A. Assimilation through Education Policy

1. Missionary Schools

Education is a natural place to begin the process of assimilation because whoever controls the education of children, controls - in large part - what those children know, value, and how they perceive the world around them. The history of assimilation of Native American youth through education policy can be traced back to missionaries who started the first Indian schools. These missionaries used formal education as a means of accomplishing their primary goal, namely converting the Natives to Christianity. To achieve their goal they utilized a tactic that would be used repeated over the next few centuries: separating Native youth from their families and kinship groups so that the children could be “Christianized” and “civilized.” As Vine Deloria recounts, “[a]n old Indian once told me that when the missionaries arrived they fell on their knees and prayed. Then they got up, fell on the Indians, and

For more than 150 years, missionary schools were the “chief agent for spreading Christianity and Western These schools were deliberately devoid of any Native culture and at times prohibited the use of Native languages. For more than a century these schools acted with Congress's political and financial support. Despite experimenting with different types of schools and curricula, the missionary schools never made the large-scale changes for which both Congress and the various religious groups had hoped. They were, however, able to set the tone for future educational policies “from religious indoctrination, to cultural intolerance to wholesale removal of American Indian

2. Federal Boarding Schools

Although missionary groups ran boarding schools for Native American children during most of the nineteenth century, the federal government had an increasingly significant role in Indian education during that same time period. By 1838, the federal government oversaw approximately 2900 students in six manual-training schools and eighty-seven boarding schools. In the 1870s, the number of federal boarding schools (and the number of students they oversaw) began to increase dramatically. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (“BIA”), these federal boarding schools were designed to (1) replace native languages with English; (2) replace communal ethics with individualistic ethics; (3) convert students to Christianity; and (4) teach U.S. history, democracy and Manifest Destiny.

Richard Henry Pratt, who was responsible for opening the first off-reservation boarding school in 1879, put it more bluntly stating that the purpose of the school was simply to “kill the Indian and save the To accomplish this, federal boarding schools separated children from their families and natural support systems by placing children in schools outside of reservations. Additionally, they punished any child who clung to his or her culture by using Native languages, observing Native religious traditions, or wearing Native clothing.

Despite the magnitude of the federal government's efforts, the boarding schools failed to assimilate Native children as completely as had been hoped. Due to these failures, some believed the answer lay in the “earlier, longer, and perhaps even permanent removal of American Indian children from their families and Thus, the “Outing System” was created in which a Native child was placed with a white family to completely isolate the child and immerse him or her in white culture. In many respects, the Outing System was little more than state-sponsored kidnapping, and to make matters worse, the living conditions at these schools were often very poor. High morbidity and mortality rates were commonplace, meaning that some Native parents never saw their children return from school. For children who did return after their schooling, they oftentimes felt completely disconnected from their family, friends, and community.

By 1928, the Meriam Report was published and boarding schools came under heavy criticism. The report advised the BIA to abandon assimilation as the goal of education. In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act attempted to accomplish this by shifting the responsibility of Native education to the states; however, this shift in policy was short-lived. By 1944, a congressional report called for a return to off-reservation boarding schools, and by the 1950s, the federal government's policy of assimilation through the termination of tribes was in full-effect. As late as 1974, over 34,000 Native American children remained in federal boarding schools, which represented more than 17% of all Native youth.

Fortunately, in 1972, Congress passed the Indian Education Act, and, in 1975, the Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which were designed to help end federal dominance over Native nations in many areas, including education. In the years following these Acts, Native nations have made significant progress in exercising control over their own education by establishing more than seventy-five tribally-operated primary and secondary schools, more than two dozen community colleges and universities, and a stronger presence in higher education through a variety of programs, such as American Indian Studies. Despite this progress, the damage of generations of assimilative educational policies cannot be completely reversed in one or two generations, and so the legacy of these policies lives on.