An Overview of Indian Education (written for the Bureau of Indian Education, Safe Schools Summit, Dec. 8, 2009, Washington, DC)

Torlino_Before-After_PortraitsHistorical Overview of Indian Education

The beginning

Indian Education began early in the history of the United States. As a concept, the efforts to educate were rooted in the attempts to move the Indian from a foreign adversary to a participant in the building of a new nation. As a reality, Indian education by the federal government necessarily had to be an assimilating force, as the Western way of life was so completely foreign to all tribes living in what is now America. Existing cultures were sacrificed in the name of nation building and peace-making.

Education was a bargaining point in many treaties signed by the federal government, and thus the value of education was recognized and understood. The role and quality of that education, however, was always shaped by the current relationship of the United States government to tribes, and the shifting philosophies of the role of the federal government in relationship to Indian people.

The beginnings of a formalized method of “Indian Education,” with any identifiable consistency, took place during early Westward expansion in the nineteenth century. These earliest efforts were carried out by Christian missionaries with the inferred consent of the federal government. Both Catholic and Protestant churches were represented, and which group gained entry into a particular Indian territory was largely guided by which European nation had made first contact and established relationships within that tribe, establishing trade and learning the customs and language. The English brought Protestantism with them, the French and Spanish, Catholicism.

There are very rich and detailed first–hand accounts of missionaries working to create Indian schools in the territories, and while their intent was to offer some semblance of Western education, primary motivation was clearly to “save souls” and bring the “wild and heathen” natives to salvation. A great push was made to raise the funds necessary to support these efforts, and it became an ongoing “good work” of parishioners in Europe and established American cities to tithe funds for the salvation and education of Indian children.

The Boarding School Era

The first dramatic shift in the federal government’s laissez-faire approach to educating Indians was brought about by Army Captain Richard H. Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian School at an abandoned military post in Pennsylvania on November 1, 1878. His model for training prisoner–students became the basis for the Off-Reservation Indian boarding school.

Famous for the phrase, “Kill the Indian and save the man,” Pratt intended to prove that Indians could be taught Western European ways and therefore be made into citizens rather than die at the noose or the firing squad. In a closely watched “experiment,” he employed military tactics of discipline, isolation and repetition to “re-educate” Indians.  His work was considered to be a success, and Pratt’s methods became the early model for Indian boarding schools nationwide.

Pratt was a veteran of the Indian Wars, and therefore had extensive exposure to Indian people, mostly as prisoners. In 1875, Pratt was in charge of 72 Apache prisoners at Ft. Marion near St. Augustine, Florida, and he made a concerted effort to teach these men how to “elevate” themselves by learning the white European way of life. When the prisoners were released, in 1878, Pratt was successful in convincing 22 of them to continue their education. Records indicate that several of them went to The Hampton Institute, a school for freed slaves in Virginia.

With this “success” in hand, Pratt was allowed to resign his Army commission and continue to develop his ideas on Indian education, which were considered liberal at the time. He advocated this re-conditioning policy to the US Secretary of War, who then allowed him to establish the Carlisle Industrial Training School, the first co-educational, multi-tribal Indian boarding school.

The General Allotment Act of 1887, commonly known as the Dawes Act, incorporated the Carlisle model into government policy.

Thomas Jefferson Morgan was appointed the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1889 with his support of the Dawes Act and the educational policies set forth therein. During his appointment acceptance, he announced:

“When we speak of education of the Indians, we mean that comprehensive system of training and instruction which will convert them into American citizens, put within their reach the blessings which the rest of us enjoy, and enable them to compete successfully with the white man on his own ground and with his own methods.” He later wrote, “We must either fight the Indians, feed them, or else educate them. To fight them is cruel, to feed them is wasteful, while to educate them is humane, economic, and Christian.”

In 1890, the federal government published their Indian education policies in “Rules for Indian Schools.” It states the overall objective of Indian education to be “preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life.”

By 1902 there were twenty-five federally funded non-reservation boarding schools in fifteen states and territories modeled after the Carlisle’s military methods. Total enrollment was over 6,000 students. Attendance at boarding schools was mandatory in some areas, and children as young as age three were taken from families and placed in boarding facilities for education and assimilation into mainstream Euro-American society.

While Pratt had good intentions of saving Indians from slaughter by creating a reform system, what ensued during the Boarding School Era was a painful tug-of-war between Indian people and the federal government. Sacrificing family and cultural ties for assimilation and education was coldly dealt out as a means to provide long-term survival for native people.

However, for those families whose children were forcibly removed, it seemed an unreasonable sacrifice. For many of the children who attended the boarding schools – which were developed under a policy founded in military conditions for adult prisoners – the reality of the transition from home to school was especially cruel.

These boarding school children went from the warmth of family life and familiar culture and language to the sterile and disciplined environment of a militarized boarding school, where they were expected to learn a new language, adopt a new way of life, and leave behind all traces of their familiar culture. In order to make the new training “stick,” many children were not allowed to see their families for years at a time, and when they did return home, were unable to fit back into life as they once knew it, sometimes loosing their language and therefore their ability to communicate with their own families.

A systematic suppression of American Indian culture occurred during this era, which included the banning of American Indian spiritual practices and the speaking of native language, all of which held severe punitive repercussions.

When the families did resist the boarding school system under Morgan, he responded with swift discipline. In 1892, he wrote to his superior, the Secretary of Interior, that “whenever it seemed wise, resorted to mild punishment by the withholding of rations or supplies, and, where necessary,…directed (Indian) Agents to use their Indian police as truant officers in compelling attendance.”

In justifying his punitive actions, Morgan wrote, “I do not believe that Indians … people who for the most part speak no English, live in squalor and degradation, make little progress from year to year, who are a perpetual source of expense to the government and a constant menace to thousands of their white neighbors, a hindrance to civilization and a clog on our progress have any right to forcibly keep their children out of school to grow up like themselves, a race of barbarians and semi-savages.”

Training Indian Youth for Economic Survival

The next major litmus of the state of Indian Education came in 1901 with the new director of Indian Education, Estelle Reed. She concluded that the goal of assimilation had not been fulfilled, and as a remedy for this perceived failure of Indian Education, Reed prescribed a renewed curriculum based on making Indians “self-supporting as speedily as possible.” Her focus was the training of Indian students for vocations rather than giving them standard academics. She wrote, “literary instruction should be secondary, and industrial training of primary importance in the system of Indian education.”

Reed introduced the concept of training Indian youth to be agricultural workers, and included a focus on the cultural arts for the first time in the Rules of Indian Education. Her primary concern was economic self-sufficiency, and she saw the benefit of commodifying the native traditional cultural arts such as basket making. The unintended benefit, however, was a preservation of some traditional art forms, the evidence of which is prized by collectors and held in museums today.

Reed held her position until 1910, and her legacy of emphasizing vocational training lasted long past her tenure as director of Indian Education. In 1915, the book of Rules once again limited academics, favoring handiwork skills over even the basic instruction of the English language and reading.

Public Interest Spurs Changes in Indian Policy

During the economic boom time of the 1920’s, public interest in the life of Native people rose dramatically. The Santa Fe Railroad had effectively invented tourism to the American West, and travel posters beckoned the traveler to explore previously unseen Native lands. This public interest, driven by tourism marketing and the railroad industry, led to increased coverage of Indian life in newspapers and magazines.

When the public became aware of the state of native youth and Indian Education, pressure was laid on the federal government to improve conditions. Intense public criticism led the current Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work, to commission a report by the Brookings Institute to investigate Indian education. The resulting document, published in 1928, came to be known as the Meriam Report, after principle author Lewis Miriam.

This study, entitled The Problem of Indian Administration, harshly criticized the condition of the schools, the care of the students, and the philosophy and execution of the schools’ curriculum: “Very little of the work provided in Indian boarding schools is directly vocational in the sense that it is aimed at a specific vocation which the youngster is to pursue, or based upon a study of known industrial opportunities, and vocational direction in the form of proper guidance, placement, and follow-up hardly exists at all.”

The Meriam Report called for a complete revision in federal Indian Education policy, including an overhaul of the very nature of education in Indian schools. It reported on the apparent failure of vocational training, and recommended that the government arrest the work to assimilate the Indian child, replacing it with a child-centered approach that would be attentive to the needs of each individual student.

The report challenged the department of Indian Education to employ vocational, academic, and cultural studies to the full benefit of the Indian student.  In a bold move that reflected the general public’s interest in Native America, the Report suggested that Indian schools incorporate “key elements of Indian life and culture” into the curriculum.

Meriam marked a significant turning point in Indian education. Not only for it’s findings, but also for it’s role in displaying the power of public opinion and “modern” media in the forming of federal Indian policies. Good Housekeeping Magazine, which was very popular and well–read across America during this time, ran a series of articles about Indian education based upon the Meriam Report.

The resulting public outcry led to the Hoover administration’s almost doubling of federal appropriations to Indian schools between 1928 and 1933. These collective developments were referred to as the Indian New Deal, and were considered part of the social reform movement that swept through the United States in the aftermath of the Great Depression.

For the next generations of Indian school children, life was a little easier at the off-reservation boarding schools. While conditions and educational standards were not on par with mainstream public schools, children were no longer subjected to the earlier militaristic assimilation policies, and were often allowed to return home during the Summer months.

While these are small concessions for native youth who were separated from family, environment and culture, they were vast improvements from previous Indian Education policy.

The Meriam Report stated, “The Indian family and social structure must be strengthened, not destroyed…” and while efforts were made to change policy, the reality of application did not always measure up. In hindsight, it is clear that while the overt intention shifted away from “kill the Indian to save the man,” the boarding school experience continued to irrevocably change the realities of Indian life with each passing generation, adding to the cumulative loss of culture, language, and the unique experience of being Indian and part of the extended network of tribal family.

The increased federal funding during the New Deal period went to “local districts, reservation day schools, and public schools which had been established on Indian trust lands.” These additional federal funds allowed for Indian children to get an education while staying closer to home.

This period of Indian education lasted about twenty years, until the federal termination policies took hold during the 1950’s. During this time, federal Indian policy literally terminated the recognition of some Indian tribes, with the eventual goal of again assimilating native people into the mainstream society.

With the era of tribal termination came extreme budget cuts, reversing much of the progress for Indian education that had been in place since the New Deal. Many of the local tribal day schools were closed due to lack of federal funding.

The educational life of thousands of Indian children, over many decades, has been at the mercy of the fluctuations in federal policy, and the expansion and contraction of Congressional appropriations. As children’s lives are so shaped by the time spent in school, these shifts in policy and their practical application have had direct influence on generations of Indian children and their families.

The Civil Rights Era and Modern Indian Education Policy

The next phase in Indian Education policies coincided with the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. Historically, a resurgence of focus on social services across the board tends to include renewed energy and funding for Indian programs, including education.

President John F. Kennedy was committed to both the support of Indian Nations, and the elevation of education for all American youth. This combination created a new era for Indian Education, and in 1961, Kennedy’s Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, appointed a Task Force on Indian Affairs. The resulting report recommended “a wide range of new activities in Indian education, from increased funds for scholarships to the encouragement of Indian parent participation in the formulation of school programs.”

In 1966, the Presidential Task Force on Indian Affairs outlined new emphasis on Indian Education, placing responsibility for improving life for native people on the improvement of the educational system, strongly endorsing Indian control of the school systems and the need for quality education. In 1968, a Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education, under the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare, conducted an extensive hearing on Indian education. The resulting report, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge” was published in 1969.

This comprehensive document, commonly known as The Kennedy Report, focused national attention on the state of education for American Indian and Alaska Native students. The 60-point report recommended increased tribal control in education policies and across-the-board improvements in indian education, including the creation of a National Indian board of education, which spurred the creation of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA). It also called for the creation of an exemplary federal school system for Indian students.

The report included historical analysis, and stated that “the coercive assimilation policy has had disastrous effects on the education of Indian children…” It pointed to the results of generations of assimilation policies, including scathing criticism of a failed government responsibility to educate Indian children and be respectful of cultural differences.

The Kennedy report stated, “1. The classroom and the school system (have become) a sort of battleground in which the Indian child attempts to protect his integrity and identity as an individual by defeating the purposes of the school. 2. Schools that fail to understand or adapt, and-in fact-often denigrate cultural differences. 3. Schools that blame their own failures on Indian students and reinforce their defensiveness. 4. Schools that fail to recognize the importance and validity of the Indian community, causing both the community and its children to retaliate by treating the school as an alien institution. 5. A dismal record of much absenteeism, many dropouts, negative self-image, low achievement, and, ultimately, academic failure for many Indian children. 6. A perpetuation of the cycle of poverty, which undermines the success of all other federal programs.”

Nixon Ushers in Tribal Self-Determination in Indian Education

The next major milestone for tribes and Indian education policy came on July 8, 1970, when President Nixon delivered a message to Congress ordering a new approach on Indian policy, condemning forced termination and specifying recommendations for Indian self-determination. A direct result of Nixon’s declaration was the Indian Education Act of 1972, which established the Office of Indian Education and the National Advisory Council on Indian Education.

This landmark legislation outlined a comprehensive approach to meeting the unique needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students. Most significantly, it mandated the consultation of Indian people in the creation of Indian education policy and management.  The Act specified that “all projects funded under the legislation must be developed and conducted with the cooperation of tribes, parents and students so that the Indian future in education can be determined in full conjunction with Indian desires and decisions.”

The Act primarily sought to uplift the academic performance of Indian and Alaska Native students while honoring unique tribal identity and maintaining cultural traditions, thereby giving them the tools to succeed in modern society without the intent of assimilation into mainstream Euro-American culture.

Subsequent legislation has built upon the Indian Education Act of 1972, and has included the following revisions and reauthorizations: In 1974, PL 93-380 amends the Act to add a teacher training program and a fellowship program; The 1975 Congress passed the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act; 1988: PL 100-297 makes BIA funded schools eligible to apply for formula grants. Also creates an authorization for Gifted and Talented education; 1994: PL 103-382 reauthorizes Indian Education as Title IX Part A of ESEA.

The formula grants reauthorization is amended to require a comprehensive plan to meet the academic and culturally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students; 2001: PL 107-110 Indian Education is reauthorized as Title VII Part A of the No Child Left Behind Act. The formula grants are to be based on challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards that are used for all students and designed to assist Indian students in meeting those standards.

The unique aspects of the original authority have been retained through subsequent legislative reauthorizing statutes, with the latest revision occurring with the amendments made by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which reauthorized the program as Title VII Part A of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Indian Education legislation is unique in the following ways:

1.    It recognizes that American Indians have unique, educational and culturally related academic needs and distinct language and cultural needs;
2.    It is the only comprehensive Federal Indian Education legislation, that deals with American Indian education from pre-school to graduate-level education and reflects the diversity of government involvement in Indian education;
3.    It focuses national attention on the educational needs of American Indian learners, reaffirming the Federal government’s special responsibility related to the education of American Indians and Alaska Natives; and
4.    It provides services to American Indians and Alaska Natives that are not provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Current State of Indian Education

Today, 56 community-controlled schools operate under contract from the BIA (OIEP schools). In addition, 20 tribally-controlled community colleges have been started. The 103 elementary and secondary schools still operated directly by the BIA now have local Indian school boards with a voice in the operation of the school, including the selection of staff.

While not as prevalent, the American Indian boarding school still exists, although attendance is voluntary. Most schools now work closely with surrounding American Indian tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the culture of American Indian students as part of its educational programming.

Locally controlled, BIA-operated, and public schools have all sought to hire more Indian teachers and administrators and to engage in local curriculum development. A few schools now provide initial reading instruction in tribal languages, and most schools that serve Indian children teach some tribal history and culture.

In most recent years, tribal councils implementing self-determination policies have been expanding their influence and decision–making power into the education system. Tribal education policies are created to express a strong commitment to educational excellence as well as tribal languages and cultures. For example, the Navajo tribal educational policies of 1985 declared that the Navajo language was an essential element of the life, culture, and identity of the tribe and mandated school instruction in both Navajo and English.

On November 6, 2000, President Bill Clinton issued and signed Executive Order 13175, mandating Consultation and Coordination with Indian Tribal Governments in the formation of federal Indian policy.

In a significant step toward the next phase of development in Federal Indian Policy, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Memorandum on November 5, 2009, during the White House Tribal Nations Conference held at the Interior Department’s headquarters in D.C, that directs all Federal departments and agencies to develop a “plan of actions” to implement the policies and directives of Executive Order 13175.

President Obama issued his executive memorandum supporting tribal consultation as “a critical ingredient of a sound and productive Federal-tribal relationship.”

Larry Echo Hawk, Assistant Secretary-Indian Affairs, Department of the Interior, said, “The effort we are undertaking today to develop Interior’s plan as called for by the President will begin a new and positive chapter in the history of Federal-tribal relations.”


While much progress has been made in Indian education since the Kennedy Report and Nixon’s era of Tribal Self-determination, Indian and Alaska Native students are still struggling with achievement levels far below the national average. In addition, the full effect of psycho-social ills seen in poverty–stricken communities is widely evident. These effects include widespread drug and alcohol use, endemic problems with gang activities, truancy, anecdotal violence within the school population, the nation’s highest rates of teenage suicides, and other forms of anti-social, addictive, self-medicating and self-destructive behaviors.

There have been many attempts to analyze and address the problems endemic in Native youth, both within the schools systems and in the tribal communities. It is clear that the problems facing Indian and Alaska Native students are monumental, and the contributing factors of historical maltreatment of Indian people cannot be underestimated.

The renovation of tribal communities and the family structures is an on-going process. However, the key to addressing current needs of Indian and Alaska Native students is to deal with the immediate high risks to the health and safety of those 44,000 children being served by the Department of Indian Education.

There is an opportunity to create a significant change, expeditiously, for those students being served by the education system, by providing access to education, support services, and tools related to those threats to personal health and safety that have invaded schools nationwide. Students can only thrive when they are in a safe and nurturing environment. It is through the continued development of the optimal learning environment that Indian children will recognize their true potential and have the opportunity to excel.

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