facebook app symbol  twitter  linkedin  instagram 1

The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) has launched the nation’s first online records repository and research tool for Indian boarding school records.

The database, called The National Indian Boarding School Digital Archive (NIBSDA), was nearly five years in the making, and contains records collected from National Archives in Seattle and Kansas City, Mo. Those records contain case files, administrative records, enrollment registers, and health information about Native American students who attended Indian boarding schools operated by the federal government for more than a century. 

Never miss Indian Country’s biggest stories and breaking news. Sign up to get our reporting sent straight to your inbox every weekday morning. 

Currently, the records focus on nine boarding schools: Pipestone (Minnesota); Cushman (Alaska); Carlisle (Pennsylvania); Genoa (Nebraska); Chemawa (Oregon); Stewart (Nevada); Mt. Pleasant (Michigan); Ft. Bidwell (California); and Mt. Edgecumbe (Alaska). The available information and research tool will expand with continued work and partnership, NABS staff said in a press release.

Stephen Curley (Diné), NABS former director of digital archives who worked on the project since its inception, said he’s hopeful that the tool will be useful for generating additional research, and also “genuine healing” for survivors and communities.

“These records represent a small window into the past from a particular administrative lens that justified a long history of child removal supported and endorsed by federal policy,” Curley told Native News Online. Curley’s mother attended a boarding school, and he describes her as his archetype for “inner faith and strength.”  

“Despite these policies, I found glimmers of student and family voices that demonstrate resistance that can uplift our spirits as we venture collectively towards healing. This power is in us,” Curley said. 

In May 2022, the federal government released an investigative report that showed for the first time the United States operated or supported at least 408 boarding schools that “directly targeted American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian children in the pursuit of a policy of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession.” The report called the institutions “both traumatic and violent” and identified at least 53 burial sites on or near former schools’ properties, with more gravesite discoveries expected as research continues.

Although the names of the institutions themselves are known or becoming known, the identities of the tens of thousands of Native children believed to have gone through the Indian boarding school system—many of whom died at schools far from home—are not.

Student and school records are held in repositories across the country, oftentimes far removed from Native communities and available only for in-person viewing, or altogether closed to the public.

That lack of access to records is a key reason why NABS, a national nonprofit dedicated to truth and healing around Indian boarding schools, created The National Indian Boarding School Digital Archive.

Curley and NABS’ digital archivist assistant Fallon Carey (Cherokee) hand collected, cataloged and uploaded more than 40,000 pages of boarding school records, he told Native News Online last year. Those pages include 39 student indexes, or recorded names of children who attended these boarding schools, and the dates they attended. Additionally, close to 100,000 additional catalog records–which Curely said can each contain tens to hundreds of individual pages–were contributed to the repository from partner groups doing similar work, including The Carlisle Indian Digital Resource Center in Pennsylvania, and the Geona Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project in Nebraska. 

According to the NISBDA website, the idea is to constantly update and add additional records to the database. “There are numerous ongoing projects aimed at expanding the scope and depth of our archive,” the website reads. In August 2023, NABS received a half-million dollar grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize and catalog an additional 120,000 pages of records. 

In just two weeks since its release, tribal members across the country have already successfully used the tool to locate relatives who attended Indian boarding schools.

Birdie Sam, a Tlingit woman with the popular social media platform ‘ ShowMe_YourMask’, posted a video to her Instagram account last week showing her stunned reaction to the tool, and the confirmation that her late grandmother had attended Wrangell Institute in Wrangell, Alaska.

“The biggest feeling was validation because up until this point, there’s been so much denialism around the subject,” Sam told Native News Online. She always knew her grandmother, Bessie Kitka, who died in 2008 at 88 years old, had attended boarding school, but she never heard her speak about her experience. “It’s one thing to know, it’s another thing to read her name in the records. It grounded me in a way that I haven't been able to find my footing since Oregon.”

Sam has also received comments from at least four others saying they, too, were able to find relatives using the database.

“It's the closest to closure that I expect to get in my lifetime,” she added. “So at this point, anything above and beyond this is a pleasant surprise.”

For information about locating your relatives on NIBSDA, visit here.

More Stories Like This

Land Back: Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska Get Back 1,600 Acres That Was Illegally Taken by US 50 Years Ago
Historic Tribal Buffalo Lifeways Collaboration Launched to Restore Buffalo and Revitalize Native Communities
Non-Native American Florida Man Charged with Violating Indian Arts and Crafts Act
Building a New Generation of Speakers
Missile Silo Construction Could Threaten Sacred Sites

Join us in observing 100 years of Native American citizenship. On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Indian Citizenship Act, granting Native Americans US citizenship, a pivotal moment in their quest for equality. This year marks its centennial, inspiring our special project, "Heritage Unbound: Native American Citizenship at 100," observing their journey with stories of resilience, struggle, and triumph. Your donations fuel initiatives like these, ensuring our coverage and projects honoring Native American heritage thrive. Your donations fuel initiatives like these, ensuring our coverage and projects honoring Native American heritage thrive.

About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.