Native American Boarding Schools

The Indigenous Boarding School Lab exhibits archival research from Marquette University’s Special Collections archive on Native American boarding schools through private clerical documents, public documents, pictures, and other modes of media. The purpose of this website is to take people one step closer to correcting national history, understanding Indigenous community needs, and gaining a better view of the modern Indigenous identity. Highlighting archival research from past boarding schools will serve as an educational tool to teach of the multifaceted and numerous components the go into being Indigenous.


Marquette University holds the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission records and archives– one of the largest collections of records relating to the Catholic mission and boarding school system in the United States. Given the positionality of the Indigeneity Lab at Marquette University, with the knowledge that the University, of which we are part, holds these archival records, we wish to make the public aware of the history of the cultural genocide that occurred in direct relation to the Native American mission and boarding school era in the United States of America. 

Marquette University, founded in 1881, is a Jesuit Catholic University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin named after French Jesuit missionary and explorer, Rev. Jacques Marquette, S.J. (1637-75). The Jesuits were some of the first settler-colonizers and religious missionaries to work directly with Indigenous Peoples in North America. Rev. Marquette established St. Ignace Mission in St. Ignace, Michigan where he was eventually buried. In 1675, on Rev. Marquette’s travels back to St. Ignace Mission, after a journey of mapping and exploring the Mississippi River with French-Canadian explorer Louis Jolliet, Marquette died 90 miles south of the Straits of Mackinac. The two Native travelers who were with Marquette at the time of his death, buried him there. In 1677, a delegation of Huron, Ojibwe, Odawa, Potawatomi, and Iroquois tribal members accompanied Native community members from St. Ignace, by canoe, to retrieve and cleanse Rev. Marquette’s bones and buried his remains beneath the altar in the St. Ignace Mission chapel. In 1877, two hundred years after Marquette’s reburial at St. Ignace, Native American Peter Grondin discovered the site of the former mission and found a double-walled birch-bark box containing 19 bones. In what apparently remains a mystery to this day, the bones of Rev. Jacques Marquette ended up at Marquette University in the special collections and university archives. In 2018, Native community members of St. Ignace contacted the Marquette University administration wherein the Museum of Ojibwa Culture in St. Ignace formally requested the bones. On June 18, 2022, Rev Jacques Marquette’s bones were repatriated back to St. Ignace Mission where they were ceremoniously reburied (Magnuson).

Magnuson, J. (2022, June 1). The bones of Jacques Marquette. The Christian Century. Retrieved July 21, 2022, from 

Marquette University: Obtaining the Archives

The following information on the acquisition of the Bureau Catholic Indian Mission Records (BCIM) to Marquette University comes from Mark Thiel, “[former] archivist at Raynor Memorial Libraries, where he [was] responsible for Acquisition, administration and reference service of special collection and digital initiatives pertaining to Catholic Native America and Catholic Broadcasting.”

Rev. Francis Paul Prucha, S.J., Professor Emeritus of the Department of History, whose research focused on Native Americans and the United States policies, is responsible for Marquette University’s holdings of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission (BCIM) records. He spent many years in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia during his research on legal and political disputes between the federal government, the Catholic Church, and the Protestant church over the education of Native Americans. The American Philosophical Society held the BCIM records which have represented the Catholic Church and its affairs with the federal government and its relationship with Indigenous Peoples since 1874. In 1970, the Executive Director of the BCIM allowed Fr. Prucha access to the archival holdings as they would be foundational to his research. He was shown four file cabinets with records for which Fr. Prucha thought they contained the entire collection and was impressed by their quality but also concerned with their deteriorating condition. “Nonetheless, Fr. Prucha correctly recognized that these brittle records were valuable and needed archival custody.” 

It is important to analyze the use of the words “valuable” and “custody” in relation to the archives. What is the inherent value of the documents and photographs? Who are they valuable for, the Catholic church or the tribal nations? Is there monetary value attached? What is the connotation of the word “custody?” When we think, use, and hear this word, often it is in a carceral sense. What does it mean for the BCIM records to be in the “custody” of a Catholic Jesuit institution like Marquette University and not in the hands of the Native nations? Would the Indigenous Nations even want possession of the settler-colonizers’ documents?

Fr. Prucha, wanting to preserve these archives shared his concern about their condition with the administration at Marquette while also attune to the fact the BCIM director’s health was failing and neighboring George Washington University sought the archival property as well, “while he believed that Marquette would be a good place for the records, his main interest was to make sure that they would be preserved somewhere with access for scholars.” 

According to Mary Annette Pember, who does extensive research on the Catholic mission and boarding schools, “They [BCIM] have all of their records at Marquette University in a special collection. And despite the fact that they received a great deal of federal money, over the years, they’re very guarded about access to these archives. So it took, it took, a certain amount of persistence on my part to be able to gain access to those. And it was very illuminating” (Talahongva). The issue of access seems to be an issue for outside scholars and community members who wish to look into the records. This demonstrates the continued violence of the archives and the gatekeeping used to keep sensitive information inside instead and protected.

Ultimately Marquette administration and archivists accepted Fr. Prucha’s request with the assumed knowledge that there were only four file cabinets of archival documents with correspondence. The acquisition was justified by the fact that Fr. Prucha’s scholarship focused on federal Indian policy, the identity of Marquette as a Jesuit institution, and because of Marquette’s other holdings of Catholic social documents (Dorothy Day Catholic Worker papers). The de Rancé foundation, the largest Catholic foundation in the United States at the time, funded the project. The foundation’s founder was Harry G. John, grandson of Miller Brewing founder Frederick Miller and company president from 1946–1947 (Wilkes). His sales in Miller company stock allowed for the financing of the foundation. With the funding secured by de Rancé, they hoped to house and preserve the records and “they planned to coordinate with Marquette’s recruitment efforts to attract more Native American students and develop a study center focusing on Native-Catholic history” (Thiel). 

The agreement for Marquette’s acquisition included the requirement that the records be microfilmed and the understanding that if Marquette ever existed as anything other than a Catholic, Jesuit Institution, the BCIM could reclaim the records. In 1977, in a sixty-five-foot semi-trailer, professional movers transferred ten tons of archival material from BCIM to Marquette’s Memorial Library. 

Talahongva, Patty. “Poor Record Keeping for Cost of Education for Native Students.” Indian Country Today, Indian Country Today, 24 July 2020, 

Thiel, Mark G. “Building a Collection: Fr. Paul Prucha and the Bureau of Catholic Indian Mission Records.” Historians@Work, 24 Feb. 2015, Accessed 25 Apr. 2022. 

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