School-to-prison pipeline has deep roots in tangled history of tribal schools

PHOENIX – In the early 1930s, Robert Carr, a member of the Creek Nation, was expelled for “incorrigible behavior” from Chilocco Indian Agricultural School near the Kansas-Oklahoma border.

By the time he was 21, Carr had been incarcerated in three different institutions. He died in a Kansas state prison where he was held for stealing $30 worth of food, said his niece, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor and Indigenous studies scholar at Arizona State University.

It was the height of the Great Depression and, according to Lomawaima, Carr said he committed the crime because he couldn’t get a job and was hungry.

The school-to-prison pipeline – a trend of school discipline pushing children into prison – is recognized to have started developing at the end of the 20th century, experts say. But Carr’s story is an example of this phenomenon from decades earlier, when the U.S. government sanctioned, and sometimes operated and financed, hundreds of boarding schools for Native American children that relied on military and carceral practices to forcibly assimilate them into Western culture.

Modern juvenile incarceration disproportionately affects Native American youth, and experts on U.S. Indian policy trace the disparity back to the U.S.’s Native American assimilation policies of the 19th and 20th centuries – which included boarding schools. Not only were boarding schools often little better than prisons, they intentionally broke up Native American families and triggered trauma that has compounded over generations, leading to many of the disparities Native Americans face today, according to a report by the National Congress of American Indians.

However, Lomawaima said the history of boarding schools is nuanced.

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