History Of Native American Education Essay

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The history of Native American education began before contact with European settlers, as tribes had their own traditions of passing knowledge through the elders to the youth. This entry reviews the history of Native American education after contact with Europeans, focusing on schooling through the high school level. Education of Native Americans has included missionary schools, off-reservation boarding schools, reservation day schools, and finally public schools. Throughout this history, the purposes of schools were to Christianize, “civilize,” and assimilate Native American children and their families.

Missionary Schools

The Jesuits began establishing missions within Indian territories in the Northeast and Midwest beginning in 1611. Protestants sent missionaries to Indian territories in the early 1600s. Father Junipero Serra began establishing the twenty-one California missions in 1769. The purposes of the missionary work were Christianizing, civilizing, and assimilating Native Americans into the European way of life, religion, work patterns, and language.

In 1819, the U.S. government decided to assist the missionary efforts by establishing the Indian Civilization Act, which funded Christian missionary schools within Indian territory. Christian denominations involved in setting up missionary boarding schools included Presbyterian, Methodist, Episcopalian, Baptist, and Catholic, among others. By 1884 they had created missionary schools in seventy-three different Indian territories.

The federal government was also involved in Native American education through writing education into many of the treaties set up with the various tribes. During the 1800s, the Senate approved nearly 400 treaties, of which 120 contained provisions for education. In exchange, the tribes gave almost a billion acres of land to the U.S. government. The government responded by passing the Dawes Act of 1887, which created a system of allotments for Native Americans. By dividing up the Indian territory into parcels, each Native American was able to receive land of his or her own, which encouraged an individual rather than tribal view of the land. The act turned out to be just another method of taking land from Native Americans, as it resulted in 60 million acres being opened up to non-Indians for settlement.

When students arrived at the missionary schools, they faced treatment designed to “de-Indianize” them. Their hair was cut, they were not allowed to speak their native languages, they were not allowed to practice their own religions, they could not use their known ways of practicing medicine, and they were most often not allowed to keep their own names. The belief on the part of the U.S. government and the educators at the schools was that if children were stripped of their sense of Indian identity and their memory of their religion, language, and sense of community, then their tribal customs would disappear, and the communities would become more like the White communities.

Off-Reservation Boarding Schools

In 1865, a congressional committee recommended the creation of boarding schools away from Indian communities for the education of young children. According to proponents, this would remove the Indian child further from the influences of the family and tribe. By 1873, the federal government had repealed funding for missionary schools, instead appropriating money to off-reservation boarding schools for Indian children that emphasized industrial labor training.

The most famous of the off-reservation boarding schools, Carlisle Indian School, was opened by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. This was a model for the government’s forced assimilation policy, engaging in many practices to separate students from their Indian identities. Opened in old army barracks, Carlisle was an industrial labor school, which in addition to various types of work also included sports teams, bands, and a school newspaper. With word spreading of the “success” of Carlisle in assimilating Indian children, Congress funded more boarding schools. By 1902, there were twenty-five governmentally funded boarding schools in states across the United States. These schools were intended to be sites for elementary education, although some students were in their teens. Additional boarding schools that gained attention include Haskell Institute, in Lawrence, Kansas; Sherman Institute, in Riverside, California; and Phoenix Indian School in Arizona.

Industrial Education And Labor

The boarding schools operated as manual labor training arenas, with under a half-day of academics and a half day of labor—industrial, agricultural, or domestic work. Students were assigned to one of these areas of work, which had the purpose of teaching children to be industrious laborers. In many cases, the boarding schools were only able to remain open due to the labor provided by the students. An additional type of practice practiced by some of the boarding schools was the “Outing” system, in which Indian students would live with families on nearby farms. While living with the families, they would do the work of harvesting or domestic work and get paid for their labor. They would then return to the boarding school during the school year, where they would continue with their labor as well as their schooling.

As part of the rigor that school leaders thought would create more moral, patriotic, and willing workers, the schools often were organized as military units. Students had marching drills, militaristic rules, harsh discipline, and compulsory attendance. In the records of one boarding school, students who ran away from the school to go back home were recorded in the roster documents as “deserters.”

Taking The Children

Since one stated purpose of off-reservation boarding schools was to bring Native American children off of the reservation, there had to be a system for getting the children away from their homes. Accounts of how the children were taken to boarding schools show that some children desired to attend the boarding schools, with their parents’ consent, hoping to gain an understanding of the “White man’s world.” Many children, though, were taken by government agents through force, bribery, or threats. At the end of the 1800s, one method of taking children away from homes was to withhold rations as a way to get parents to send their children to the schools. This practice was prohibited by a congressional act in 1894, which blocked the sending of Indian children to schools outside their state or territory without consent of parents or guardians.

Upon arriving at the missionary or boarding schools, many Indian students were renamed by their White teachers. Among most tribes, a young person is given a name based on an event or a characteristic that has been associated with that person. Those responsible for Indian education policy in the late 1800s and early 1900s believed that traditional Indian names were “unsuitable for civilization.” Further, they thought that the traditional practice of naming a child was an undesirable link to the tribe’s culture, heritage, and traditions. Examples of names being changed by the teachers at the boarding schools include Bear Chief having his name changed to Harold Gray, and Ah-nen-la-de-ni, which meant “Turns the Crowd,” being changed to Daniel La France.

An Era Of Indian Schools

Several tribes worked to overcome forced assimilation into European values and beliefs, with some starting their own schools, taught by Native American teachers teaching in their own languages. In 1818, the Choctaw opened the Choctaw Academy, a high school for Indian children. The Cherokee opened male and female “seminaries” in 1851, which were basically high schools for Indian children, run by Indian teachers. And by 1870, there were eighty-four neighborhood schools in Choctaw territory. Most of these teachers were Choctaws.

After forty years of the federal off-reservation boarding school policy, public attention turned to criticizing the educational treatment of Native Americans. One of the critiques was that the boarding schools off-reservation were too expensive to maintain, while another was that students were not being assimilated into White culture well enough to justify the expense. A series of increasingly complex critiques of government policy toward Native Americans was seen in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1923, the Committee of One Hundred was formed to analyze Indian policy and recommend any needed changes. The committee included a wide range of members, including several influential Native American delegates. The committee’s report called primarily for greater funding for Indian schools, specifically with a call for more adequate school facilities, higher salaries for Indian teachers in order to draw more qualified teachers, an increased number of Native American students in public school, and an increase in scholarships.

In 1928, the Meriam Report was published, providing an extended investigation and critique of the services and education provided by the Department of the Interior’s Indian Office. The report condemned the care of Indian children in boarding schools, challenged the use of Indian students as laborers to keep the boarding schools operating, and criticized the philosophy and curriculum of the boarding schools, which focused on “civilizing” the Indian child. In 1930, the key author of the report, Dr. Carson Ryan, became the director of Indian education, striving to put into place community-based schools, to bring more Indian children into public schools, and to gradually reduce the number of boarding schools.

John Collier, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1933 to 1945, continued the quest to improve the treatment of Native Americans by the government and improve the education of students in schools. As a leader behind the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act, or Wheeler-Howard Act, Collier helped the public and the government to focus on strengthening Indian cultures and communities by encouraging tribes to create tribal governments and constitutions, funding more education access for Indian students, and halting the loss of more Indian land through the allotment system of the Dawes Act.

Education In The Late Twentieth Century

Several reports, congressional acts, and new types of schools opened in the latter half of the twentieth century, helping to solidify a period of Native American self-determination. The Rough Rock Demonstration School, established in 1966, is an example of a school that was opened as a joint undertaking by the U.S. government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Navajo Nation. The school was an experiment in teaching, which used Navajo leadership, teachers, and curriculum.

This initiative was coupled with emerging critical reports on Native American education. The 1969 Kennedy Report, titled “Indian Education: A National Tragedy, a National Challenge,” helped bring attention to issues in Indian education such as lack of Native American teachers and high dropout rates. In 1972, the Indian Education Act provided funds for supplemental programs for Native American children both on and off the reservation. This funding was used to create culturally relevant curriculum and to involve families and communities in Indian education. The Native American Languages Act of 1990 allowed tribes to teach in their own languages, and in addition encouraged the saving of these “unique” languages. Acts and reports such as these were an outgrowth of Native American activism to address what has been called the miseducation of Indians over four centuries.


  1. Adams, D. W. (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience, 1875–1928. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.
  2. Coleman, M. C. (1993). American Indian children at school, 1850–1930. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.
  3. Prucha, F. P. (1979). The churches and the Indian schools, 1888–1912. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
  4. Reyhner, J., & Eder, J. (2004). American Indian education: A history. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.
  5. Task Force Five: Indian Education. (1976). Report on Indian education: Final report to the American Indian Policy Review Commission. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.

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