Remembering Indigenous Families on the First Day of School

I am an empty nester who loves seeing first day of school pictures each year on social media. I love everything about it: The fresh new haircuts, cute new outfits, and the range of faces reflecting excitement, nervousness, annoyance, and everything in between. The emotions are often mixed, but the first day of school, perhaps more than any other day of the year, symbolizes a fresh new start for families with school-aged children.

With summer on its last legs, we’ve put some space between what was and what is to come. (And after Newtown’s book ban—uh, wait—book “challenge” scandal in the spring, I’m certain that that space was welcome by all). 

Just like the parents, children, and school staff, I was feeling all kinds of emotions as I scrolled through the photos on social media. For some friends, this was the beginning of their child’s senior year. The last first day of school photos on the porch or at the bus stop. Others were sending kids (or grandkids) off for their very first day of kindergarten. And here in Newtown, we were reminded of the twenty children who should have been starting their senior year of high school.

After several minutes, I pivoted from checking in on my social media to reading a front page story on the New York Times online edition. I was left dumbstruck by the stark contrast of experiences I was witness to. Proud Newtown parents posting good wishes to their children before the 2023-24 school year contrasted so deeply with stories told in the article “War Against the Children” (Native American Boarding Schools Took Children’s Culture, and Hundreds Died – The New York Times ( that I was left feeling pretty rattled. 

Beginning in the early 19th century, Indigenous children were sent to boarding schools to be “assimilated” to white American culture. This meant being taken from their homes and their families, having their hair cut and names changed, and giving up their spiritual practices. Thousands of children experienced neglect, abuse, malnutrition, and death at these so-called “schools”. The horrors of Indigenous boarding schools lasted for more than 150 years. Much has been learned and more knowledge is being acquired through ongoing research. You can learn more by reading the New York Times article (link above) and by going to the following website (where you can also make a donation to their important work): The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition

I’m not trying to be a “Debbie Downer” during what is hoped to be a joyful time of new beginnings, but I believe that the study of “Indian” boarding schools is an excellent example of why we must continue to advocate for the instruction of honest and complete American history in Newtown schools. We know that we learn from our mistakes. We know that history repeats itself if we are not good stewards of what has been. Learning all of our history, and not just the parts that make us feel warm and fuzzy, is absolutely critical if we want future generations to do better than we have. 

And I think it’s pretty clear that we need them to do just that.

*Featured Imagine: Wounded Yellow Robe, Henry Standing Bear and Timber Yellow Robe before and after their Pennsylvania boarding school gave them “proper” clothes and haircuts. (John N. Choate/Dickinson College Archives & Special Collections)

About NAFC

Newtown Allies For Change is a grassroots advocacy organization run by volunteers to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in Newtown. We are an unfunded organization and our mission is to center Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) in Newtown.