The long-term effects of American Indian boarding schools

That is a new paper by Matthew T. Gregg, forthcoming in Journal of Development Economics.  Here is the abstract:

This paper explores some long-standing questions of the legacy of American Indian boarding schools by comparing contemporary Indian reservations that experienced differing impacts in the past from boarding schools. Combining recent reservation-level census data and school enrollment data from 1911 to 1932, I find that reservations that sent a larger share of students to off-reservation boarding schools have higher high school graduation rates, higher per capita income, lower poverty rates, a greater proportion of exclusively English speakers, and smaller family sizes. These results are supported when distance to the nearest off-reservation boarding school that subsequently closed is used as an instrument for the proportion of past boarding school students. I conclude with a discussion of the possible reasons for this link.

And this is from the paper’s conclusion:

Last, the link drawn here between higher boarding school share and assimilation should not be misinterpreted as an endorsement of coercive assimilation. Unobserved costs generated by the first generation of students might outweigh the estimated gains in long term assimilation. The program itself was extremely costly, which is one of the reasons for the change in policy towards on-reservation schooling during the 1930s. These results do, however, suggest that the assimilation gains from boarding schools are sizable, but, due to data limitations, this study does not reflect a complete assessment of the trade-offs of boarding school attendance.

Here are earlier ungated versions.  For the pointer I thank the excellent Kevin Lewis.


Sounds obvious: change the environment and change the person, either that or they did not control for better people having the means to leave the rez.

But any study needs a control.

Poor whites need to be taken from their parents and sent to boarding schools and compared to tribal kids taken from reservations and sent to boarding schools, as well as poor blacks, poor browns, poor yellows.

Only by comparing outcomes of each of these groups to rich whites sent to boarding schools (like Trump, Bush, Romney, etc) to see if the problem is the environment they were born in and grew up in before being removed to a better environment.

Radiolab this week on NPR did a show on football, the first half based on the rez school effort to make Indians white that landed on football circa 1890 as the means to get them active toward health. This led to Pop Warner as coach recruited to win the national championship, taking them from the rez to beat the Ivy's. Pop was able to get 11 Indian runts to beat 11 Yale beasts and one Yale referee. Indians beating white guys was unacceptable to wealthy whites.

The 2002 movie "Rabbit-Proof Fence" is about how horrible Australian reformers (played by Kenneth Branagh) were to send Aboriginal children to boarding schools between the Wars, in part to get them away from their alcoholic and tubercular home environments.

After the movie was over, director Philip Noyce became concerned about his young star having to go home to her alcoholic home environment, so he, ironically, paid to send her to a boarding school.

Part-American Indian baseball players were fairly common in the big leagues up through WWII, with two (Chief Bender and Zach Wheat) making the Hall of Fame. After WWII, they became much less common, although today there is Jacob Ellsbury and somebody else whose name I've forgotten.

One theory I came up with was that some of the American Indian ballplayers before 1947 were actually part black and were being passed off as American Indian because Indians were permitted. (Similarly, a couple of the Washington Senators' Cuban ballplayers in the late 1930s were clearly part black, but were mostly okay for playing in the majors, even in semi-Southern Washington.) But I haven't found much good evidence for that.

But that raises the question of why were American Indians in the Jim Thorpe era viewed as fine natural athletes, but by the late 20th Century were not.

Okie checking in here. Jim Thorpe is also considered Native American here. Not sure if you implied that?

But your answer is assimilation. Native Americans with high blood percent don’t exist except for isolated reservations like Navajo. All those players mentioned were half blood or less. Today in Oklahoma there are lots of people with the heritage but you couldn’t tell from looking at them.

Google also tells me there are a few playing in the major leagues, but recently they are from the very isolated tribes. The last self identifying Cherokee was in the 40s. Once you get to 1/16 or 1/32 it more becomes a way of remembering your families heritage as opposed to identity. And of course some tribes have sweet benefits if you get on the roll. At one time Osage head rights paid over $100,000 per year. But they make it very hard to get added unless your family has been continuously on the roll.

Yeah, you can see pictures of the Carlisle Indian football team and if anything players appear to be partially European (or even European):

A powerhouse in its day, and contributed to the perception that football was a roughneck Indian game.

I think assimilation and intermarrying with non-Indians reduces the apparent representation.

But a more likely explanation is probably based on competition and opportunity costs. They probably lost some of their comparative advantage in baseball as they gained opportunity elsewhere.

Also, in my lifetime I have seen a dramatic increase in average and maximal player quality. MLB play is nearly flawless. The athletes have conquered the game. You have a marked increase in available talent and relatively fixed number of participants, average quality will shoot up, limited only by physical constraints on human performance.

The moral of Lars & the Real Girl is that it is okay to be a fake news delusional if the effect of the metaphor proves Hotel Chantel is a bad place even in an instance of perfect weather..

'a greater proportion of exclusively English speakers'

So, the Amish aren't going to be using any vouchers for boarding schools any time soon, right?.

Probably not - boarding school in the sense discussed here performs a culture transplant, and the Amish already have a pretty successful niche culture, albeit different than standard American, and optimized for a low tech and no external threat environment.

As I recall, a couple of decades ago Newt Gingrinch suggested (perhaps tongue in cheek) that one solution to the otherwise seemingly intractable problems of getting kids out of failed poverty cultures was orphanages.

I guess this is fully consistent with Judith Rich Harris's theory that the unexplained approximately 50% non-genetic component of a persons psychology is due to peer group effects.

A very attractive thesis for a lousy mother.

Okay, but is it true? I don't care whether advocating for it tells me Judith Rich Harris is a bad mother or a bad person--I've never met her and never will. I just want to know if she's right.

The current preponderance of the evidence is that Harris is right. But, as Pinker and others say, that doesn't mean that parents are irrelevant; e.g., good parents help ease the slings and arrows of outrageous childhood fortune. Parents just don't have all that much much impact on the kind of outcomes that psychological tests can measure.

"I find that Black Communities that sent a larger share of students to majority-white schools have higher high school graduation rates, higher per capita income, lower poverty rates, a greater proportion of exclusively standard-English speakers, and smaller family sizes"

Well duh. No sane black person sends their child to a majority-black k-12.

American Indian reservations are rife with dysfunction, alcohol abuse in particular. I won't forget my first fishing trip to a famous river on a large Indian reservation. First, there were no Indian fishing guides, Indian-owned inns, or any other Indian-owned businesses I could see, even though the rivers runs through the reservation (on a later trip I did have an Indian fishing guide who took me to a remote part of the reservation with hundreds of wild buffalo). Second, the little town on the reservation, with the only school, was nothing more than a group of shacks, except for the government Indian affairs office, even though the town is located only a couple of miles from the most famous, or infamous, battleground between Indians and American soldiers, a battle in which the Indians defeated the soldiers. Finally, on my last night at the lodge where I was staying, my host warned me to be careful not to hit a drunk Indian passed out at the steering wheel of his vehicle stopped in the middle of the two-lane road that runs through the reservation, as my flight was early the next day and I would be driving in the dark for the approximately two hour drive to the nearest airport. I thought it was a joke, but it wasn't, and fortunately I heeded his warning and was able to see and avoid the old truck in the middle of the road with a passed out Indian at the wheel with the engine of the truck running. A young Indian in this environment has little chance of escaping the dysfunction.

I should clarify that the tribe that defeated the American soldiers is not the tribe awarded this reservation, which had collaborated with the American soldiers and was awarded the reservation for their effort.

Justice is "extremely costly" for the richest nation on earth!!

What offensive, colonialist twattle. Exclusively speaking English is a grievous cultural and personal loss of one's native language, not a positive outcome. Even the phrase "assimilation gains" smacks of paternalistic evil, and I do not use that word lightly. Native Americans never sought assimilation and do not view that as a good, but had it forced upon them. The alcoholism and other social problems on reservations were to a large extent created by the deliberate destruction of traditional family and culture that the US and Canadian governments afflicted on people.

" The alcoholism and other social problems on reservations were to a large extent created by the deliberate destruction of traditional family and culture that the US and Canadian governments afflicted on people."

A lot of progressives seem quite intent on having the government extend these benefits to the rest of the population. They seem to be having considerable success.

Uh, their native language is English. Otherwise they'd not exclusively speak English.

There is an American Indian tribe with very near to average economic well being. It may be because they never got a treaty guaranteeing top down welfare for life, or it may be that the US government never got around to wrecking that tribe's culture.

A better thought is along the lines of why not both? Everyone should have an interest in the strength of native culture because it is both American/Canadian and Indian history. And even if they don't personally care they should care that the treaties were so poorly designed that they are evidently worse than even no treaty at all. In New Zealand the Maori treaties were redesigned/renegotiated and it was a success, seems like a good place to start.

In general, native American parents of the boarding school era, like other parents, loved their children and wanted them to be at home with their families. This feeling was expressed in the landmark "Molly Hootch Case" in Alaska.
" These results do, however, suggest that the assimilation gains from boarding schools are sizable...." While the European invaders might want the native culture to disappear in favor of their own, there's a sizable element of the native population that has no wish to assimilate. Somewhat similar, perhaps, to parts of western society that are reluctant to embrace sharia law, communism, socialized medicine, abortion or on-line education.

I'm worried that we don't get proper exclusion with this instrument. Feels soft for an IV. No faith in these results.

I know people who went to these schools; I think they are by and large conflicted about the experience, recognizing that they gained significant advantage in the US at large, but are still sad about the loss of time with family and friends and some estrangement from their birth culture. But over the totality of their lives (they are all quite old, in their 80s and 90s), I think they see it as a net positive despite the painful aspects. It raises profound questions though.

The real question is whether they were treated like white people by white people with money and power? Ie, did they get jobs and promotion and loans, etc as if they were born white?

If a white person grows up and graduates speaking two or more languages fluently, that is seen as a positive thing, but for non-whites to graduate speaking two or more languages, that's a sign of refusing to conform and fully integrated into American culture.

At least until recent years when whites who speak multiple languages became part of the white elite oppressors and thus enemies of real Americans.

Only in your imagination, mulp.

I've often thought that we should pay for private boarding school for every poor Black and American Indian kid in the nation who wants it. The kids who opt out would have less burdened public schools in their neighborhoods.

While I don't agree with reparations, this would seem a good Manhattan Project program to finally end the cycle of failure, crime, and poverty. At the very least we'd eliminate most excuses.

Why stop at Blacks and Indians as opposed to every kid below the poverty line? I admit to not having a satisfactory and fair answer.

I would not approve of having this permanently but perhaps as a private option funded by charity.

I would love to see Trump abolish the board of education and put out vouchers for Indian/Black Americans and the x% of poorest non Black/Indians. It appeals to people who don't care for reparations and probably would be a lot more positive than any actual official reparations deal which would be pressured to fund identity advocacy groups and classes like pre-politician Obama going around Chicago choosing to fund identity programs in grade school instead of provenly effective math/science/language programs. (not sure if it was one or multiple of those that he passed on)

I could also very much see Trump wanting to do it and show up Obama as a beloved chief of the American races or whatever.

Meanwhile, it's never too late to actually comply with the 1868 Treaty with the Sioux, which the United States blatantly violated an initio and continues to do so today.

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