Reading and the Native American Learner Research Report



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The History of American Indian Education

To appreciate the educational issues currently faced by American Indians, one must first have some understanding of the history of the U.S. government’s role in American Indian education. This history strongly influences the perceptions of many American Indians toward schools today. In this section we provide a brief review of this history and its impacts on American Indian communities, while postponing a discussion of its implications for teachers until the fourth section of this document.3

The history of the U.S. government’s role in American Indian education can only be properly understood through a focus that is inclusive of the broader historical context of federal/tribal relations. In the first few decades after the American Revolution, the federal government “generally pursued a policy of reconciliation and peace toward Indian tribes” (Grossman, 1979, p.4). Although some political leaders endorsed this policy as a matter of principle, it was primarily a result of the federal government’s desire to conserve the nation’s resources and its aversion to maintaining a standing army (Grossman, 1979). However, with victories over Great Britain in 1783 and 1815, the accompanying defeat of the eastern tribes in the War of 1812, and the displacement of Spain from Florida in 1819, the pressures on the U.S. from rival powers were greatly diminished. Subsequently, with less need to foster amiable relations with American Indian tribes and more reason to clear them from land desired for national expansion, federal-Indian policy changed to one of American Indian removal (Fritz, 1963; Minugh, Morris, and Ryser, 1989; Prucha, 1985; Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). Under this policy, eastern tribes were to be relocated to the “Great American Desert,” which, it was thought, would never be desirable for white settlement. Fritz (1963) notes that “through the alternation of persuasion and force, the removal policy resulted in the transportation of the bulk of the eastern tribes beyond the Mississippi River and their establishment on the edge of the Great Plains” (p.17). However, although these tribes were moved to areas that were promised to them in perpetuity, continued U.S. expansion soon negated these agreements. Many tribes, first relocated to Arkansas, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri and Wisconsin, were soon forced to move even farther west to the Oklahoma Indian Territory.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1848, which brought thousands of settlers to the West and heightened the desire for American Indian land, the removal policy became an increasingly untenable option for dealing with the “Indian problem” (Shattuck and Norgren, 1991). In response, the federal government began to settle upon a new policy that called for the assimilation of American Indians into mainstream American culture (Provenzo and McCloskey, 1981). Although there were many methods used to achieve this policy of assimilation, education played a crucial role. Through schools it was hoped that American Indians could be stripped of their native languages and cultures and could be induced to learn English and to adopt the white man’s religion and way of life (McKellips, 1992; Provenzo and McCloskey, 1981).4 By 1887, more than 200 “Indian schools” had been established under federal supervision, with an enrollment of over 14,000 American Indian students (Pevar, 1992; Utter, 1993). Pevar (1992) notes that the history of these schools’ “authoritarian rule is notorious; for example, students were severely punished if they spoke their native language or practiced their traditions” (p.4).

The most famous government school for American Indians was Carlisle. The first off-reservation government boarding school, Carlisle was established in 1879 by a former military officer named Henry Pratt. Pratt’s motto was “Kill the Indian and save the man” (Utter, 1993, p.196). By the turn of the century almost half of the American Indian schools under federal supervision were such boarding schools, and American Indian children were routinely forcibly removed from their families to be placed in them.

Although the overt policy of assimilation in this manner was repudiated by 1936, it was not until the 1970s that significant substantive change in the nature of these schools began to occur. In fact, American Indians and their communities are still dealing with these schools’ long-lasting and profoundly negative influences. The Swinomish Tribal Mental Health Project (1991) describes the enormous degree of social disruption and cultural degradation that resulted from this federal goal of assimilation through education, especially in regard to the attempt at eradicating American Indian languages:


Boarding schools were major agents in the loss of Indian languages. Children who were caught speaking Indian languages were rapped on the knuckles or made to stand in corners with rags tied around their mouths. Many children forgot their languages or became ashamed to even admit that they knew them.…

Language is the major carrier of culture.… When the language is lost, a great deal of the culture is lost also. Many things cannot be fully translated. With the words, sounds and rhythm of native speech goes the heart of the culture. Nothing was done more to weaken Indian culture than attacks on Indian languages made in B.I.A. [Bureau of Indian Affairs] boarding schools….5



Many Indian children who spent their formative years in boarding schools grew up unable to fit comfortably into either Indian or non-Indian society. These children had essentially lost their parents and the chance of a normal family life. They had been subjected to rigorous discipline combined with attacks on their personal and cultural identity, and denied nurturing relationships with any adults.…

When and if these children returned to their tribes, they often had difficulty fitting into a family and tribal life which they did not completely understand. Having been denied normal Indian childhood experiences and role models, they were delayed in their social and emotional development as Indian people. A large number of these children developed severe problems in adulthood, such as alcoholism, depression and violent behavior.

One lasting consequence of the boarding school experience has been an upsurge in child neglect and a cycle of removal of successive generations of Indian children from their parents. Young Indian parents who had been virtually reared in boarding schools did not learn from their own families how to raise children. In particular, they received the non-verbal message that Indian people could not be good parents. Alienated, angry and depressed, these young parents often were unprepared to care for children and to provide their own children with nurturing they had not received themselves. Although the Indian tradition of multiple adult caretakers for all children in the family has been extremely helpful in many cases, it is an inescapable fact of Indian life that entire generations of parents (now for the most part in their middle years) were denied the experience of a normal Indian family life [italics in original]. (p.35)
With the start of the twentieth century, the federal government began to shift responsibility for the education of American Indians to the states. “By 1912 there were more Indian children in public [state] schools than in government [federal] schools and the number of government schools for Indian children began to decline” (Reyhner and Eder, 1992, p.50). Today, American Indian children are served by several different types of schools:
There are BIA boarding and day schools, now increasingly under local control but still tied up with myriad government regulations; tribally controlled schools operated under contracts and grants from the Bureau of Indian Affairs; and mission schools operated by various churches. Public schools serve the largest number of Native students and tend to look like public schools anywhere, even when they are located on Indian reservations. (Reyhner, 1994, p.17)
Although American Indian children in these schools may not experience the degree of overt and concerted assault on their languages and cultures that American Indians experienced in previous decades, American Indian children still often experience personal and institutional racism in school. Testimony gathered during the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Indian Nations at Risk Task Force hearings in 1990 and 1991
indicated that many Native students still attend schools with “an unfriendly school climate that fails to promote appropriate academic, social, cultural, and spiritual development among many Native students.” Such schools also tended to exhibit a Eurocentric curriculum, low teacher expectations, “a lack of Native educators as role models,” and “overt and subtle racism.” These factors contributed to Native students having the highest high school dropout rate (36%) of any minority group in the United States. (Reyhner, 1994, p.16)
Section II
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