The Eastern Band of Cherokee and their boarding school experiences: Stories and reflections from the elders

Larry Richard Patlis Patterson, Tennessee State University


The purpose of this dissertation was to explore the nature of the Cherokee Boarding School experience and its legacy. The school operated on the Qualla Boundary (Cherokee reservation) in western North Carolina from 1880 until 1954. This dissertation used a combination of historical and naturalistic (qualitative) research to focus on (a) the story of the experience (as told through the oral histories of sixteen Eastern Cherokee elders who attended the school at various times during the period from around 1917 to 1950), and (b) their reflections about the legacy of that experience. Based on their reflections, what emerged from the research were the following major discoveries: (1) While some of the treatment was harsh—and by today's standards, highly abusive—one cannot assume that, across the board, the Cherokee Boarding School experience was highly negative (or perhaps even emotionally traumatizing) for all (or even most) of the Cherokee students. (2) Just because conditions were bad at the school during the time a student was there, one cannot assume that the experience was bad for all (or most) of the students. (3) Considering the overall time frame for this research, when the voices of the elders who were interviewed are heard collectively, what their voices tended to speak of—more often than not—was a boarding school experience that, for them personally, appeared to be “not all that bad.” (4) In light of this, then, one cannot assume that the impact of the experience was completely negative, and it is important to recognize that the school may, in some respects, actually have done some good along with the bad it did. (5) At the same time, however, it is also important to recognize that what the school did when it suppressed use of the Cherokee language, kept the children separated from their homes and families for such long periods of time, and frequently treated them so harshly, not only constituted unconscionable acts in the short term, but they also had far-reaching and damaging consequences in the longer term for Cherokee culture (especially the language) and the family unit as well.

Subject Area

Bilingual education|Multicultural education|Minority & ethnic groups|Sociology|Education history

Recommended Citation

Larry Richard Patlis Patterson, "The Eastern Band of Cherokee and their boarding school experiences: Stories and reflections from the elders" (2001). ETD Collection for Tennessee State University. Paper AAI3024630.