American Indian Schools

"You have no education," declared Capt. Richard H. Pratt, founder of the famous Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pennsylvania, to a group of Lakota Sioux in 1879 (p. 222). Like generations of white Americans before and after him, this dedicated but ethnocentric educator assumed that because tribal peoples did not educate their children within the four walls of a school building, they were uneducated. Yet education was highly institutionalized in traditional Indian societies. Family members, especially older people such as grandfathers and grandmothers, along with specialists in economic activities, warfare, art, and spiritual matters systematically educated boys and girls into responsible tribal adulthood.

Unable to see such apparently unstructured activities as education, from colonial times until well into the twentieth century, European Americans set out to Christianize and "civilize" Indian peoples through the schooling of their children. The term Indian schools thus generally refers to establishments designed specifically for tribal boys and girls. "The Apostle of the Indians," seventeenth century Puritan missionary John Eliot, for example, established fourteen "praying towns" in New England. Schools were central to his mission. Initially quarantined from their supposedly deficient family backgrounds, pupils would first be saved themselves, and would then return as cultural brokers–mediators–to carry the Gospel and English culture back to their peoples.

The U.S. government continued this crusade. Employing the "Civilization Fund" of (initially) $10,000 provided by Congress in 1819, the new Office/Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) worked alongside missionaries throughout the nineteenth century. Many treaties provided funds in exchange for surrendered lands, and Indian peoples often willingly utilized such money to help sustain schools, becoming active participants in this enterprise. By 1824 there were thirty-two BIA-sanctioned missionary schools among the tribes, enrolling almost 1,000 children. As the decades passed the BIA increasingly came to dominate the campaign. By around 1900 the vast majority of the 20,000 school-going Native Americans attended a government day school, on-reservation or off-reservation boarding school. Some of the latter schools, such as Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, had become beacons of civilization,

These Native American students are pictured with their teachers, c. 1900, most likely at the Indian school at Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Although the treatment of students at these schools could be harsh, many students came to identify with the institutions and considered them "our schools." © .

at any one time enrolling hundreds of pupils from tens of different tribes. Most of these boys and girls traveled great distances from their homes to a deep immersion experience. Some lived years at the school in the midst of a white community, without a single return home, and spent part of each summer "outing"–working for–white American families or businesses.

Early in the twentieth century more and more Indian children began to attend state public schools, often with government support. But the BIA campaign also continued, and by 1930 almost 38,000 tribal children attended government Indian schools; with a slightly larger number enrolling in public schools. By then almost all tribal children of school-going age were enrolled in some kind of school. This gradual transfer of Indians from BIA to state public schools has continued throughout the twentieth century. In the year 2002 90 percent of tribal children attended public schools with children of other ethnic groups. Most of the remaining ten percent attended the surviving Indian schools: many were tribal-controlled, often run by their own peoples on BIA grants or contracts. Older Indians attended postsecondary institutes such as the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In addition there were twenty-five tribally controlled community colleges by 2003. Tens of thousands of Indian men and women attended a variety of white American colleges and universities.

In 2003 Indian peoples had vastly more control over the running of specifically Indian schools than in 1903. Yet numbering only around two million in a population of 280 million, they were still at the mercy of majority politics and fashions. A federal government-to-tribal government relationship, grounded in the Constitution, treaties, legislation, and court decisions, still forms the basis of federal responsibility for support of Indian schooling. (The making of treaties with Indian peoples ended in 1871 but ratified treaties remain part of federal law.) Native Americans must constantly struggle, however, to maintain adequate local control over the education of their young people, while simultaneously holding the United States to its historical legal and financial responsibilities.

Indian schools themselves experienced massive changes throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. Now the BIA cooperates in helping Indian peoples teach both traditional and dominant cultural values, thus contributing to tribal sovereignty and self-determination. It was not always so. Until the 1930s, when, influenced by the PROGRESSIVE EDUCATION movement and the new academic anthropology, a more culturally tolerant approach began in the BIA, the curriculum at government and missionary Indian schools was rigidly ethnocentric. Almost nothing relating to tribal spiritual and cultural values was taught, although some traditional arts and crafts occasionally made the curriculum in the early twentieth century. Instruction at BIA and many missionary schools was through English, even for children totally ignorant of the language–producing greater bewilderment in the already disorientated beginner. The "half-and-half" curriculum at Indian schools mixed vocational training supposedly appropriate to the sexes (such as farming for boys, and kitchen work for girls) with forms of academic instruction. Pupils at small schools hardly got much beyond the "three R's," along with a fourth: some form of (Christian) religion. At schools like Carlisle, the curriculum was often as good as that provided for many white children. In addition, big schools encouraged a multitude of extracurricular activities such as football, theater and debating clubs, along with student-produced newspapers (vetted by school authorities, of course). Whether broad or narrow, the goal of this curriculum was to detribalize Indians and turn them into Christian citizens, indistinguishable in anything but skin color from other Americans. BIA education, wrote Commissioner of Indian Affairs William A. Jones in 1903, would "exterminate the Indian but develop a man" (quoted in Coleman, p. 46).

One might expect that ex-pupils who attended Indian schools during the era of assimilation, especially those living in the ethnically conscious later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, would have decried a system exhibiting such contempt for their own cultural heritage. From letters, reminiscences, interviews, and autobiographies, however, it emerges that children responded in many different ways to this schooling. Even the same individual might express strong ambivalence. Large numbers fled the schools (as runaways); far too many sickened or died at them. Even larger numbers suffered, accommodated, resisted, and used the schools to their own advantage. Perhaps surprisingly, many ex-students left positive recollections of their schooling, even at institutions where corporal and other kinds of punishment were frequently used. Gifted children, especially, and those who quickly learned the language of instruction, sometimes thrilled to the new learning. Although some Indian kinfolk strongly opposed schooling, others saw its advantages for family and group. Thus many children began school with the pragmatic words of tribal adults ringing in their ears: to survive in the modern world, the people need English and the skills of the white man. Learn!

And many did. A combination of factors beyond kin encouragement combined to help tens of thousands of Indian children survive and sometimes thrive in an alien educational environment. The resilience and inventive coping strategies of individual boys and girls, along with the mutually helpful support of peers were crucial. At large schools pupil subcultures developed, with their own rules, rituals, and slang; these helped pupils adapt while allowing a degree of enjoyable resistance to authorities. The sensitivity of gifted teachers must also be acknowledged (although other teachers were harsh or even brutal).

Although tribal identities survived, the Indian schools did achieve a high degree of success by their own assimilationist criteria. For over a century large numbers of children attended, learned English, accepted the alien curriculum (even in retrospect, few adult autobiographers expressed resentment about its content), returned to their peoples, and passed into life on or off the reservation as American citizens of tribal origin. Some consequences were less acceptable from a government perspective. By bringing children from different tribes together the schools probably stimulated pan-Indian identification. Ex-students also used their schooling to resist white encroachments, employing the English language, modern media, American politics and law in defense of tribal rights. In diverse and sometimes unexpected ways, then, these schools did help tribal peoples survive the onslaught of European-American civilization.

Many Indians came to strongly identify with their institutions, and when the BIA closed old boarding schools in the later twentieth century, Indians sometimes agitated to keep them open. For many they had by then become "our schools," and some still exist in the early twenty-first century in different forms, with strong local Indian support. Haskell Boarding School in Lawrence, Kansas, for example, became the Haskell Indian Nations University (HINU). "Critics dismiss boarding schools as assimilationist institutions whose intent was to destroy Native culture," writes Esther Burnett Horne, a woman of part-Shoshone ancestry who was both a student and a highly accomplished teacher at a number of Indian schools throughout the twentieth century. "While this may be a true generalization, the students and teachers at Haskell will forever be an integral part of who I am as an American Indian." (Horne and McBeth, p. 53).

See also: Native American Children.


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Office of Indian Education Programs (BIA). 2002. "Fingertip Facts." Available from