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Native American Law

This is an introductory guide for anyone interested in researching current Native American Law or the history of the relationship between Native American tribes and the US government.

Native American Boarding Schools in the U.S.

Indian Residential Schools, or Native American Boarding Schools, were founded or supported by churches and state and federal governments beginning around the mid-19th century in the United States. The purpose of these institutions was to assimilate Native American children by Christianizing them and immersing them in white American culture. This was done by cutting their hair, giving them new names, cutting them off from relatives, and punishing them for speaking their Indigenous languages.

There is an overwhelming number of reports of physical, mental, sexual abuse, and deaths of students at the hands of boarding school staff. Students were also commonly used as a labor force, working on school farms, in laundries, performing maintenance work, and in construction.

The Meriam Report (linked below) in 1928 stated that "[P]rovisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate." Overcrowding, malnutrition, disease, and substandard medical care were noted specifically. Furthermore, boarding school graduates had no support for securing apprenticeships or jobs.

In June, 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced that the U.S. government would investigate its oversight of Native American Boarding Schools. Sec. Haaland's announcement came after reports of mass graves found at boarding school sites in Canada. See resources linked in the U.S. Department of the Interior box below.


The acts listed below affected the establishment, funding, and practices of the residential school system in the U.S. Some provisions of these laws are now obsolete but are provided here for historical research purposes.

Civilization Fund Act of 1819 (PL 15-85)

The Civilization Fund Act of 1819 authorized funding for organizations to run schools on Native American reservations. The Act was later used to authorize the establishment of boarding schools.

Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (PL 73-383)

The purpose of the Indian Reorganization Act was to restore asset management to tribes and to end Native American assimilation policies and practices.

Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 (PL 93-638)

Authorized the US government to contract with and directly fund federally recognized tribes. The Act gave Native American tribes the authority to administer these funds themselves. This Act has been amended several times over the years. For information about amendments, see Public Law 93-638 linked below.

New York

The Thomas Indian School in western New York was founded by Presbyterian missionaries in 1855 as the Thomas Asylum for Orphan and Destitute Indian Children. The State of New York took over the school in 1875. In 1905, the name was officially changed to the Thomas Indian School.

Native American children from New York were also sent to other residential schools around the country, like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.