Coercive Assimilation Policy and Ethnic Identification Across Generations: Evidence from American Indian Boarding Schools

Image credit: South Dakota State Historical Society


Culture and identity have fundamental economic, social, and political implications. Throughout history, governments, colonial powers, and other state actors have sought to reshape these characteristics through assimilation policies and indoctrination efforts, often targeting ethnic minorities. In this paper, I show that coercive assimilation policy can cause substantial cultural change among ethnic minorities, but that these effects do not necessarily persist into later generations, and may even reverse. I focus on a historical policy in the United States under which authorities removed Native American children to distant boarding schools. I exploit the staggered recruitment patterns of schools and variation in cohort exposure to facilitate causal identification. I show that exposure to boarding schools offered few economic benefits, but did lead to substantial cultural and social assimilation. Treated cohorts were more likely to speak English, more likely to give their children western names, and more likely to be perceived as `White’ in their communities. However, I find that these effects reversed in the next generation. I show that stronger ethnic identification, associated with exposure to boarding schools and transmitted across generations, is a plausible channel for these effects. Ultimately, the schools seem to have strengthened the identities they sought to erase.

Christian Maruthiah
Christian Maruthiah
PhD Candidate in Economics

I am a PhD candidate in economics at CEMFI.