American Indians and the Boarding School

Child Shall Lead Them” — Away From The Home Of Their Ancestors

Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School

Experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas, 1997.

Education — particularly in America, the land of self-improvement — is often assumed to be an unquestioned source of ‘good’ for all citizens However, the question of how to educate the young and who has a right to do so also raises questions of acculturation that can be troubling, particularly in regards to Native Americans. David Wallace Adams’ book Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928 chronicles the forced assimilation efforts by the American government that were engineered to turn America’s native population into ‘real’ Americans. From the mid-19th to the late 20th century, the American government and private organizations colluded to ‘civilize’ the Indian through the creation of off-reservation ‘boarding schools.’ Although the idea of ‘boarding schools’ sounds benign, even elite, the institutions were run more like re-education facilities or prison camps. The young children’s daily regimes were as strict as basic training: in fact, the first school was on a military post in Pennsylvania and headed by Captain Richard H. Pratt. Pratt’s leadership signaled the true purpose of these camps: they were an act of moral conquest, not education. They attempted to eradicate native culture just as surely as the American government had eradicated native rights to tribal lands.

Pratt himself did not see his project as destructive. At the time, when a popular phrase was that the “only good Indian is a dead Indian,” Pratt saw himself as saving the next generation of natives (Adams 52-54). He vowed to destroy the Indian within the soul of the native, not the Indian as a person, and this was seen as progressive. Native children were taken away from their families, their hair was cut, they were forced to wear Western clothes, and eat Western food. Much like slaves brought to the shores of the Americas, Indian children had to change their names, stop speaking their native languages and take on new identities, such as the Christian names Jacob and Rachel. To accomplish their goal of cultural eradication, the boarding schools were run without any allowance of dissent — they taught the values of democracy and patriotism, but were autocratic by design. The parallel between the military conquest of the American landscape, once populated by native dwellers, and the colonization of the children of American Indians is apt. Just like horses, guns, missionaries, and wagons were used to take America away from its first inhabitants, using schools as a tool of assimilation was the last, final weapon of the government’s colonization effort (Adams 5).

Indian children were taught that their old way of life, the ways of their ancestors and their parents was wrong. Rather than solidarity and friendship with their fellow children, they were instructed to inform on their schoolfellows that did not do as they were told (for example, children who continued to speak their native languages in private). This was seen as being done ‘for the children’s own good,’ as it was said that either to “butcher or to civilize” the Indian was the only choice (Adams 2).

Even to a European reader, the regime to which the children were subjected is foreign, given how much it differs from our modern, more open-minded ideas of schooling. The boarding schools used corporal punishment, army-style marching and drills and athletic competitions for the boys in games like football. The girls were supposed to adopt norms of conventional, cloistered Victorian womanhood. Yet the Indian’s education was not equal with whites: Indians were assumed to be intellectually inferior, and taught to labor in the service of whites. Once again, there are echoes with the education of African-Americans. Although these children were native to America’s shores, they were treated as aliens. Children who attempted to run away were tracked down, but unlike slave-owners, the enforcers of this type of education were ostensibly doing this for the children’s benefit, not for personal enrichment. Of course, it conveniently satisfied the needs of the American government, although this purpose was hidden, even to some of the devoutly Christian teachers at the schools.

So long rendered voiceless, and forced to speak in the language of their oppressors, Adams makes a heroic effort to find the real words and real impressions of these children in prose: “By evening I was too tired to play and just fell asleep wherever I sat down. I think this is why the boys and girls ran away from school; why some became ill; why it was so hard to learn. We were too tired to study” (Adams 153). Children were kept busy in line with the Protestant work ethic — work was supposed to be good for the soul, and if the children were worked hard, it was thought that they would be less apt to revolt, question what they were taught, or try to engage in non-approved behavior, such observing in Indian rituals or traditions.

Educating the children was a spatial as well as an intellectual project — the children were taken away from their families, and taught American values of individual property — despite the fact that their own tribal properties had been taken away. They were taught that America was the land of the free, but their own parents had been denied the freedom to educate their own children as they saw fit. The children’s bodies were colonized with a foreign ideology: they were taught to work in a ‘useful’ way for their oppressors, rather than learn their own peoples’ ways of hunting, fishing, and living upon the land. Every hour of their lives was dominated by the European clock and orders by their teachers. Rules could not be questioned.

To contextualize Adams’ research, it is important to remember that schooling during the 19th and early 20th century in trades for the ‘lower classes’ was not unusual, and harsh discipline was very common, particularly for children who were not expected to rise to the elites of American society. All teachers had the right to harshly discipline children in the classroom. Furthermore, many native children, Adams admits, did have a more ambivalent attitude to their education that might be initially suspected. Given the fact that their old way of life had been destroyed, learning a trade was often seen as the only way out of certain poverty. Despite the discipline, many children were able to ‘network’ within the context of the boarding schools, and share their experiences in a way, Adams believes, eventually coalesced in the Indian liberation movement in the 1970s.

Adams’ work is an instructive document in the complexity by which natives were viewed by whites as well. Some whites, however misguided in their actions, did see the schools as better than the likely alternative that awaited Indians, if the next generation of native children left to remain on their reservations. White progressives were shocked when Indians did not embrace their project with equal fervor. They thought that the values of European culture and education were inherently ‘rational’ compared to that of ‘savage’ ways and Indians would be grateful.

Adams’ book is eye-opening in terms of the way that education has been used in America. America’s use public education to all has been a mixed blessing: it provided willing immigrant children with opportunities, but it also has been used to impose ideas of patriotism and homogeneity upon the population. Midweek prayers, learning from the McGuffey reader, and industrial training and domestic science were part of the education of most American children who went to school. Native children were taught that Indian ways were inherently inferior to the American culture they were learning about, every day, but they may not have been the first or the last to be instructed in the ‘lesson:’ that to keep one’s ancient traditions is not to be a ‘true’ American (Adams 335).

Work Cited

Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School

Experience, 1875-1928. University Press of Kansas, 1997.

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