawyer, but also a student of the boarding school experience, and its impact on the people from whom she descended. 

In 2008, she interviewed more than 30 Cherokee elders about their experiences in the boarding school system, and what she heard surprised her.  

“The people of my mom’s generation said without exception that they are grateful to the Cherokee boarding school,” she said. 

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Boys and men walk in pairs on the grounds of the Cherokee Boarding School on the Qualla Boundary. Hunter Library/WCU photo

In 2017, Beloved Man Jerry Wolfe, who was Mary’s half-brother and passed away in 2018, told The Smoky Mountain News that he credited boarding school with teaching him the marching skills that caused him to succeed in the U.S. Navy upon his enlistment during World War II. He was reticent to criticize what had to have been an extremely difficult experience. 

“The discipline part was so rugged, but to look at it in the way that they were, they were trying to teach us so we could learn English, to get the Cherokee language out of the way. They wanted us to speak English language because that’s what was used nationwide,” Wolfe said. 

Nevertheless, he allowed, “they didn’t have to punish us like that.”

“They shouldn’t have tried to make us stop using our language, because that’s our language,” he said. “And so the federal government were going at it in the wrong way.”

That’s the type of perspective the Cherokee elders often adopt, Sarah Sneed said. 

“Those beautiful Cherokee elders, none of them is the type of person, or was the type of person, who wanted to dwell on the negative,” she said. 

Though most of the stories they told her were “sweet and interesting,” Sarah Sneed said, she’s heard rumblings of a dark side. Someone once told her there was a case of sexual assault at the school, and she recently learned that one of her relatives died there — a cousin said the boy had been stabbed. 

“Those kinds of stories never came up in the interviews that I did,” she said. “It could have been so traumatic for children that as elders they wouldn’t want to talk about those things. You just don’t know.”

It’s also true that the experience at Cherokee Boarding School would have been less isolating than at major off-reservation schools like Carlisle or Albuquerque. Children from diverse tribes traveled hundreds of miles from home to attend these schools, with many of them never returning. The schools typically hired them out during summer and holiday breaks rather than encouraging family visits. 

By contrast, Wolfe said he’d go home to Sherrill Cove over the summer, and for Christmas and Thanksgiving breaks. The school was located not in some distant city but in the heart of Cherokee, and starting in 1914 the Cherokee Indian Fair was held each year on fairgrounds adjacent to school property. According to an exhibit at the Mountain Heritage Center, boarding school students likely participated in the blowgun, archery and stickball events offered as regular features of the fair.  

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A chair like the ones where Native children would have their hair cut off upon arrival to boarding school is an anchor of the exhibit (top) on display at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Center through Oct. 20. Holly Kays photos

Past in the present 

The boarding schools are all gone now, at least in their original form. Some of them, like Haskell Indian Nations University — formerly U.S. Indian Industrial Training School — survive as institutions of higher learning. But gone are the rigid rows of dormitory beds, the mandatory haircuts, the beatings, the ban on Native languages. 

The legacy, however, remains. Sarah Sneed sees it in the social problems roiling tribal communities today, and in the vanished and vanishing Native languages. Despite widespread enthusiasm about learning the Cherokee language, the number of fluent speakers gets smaller with each passing month — not larger. 

“You had children who were not raised by their parents, and if that is not a potential source of grief and trauma, I can’t imagine what would qualify,” she said. “That kind of grief and trauma was a matter of federal law. The source was federal law.”

The boarding school era was a harsh one for Native communities, but like any resilient culture does, they capitalized on the opportunities it presented even as they handled the harm. The schools gave children from families living on far-flung rural allotments the opportunity to get an education, to receive knowledge in a language the prevailing culture would understand. Many of them left these schools to become leaders and changemakers in ways they would not have been able had the schools not existed. 

Separated from their families, they formed lifelong bonds with their classmates and forged a common Native culture to speak across 574 nations now represented on the roster of federally recognized tribes. 

Mary Sneed, who passed away in 2011 at the age of 95, spent her final years of life at Tsali Care Center in Cherokee. When she was admitted, she “immediately fell in” with another resident, a woman who had been her classmate when they were both kindergarteners at Cherokee Boarding School, Sarah Sneed said. The woman, whose name was also Sarah, looked after Mary Sneed as her mental state declined. If Mary’s sweater was unbuttoned, Sarah would wheel herself over and button it up. 

“That was an effect that Cherokee Boarding School had on this community, that kind of lifelong kinship and concern for one another,” Sarah Sneed said. 

It’s hard, she said, to hold it all in tension — the trauma, the pain and the cultural erasure the boarding schools brought, together with the kinship they fostered and the opportunity for achievement they unlocked. By highlighting the silver linings, do you ignore the raincloud? It’s a question that looms in Sarah Sneed’s mind anytime she talks about the boarding school era. 

“It’s human nature, to succeed and to be happy, and to be happy for people who succeed,” she said. “And boarding school students achieved that. But let’s not forget what all they had to overcome in order to achieve that.” 

See the exhibit

“Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” remains on display at the Mountain Heritage Center at Western Carolina University through Thursday, Oct. 20. 

This traveling exhibit was adapted from the permanent exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. Its arrival at WCU is made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

The Mountain Heritage Center is located in the Hunter Library Building at 176 Central Drive in Cullowhee and open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday, as well as noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 15. Admission is free and special tours for groups are available with advance notice. For more information, call 828. 227.7129.

Leave a comment


  • Hi there,
    Great article! My name is Tony Fusco, Education Coordinator at the Arizona Jewish Historical Society. We run a program entitled, Surviving Humanity (Reframing America), and we would love to feature, Ms. Sneed in an upcoming program. Could you please relay this message to her. Thank you so much for consideration.


    Anthony D. Fusco Jr., M.Ed., M.S.
    Education Coordinator
    Arizona Jewish Historical Society

    posted by Anthony Fusco

    Sunday, 10/16/2022

  • The book (fiction), The Education of Little Tree, tells a similar story. It has been said that its author, Forrest Carter, was a white supremacist, but the story does not indicate that. Rather, it is entirely sympathetic to the Cherokee characters and their way of life in Eastern Tennessee during the Depression of the 1920s-1930s.

    posted by W. R. (Nick) Carter, III

    Friday, 10/14/2022

  • Thank you.

    posted by Tyler

    Wednesday, 10/12/2022

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