Their Ongoing Importance
to Michigan Residents
Federal Education Policy
& Off-Reservation Schools
a presentation of the
Clarke Historical Library
This discussion of federal education policy toward Native Americans and the experiences of Indians who attended off-reservation boarding schools includes the following components:
The traditional way through which Native American children were educated for the responsibilities that they would assume as adults was by working with and imitating their elders. There was no "school" as it was understood by nineteenth century Europeans. Rather, children were allowed to roam freely throughout the community stopping and asking questions when and where they pleased. Children would work companionably alongside their parents or other adults, helping in small ways and gaining confidence and ability in various skills. Children often engaged in what the Dakota referred to as "small play," impersonating adults and mimicking their activities, conversations, and manners.
Grandparents played a very important role in the education of children. Grandmothers, for example, bore responsibility for making girls "well behaved women." A grandmother would take it upon herself to tutor her granddaughter in the subtleties of daily life, such as how to move, how to interact with elders, where to sit at ceremonial occasions. In the evening it was common to send a daughter to her grandmother bearing a gift of food or tobacco. The gift was an invitation to the grandmother to instruct the child in the tribe's traditions that would help the girl understand both her place in the tribe and her people's place in the world.
As children aged their spiritual development was nurtured. Chippewa girls of four or five years of age, for example, undertook their first vision quests in the forest. As the child grew older the length of the quests gradually lengthened. Eventually an older child might spend several days in the forest fasting and seeking a vision that would define his or her spirituality and relationship with the supernatural. Upon returning from such a quest a child would be ritually greeted by relatives, feasted for his or her accomplishment, and listened to respectfully as the child reported on the dreams experienced during the quest.
From a very young age children were treated with considerable dignity and respect. When a child required discipline it usually came in the form of a scolding or a threat that an animal might kidnap the misbehaving child. Physical punishment was rare and modest, usually involving a twig applied to the hands or knees.
The White Perspective
After the Civil War trans-Mississippi settlement of whites on the southern plains spurred large-scale military conflict with many Indian tribes. For over a decade the United States army fought various combinations of tribes. Although Indian wars were not a new phenomena, the scope of the conflict led a reform-minded group of Euro-Americans began to call for a new Indian policy. Over time many reformers, or the "Friends of the American Indians" as this group eventually called itself, came to believe that the only answer to the "Indian problem" was to assimilate Native Americans into Euro-American society. Education was quickly identified as the a critical tool in accomplishing this goal.
Specifically, the Friends argued for abolition of the reservation system and the creation of government-run Indian schools that would emphasize vocational skills. The Friends hoped that the schools would teach Native American marketable skills so that an Indian could be self-supporting in white American society. The idea of educating Indians into white ways was not a new one. By the 1850's treaties signed with Indian tribes routinely included a "six to sixteen clause," promising a school house and school teacher for Indian children between the ages of six and sixteen. For most of the nineteenth century Congress had also routinely appropriate money for a "Civilization Fund," that was very pointedly created to transform Indians into the model of white pioneer settlers. But the treaty agreements and the Civilization Fund had assumed a voluntary transformation of Indians. The assimilation policy advocated by the Friends was comprehensive and compulsory.
In Richard H. Pratt both the Friends and the government found the person to create a new education policy. In April 1875 Pratt was placed in charge of a group of seventy-two Indian prisoners from several tribes who he was to transport from the plains to Fort Marion, near St. Augustine, Florida. There the Indians were to be imprisoned. Pratt was a veteran of the Indian wars who had twice commanded Indian scouts. Because of his experience with the Indian scouts, Pratt held the somewhat unusual view among contemporary Euro-Americans that Indians were trustworthy and could learn white ways. Pratt did not accept Indian culture as the equal of his. Rather, he believed that through education Indians could be "elevated" to white standards. This opinion served as the starting point for an experiment in Indian education that would become federal policy.
At Fort Marion Pratt developed a "prison school" to acculture his prisoners into white society. Pratt immersed the prisoners in white culture, giving them European clothing, creating daily work routines to develop in them an appreciation for the European sense of time and labor, and giving the prisoners an opportunity to learn marketable vocational skills and use those skills to make money. Christianity, Pratt believed, was an important element in becoming part of the European community. Pratt held weekly Christian services for the prisoners and eventually encouraged them to attend denominational services in nearby St. Augustine. Finally, Pratt believed that the elimination of native language was critical to the success of his efforts. Thus, prisoners were taught the English language as well as the rudiments of reading and writing. Once the prisoners had obtained a basic competency in English all further instruction was in that language.
In 1878 the Fort Marion school came to an abrupt end when the War Department determined that conditions on the plains were such that the prisoners could be allowed to return west. Pratt believed that the now freed Indian prisoners would benefit from continued education. He persuaded the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia to accept them. Hampton had been founded in 1867 to supply mechanical training to newly freed African-Americans. Twenty-two of Pratt's former prisoners voluntarily agreed to continue their education; seventeen at Hampton and five at other Eastern schools. Pratt himself was also assigned to Hampton.
Pratt's days at Hampton were few. Tireless in his advocacy, in 1879 Pratt convinced the Secretary of War to allow him to establish an independent Indian school at an abandoned military post in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Pratt opened Carlisle Industrial Training school on November 1, 1879. At Carlisle Pratt founded a multi-tribal, co-educational school that isolated the students from their tribal cultures and attempted to fully assimilate the students into a European lifestyle. In its now nearly perfected form the school employed military, cadet-like training to teach the English language, basic academics, industrial training focused largely on agricultural skills, the importance of hard manual labor, and the need for remunerative employment. To further reinforce the value of the work ethic Pratt adopted the "outing system," in which student labor was contracted out to local farmers and other businesses, with the student receiving at least some of the wages earned. Native languages were banned and Christianity was strongly encouraged.
Government officials, who saw Carlisle as a potentially useful alternative to the expensive and bloody Indian campaigns in the West, and humanitarian reformers, who sought to assimilate Indians into European society, both rallied to the support of the educational policies employed at the new school. Carlisle became the model for a vision of Indian education that built upon military subjugation to achieve cultural assimilation. Pratt would remain at the school until his removal in 1904, and continue to argue vigorously for his vision of Indian education until his death in 1924. The General Allotment Act of 1887, more commonly referred to as the Dawes Act, incorporated the Carlisle model into government policy.
Thomas Jefferson Morgan, appointed commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1889, vigorously supported the educational agenda created through the Dawes Act. Upon appointment as commissioner of Indian Affairs, 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 saw his task in missionary terms, writing, "We must either fight 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."
To accomplish his goals, Morgan expanded the number of off-reservation Indian boarding schools from seven to nineteen. Morgan controlled activities within these schools through a detailed volume of rules. The 1890, Rules for Indian Schools, explicitly established "preparation of Indian youth for assimilation into the national life" as the schools' overall objective. Over the course of eight years Morgan assumed Indians would receive two years of intensive English language training and the equivalent of a sixth grade education. An 1892 revision of the Rules added a ninth year of study and opened the door for kindergarten classes. The revision also specifically included efforts to promote Christianity by including in the curriculum memorization and recitation of the Lord's Prayer as well as the Beatitudes, the Psalms, and the ten commandments.
Although Morgan had created a primary school system, he consistently argued for more advanced courses. Like Pratt, Morgan disagreed with the day's popular wisdom regarding the ability of Indians to learn. Morgan believed Indians capable of significant intellectual achievement and argued that simply training Indians to be good farmers was insufficient.
When Indians resisted Morgan's program, he responded quickly and harshly. In 1892 he wrote to the Secretary of the Interior, to whom he reported, that while he preferred reasoning with Indian parents, he had also, "wherever it seemed wise, resorted to mild punishment by the withholding of rations or supplies, and , where necessary, ... directed Agents to use their Indian police as truant officers in compelling attendance." Further explaining himself 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."
Like Pratt, Morgan saw no value in Indian culture.
In 1901 Estelle Reel, who now headed Indian education, concluded that her predecessors efforts had failed in accomplishing the basic goal of assimilation. To accomplish this objective Reel favored vocational education over academics. The goal, in Reel's words, was to make Indians "self-supporting as speedily as possible." Given this goal, Reel believed that "literary instruction should be secondary, and industrial training of primary importance in the system of Indian education." The 1901 curriculum sent forth by Reel focused attention on teaching agricultural skills. It was fairly explicit in stating the assumption that Indians would never advance beyond the lower economic stratas of American society and brutally pragmatic in observing that, whatever talents an Indian child might have, more advanced education had little demonstrable impact on the assimilation of Native youth.
The 1901 curriculum, in contrast to those found in earlier editions of the Rules, did allow for the teaching of Native American art forms, particularly basket making. The motive for these courses, however, was economic rather than cultural. Reel acknowledged that there was both a practical and collectible market for these products. Thus basket weaving skills could help Indians be self-supporting. Reel also acknowledged that in places where farming was impractical, such as the desert southwest, baskets and other art work was a more viable source of income.
Reel's adoption of a curriculum that lowered expectations for Indian students did not go unchallenged. Former Indian Commissioner Morgan was outraged. In 1902 he wrote,
"Every child born into the Republic is entitled to claim as his birthright such kind and degree of education as will fit him for good citizenship. The Indian child has a right to demand of the government, which has assumed responsibility for his training, that he shall not be hopelessly handicapped by such an inferior training as from the very beginning dooms him to failure..."
Despite criticism, Reel continued in her post until 1910, pursuing with vigor her new curriculum.
Long after Reel left her post, her views continued to strongly influence education at the Indian boarding schools. A 1915 revision of the Rules further limited the academic curriculum. As early as the first grade Indian girls were taught sewing, weaving, and lace work, at the expense of basic English language and reading skills. In fact, the 1915 Rules went so far in the direction of a prescriptive vocational education that they were criticized by white public school reformers.
By the mid-1920's discontent over the state of Indian education was high. Sharp public criticism led Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work to request the Washington-based Brookings Institute investigate Indian education. In 1928 the Institute published a then definitive study, The Problem of Indian Administration, more commonly referred to as Meriam Report after its principal author Lewis Meriam.
The Meriam report criticized the physical plant of the schools, the care given the students, and the core ideas behind education in Indian schools. It found overcentralized government-run schools employing a rigid and largely discredited curriculum. The report concluded that despite the official rhetoric regarding the centrality of vocational education, in practice students seeking vocational training were poorly served.
"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."
Although the Report criticized as ineffective the government's implementation of vocational education, it went much further and called upon the government to completely change the nature of education in Indian schools. Indian schools should abandon their single minded quest for assimilation and replace it with a child-centered educational approach that would maximize the vocational and academic achievements of each student. To accomplish this most effectively the report called for the inclusion of key elements of Indian life and culture into the curriculum. Although never using the word, the Meriam report in practice endorsed a multi-cultural education for Indian children that allowed each child to retain significant elements of their tribal culture while at the same time develop fully his or her Euro-American defined academic potential.
The Meriam report was a significant checkpoint in Indian education. Its findings and recommendations became widely distributed and very influential when the popular magazine Good Housekeeping ran a series of articles drawn largely from the report. Embarrassed into action by public outrage over the poor treatment given to Indian children, the Hoover administration almost doubled spending on Indian schools between 1928 and 1933.
Most of this money was spent on improving the schools' physical plant as well as improving the diet and medical attention received by the children. The administration also placed greater emphasis in on-reservation education, at the expense of the already hard pressed off-reservation boarding schools. Indeed, to save money, many off-reservation schools, including the one at Mount Pleasant, were closed in this era. Although overall living conditions improved, the curricular changes recommended in the report were largely ignored. At least until World War II government run Indian schools continued to offer students a vocational education program largely defined by Estelle Reel at the beginning of the twentieth century.
The Indian Experience
The federal government's Indian education policy created tremendous tension among America's Indian population. Traditionalists strongly opposed sending children to distant schools to learn the "white man's" ways. They rightly understood that the objective of the schools was completely antithetical to the traditional way of Indian life, learning, and custom. Shrewd parents told their children that owls, bears, and white men would harm them, leading the children to flee at the sight of a white man. Women seemed particularly reluctant to release their daughters, perhaps reflecting the particularly close mother-daughter relationships that existed in tribal society.
However the grinding poverty and seeming hopelessness of reservation life caused many Indian parents to consider the possibility of sending their children to learn the white man's ways, and hopefully find a more prosperous life, albeit not a traditional one. Children who were orphans or had lost a parent were particularly likely to be sent away. Alice Littlefield, who has studied the Mount Pleasant Indian School extensively, has written that "by the 1920s Mt. Pleasant was in large part an institution emphasizing care for orphans and the children of the poor." Almost two-thirds of the students in the Mount Pleasant Indian School came from homes were one or both parents were missing. Although both contemporary documents and Littlefield's writing acknowledge that Mount Pleasant's school had a particularly high percentage of orphaned children, Brenda J. Child, who has researched attendance at boarding schools by Chippewa living in Wisconsin and Minnesota, echoes Littlefield's finding in that many children from the Red Lake Reservation were sent to Indian Boarding schools due to the death of one or both parents.
Indian agents anxious to comply with Washington's desire to send children to the distant boarding schools also pressured parents to allow their children to leave. Sometimes the agents simply resorted to force. Brenda J. Child recounts how at the beginning of the twentieth century police used a compulsory school attendance law passed in 1898 to round up "students" on the Red Lake Reservation to be sent to boarding schools.
Indian families bitterly resented the control white officials exercised over their children. Not only could the officials round up their children and send them away but they also controlled if and when the children would return home for visits. Child notes the frustration of one mother who wrote to a boarding school superintendent, "It seems it would be much easier to get her out of prison than out of your school." It was not until 1933, when assimilation was waning as an educational goal, that off-reservation boarding school students were routinely allowed to go home for summer vacation.
The decision to send a child away was extraordinarily difficult. Indian parents understood the painful effects separation would have on a child and the impact of the school's military-like lifestyle. "You will cry for me, but they will not even soothe you." one mother warned her departing child. Other parents drew a comparison between a child's going to a boarding school and death itself. After receiving a letter from her daughter, one mother said, "the place has become full of ghosts." The parents understood that even if the school's officials and teachers cared appropriately for their children's physical well being, a point about which they had good reason to worry, a child's cultural and spiritual development would likely be changed forever.
In many cases, even if the parents voluntarily agreed to send a child to a boarding school, the child resisted, fleeing home and hiding in the woods or with sympathetic relatives. Because of this the child was often not told in advance of the decision. One student who attended a boarding school in the southwest recalled that on the day that he left, his mother had simply handed him a lunch and sent him off to a day school he was attending. When he arrived for his day's lessons, he was informed he was to leave immediately. He and several other students were placed in a truck equipped with a wire cage, to keep them from fleeing, and driven to the nearest railroad station. The trauma of such a parting, on both parent and child, can only be imagined.
An Indian student's first days at an off reservation boarding school were extraordinarily difficult. Suddenly thrust into an institution that their previous experience had given them no way of comprehending they were often in shock. One woman later wrote of the experience,
"My long travel and the bewildering sights had exhausted me. I fell asleep, heaving deep, tired sobs. My tears were left to dry themselves in streaks, because neither my aunt nor my mother was near to wipe them away."
Procedures which were of little consequence to the school authorities could induce tremendous trauma among the students. One girl, for example, had to be pulled from under her bed and held in order for her hair to be cut. She later explained,
"Our mother's had taught us that only unskilled warriors who were captured had their hair shingled by the enemy. Among our people, short hair was worn by mourners, and shingled hair by cowards."
Another student wrote, many years after the experience, that
It is almost impossible to explain to a sympathetic white person what a typical old Indian boarding school was like; how it affected the Indian child suddenly dumped into it like a small creature from another world, helpless, defenseless, bewildered, trying desperately and instinctively to survive it all."
Some students never came to terms with life in a boarding school. Other children did adjust, at least marginally, to this strange new world. Some flourished and did assimilate white values. An example of how Indian Boarding schools affected the pupils who stayed in them can be found by looking at authors who have studied Boarding schools to which Chippewa children were sent. One of these boarding schools operated in Mount Pleasant Michigan, from 1893 until 1933.
Many students resisted the loss of their Native tongue. These students employed a variety of ways to maintain fluency in their mother tongue. Child tells the story of one young woman who retained her fluency by silently praying in Ojibway at the compulsory church services. In Mount Pleasant, by the 1920's punishment for the use of Ojibway had become relatively infrequent. Child also notes that in some Indian schools the children were also strongly encouraged to accept a "Christian" name in place of their Indian name. School officials considered Indian names an unpronounceable remnant of a "pagan" past. A student who translated his or her Indian name into English was often mocked by instructors.
Daily life at the Mount Pleasant school was similar to that at all the Indian Boarding schools. As defined in the "Rules,' students lived a quasi-military life-style. They rose and went to bed upon a signal. The wore uniforms, were organized into "companies" under the command of student captains and majors, and were expected to marched from activity to activity.
The student's day was divided roughly in half. A half day was spent in class, the balance of the day was spent in "vocational" education, which could consist either of formal study or "work details" that performed routine cleaning and maintenance activities around the school. Given the curriculum's emphasis on agricultural education the students engaged in a wide variety of agriculturally-related tasks. In Mount Pleasant the students grew potatoes, corn, wheat, and hay, kept vegetable gardens, apple orchards, and vineyards, and also cared for chickens, pigs, dairy cows, and draft horses. In addition the "outing" system was employed in Mount Pleasant, particularly during the summer. Many students worked in sugar beet fields, a crop requiring a great deal of hand cultivation. Male students served as seasonal laborers on area farms while female students often found summer employment as domestic help.
Living conditions were usually spartan, however, because so many of the children came from backgrounds of extreme poverty school conditions were often better than those at home. By the twentieth century school buildings were often run down and crowded. Children usually slept in dormitories that placed thirty or forty students in a large room. Students bathed once or twice weekly, otherwise washing in community troughs. Soap, in the words of the Meriam report, "was rarely immediately accessible." Indoor toilets were usually provided, however the Meriam report found them in poor repair and in at least half of the toilets visited by report staff lacking in toilet paper due to budgetary shortfalls.
Students had very little privacy. The slept and ate in communal facilities. After bathing or showering students used communal dressing rooms equipped with long wooden benches to dry and dress. Correspondence either sent to or written by the student was routinely read by school staff.
The quality of food given the students was a point of considerable contention. Many students recall the food as being at least adequate. The Meriam report, however, was quite critical of the food. The report suggested widespread malnutrition among students and in some cases actual food shortages. The diet at the schools usually focused on meat and starches, with fresh vegetables or fruit rarely served. A typical supper might include bread, stew, or meat with gravy. This problem particularly irked many reformers because most of the schools emphasized the learning of agricultural skills and maintained substantial farming operations. It had become customary, however, to produce cash crops to supplement the schools budget rather than raise crops to feed the students.
The Meriam report estimated that to adequately feed children in the schools the government should allow thirty-five cents per day per student. The report's staff calculated that the government actually spent eleven cents per day per student on food. Students expressed their concern over food somewhat differently. Littlefield records the following ditty, told to her by two former students from the Mount Pleasant School:
Six o'clock in the morning,
Our breakfast comes around.
A bowl of mush and molasses,
Was enough to knock you down.
Our coffee's like tobacco juice,
Our bread is hard and stale,
and that's the way they treat you
At Mt. Pleasant Indian Jail.
In part because of the inadequate sanitary conditions and marginal diet, students' health was often poor. Health conditions were made worse, however, by the conscious decision to enroll sick children and allow them to freely mingle with healthy students. Despite rules to the contrary this practice was commonplace at Indian schools. As a results epidemics of trachoma, tuberculosis, and other diseases were endemic. In 1912 children with active cases of tuberculosis were officially banned from enrolling in Indian schools, but as late as 1924 Child documents the presence of children with active cases of tuberculosis in boarding schools.
In the first years of the twentieth century over one-half of all children in off-reservation boarding schools suffered from trachoma, an eye disease which if left untreated causes blindness in approximately one percent of its victims. Trachoma is easily caught and is usually associated with unsanitary conditions and poor living standards. Until the development of an effective treatment in 1937 the disease was very difficult to cure. Congress in 1909 voted some funds to help deal with the disease but very little effective work was accomplished.
Deaths among students were not uncommon. A policy to not share information with parents about "minor" illnesses could lead to stunning consequences. One can only imagine the reaction of the father who, unaware that his daughter was ill, received in the mail this letter:
It is with a feeling of sorrow that I write you telling of the death of your daughter Lizzie. She was not sick but a short time and we did not think her so near her end. On the evening of March 30th, I was at the girls building and the matron informed me that Lizzie had gone to bed not feeling well. I went up to her room and with the matron and found her in bed with what seemed a bad cold. ... She had quite a fever for several days and then seemed to improve, but did not rally as she ought to have done, and the doctor made a careful examination and said that she was without doubt going into quick consumption. ... Last Wednesday I was called away to Minneapolis and... I was very much surprised upon my return Saturday evening to find she was dad, as the doctor had given us no information except she might live for a number of months."
The superintendent closed his letter by expressing his sympathy and noting,
"Had we known that she was not going to live but so short a time, we would have made a great effort to have gotten you here before she died..."
Merely being diagnosed as dying was insufficient in itself to justify a letter to Lizzie's parents. Her death needed to be imminent.
Infractions of the many rules usually resulted in the withdrawal of privileges or the assignment of extra work details. However more severe punishments also occurred. Students might be deprived of a meal. Girls were often forced to kneel for an extended period on a hard surface and boys and girls were occasionally beaten with a strap or rubber hose. Particularly in the nineteenth century flogging with a whip was also allowed. Flogging and other extreme forms of punishment were not banned formally until 1929. Even then rules regarding extreme punishments remained muddy because of a 1930 statement that may might be allowed in "emergency situations."
Students did run away. A few from the Mount Pleasant school made it back to Michigan's upper peninsula by hitching rides on freight trains and sneaking aboard ferries. However the most common reason cited for fleeing a boarding school was homesickness rather than poor treatment.
Much of the material used in writing this section came from Jeffrey Louis Hamley, "Cultural Genocide in the Classroom: A History of the Federal Boarding School Movement in American Indian Education, 1875-1920," unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, 1994 and Francis Paul Prucha, The Great Father: The United State Government and the American Indians (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984). Carol Devens, "'If We Get the Girls, We Get the Race': Missionary Education of Native American Girls," Journal of World History 3 (1992): 219-237 was used to help document the reaction of Indian parents and children to boarding schools, although Green's article discusses boarding schools run by religious missionaries rather than the federal government. Discussion of the Mount Pleasant School was taken from Alice Littlefield, "Indian Education and the World of Work in Michigan, 1893-1933," published in Alice Littlefield and Martha C. Knack, eds. Native Americans and Wage Labor (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996); Alice Littlefield, "The BIA Boarding School," Humanity & Society 13 (1989): 428-441; Alice Littlefield, "Learning to Labor: Native American Education in the United States, 1880-1930," in John H. Moore, Ed., The Political Economy of North American Indians (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1993), 43-59. Discussion of school life also came from Brenda J. Child, Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998) and Robert A. Trennert, Jr., The Phoenix Indian School: Forced Assimilation in Arizona, 1891-1935 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988).