Education in America – Part 6

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Native American Education

The policies of the United States government towards Native Americans have been paternalistic, savage, and grossly unfair. The goal in education of Native Americans has been to eradicate language, culture, religion, and possessions, as well as population reduction – genocide.

The story stretches back to 1818 and beyond. In that year, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Benjamin Hawkins, in which he formulates the “Indian Civilization” idea.

Thomas Jefferson

Altho’ you will receive3 thro’ the official channel of the war office every communication necessary to develope to you our views respecting the Indians and to direct your conduct, yet supposing it will be satisfactory to you, and to those with whom you are placed, to understand my personal dispositions & opinions in this particular, I shall avail myself of this private letter to state them generally. I consider the business of hunting as already become insufficient to furnish clothing and subsistence to the Indians. the promotion of agriculture therefore and houshold manufacture are essential for their preservation, and I am disposed to aid and encourage it liberally. this will enable them to live on much smaller portions of land, and indeed will render their vast forests useless, but for the range of cattle,4 for which purpose also, as they become better farmers, they will be found useless and even disadvantageous. while they are learning to do better on less land, our increasing numbers will be calling for more land, and thus5 a coincidence of interests will be produced between those who have lands to spare and want other necessaries,6 and those who have such necessaries to spare and want lands. this commerce then will be for the good of both, and those who are friends to both ought to encourage it. you are in the station peculiarly charged with this interchange, and who have it peculiarly in your power to promote among the Indians a sense of7 the superior value of a little land well-cultivated over a great deal unimproved, and to encourage them to make this estimate truly. the wisdom of the animal which amputates & abandons to the hunter the parts for which he is pursued, should be theirs, with this difference that the former sacrifices what is useful. the latter what is not. in truth the ultimate point of rest & happiness for them is to let our settlements and theirs meet and blend together, to intermix and become one people, incorporating themselves with us as citizens of the US.

Thomas Jefferson,

This formed the basis of US government policy toward Native Americans for generations to come, with no acknowledgement of the rights or value of indigenous peoples.

In 1816, James Madison, author of the Bill of Rights, suggested that it was now the time to complete the work of transitioning the Indians from the “habits of the savage to the arts and comforts of social life“.  This included the ownership of property.   In exchange for the millions of acres of hunting grounds, the United States would grant the Indians thousands of acres of farmland and protection.

James Monroe, State of the Union address

In 1819, Congress passed the Indian Civilization Act, which acted as a template for the destruction of Native American culture, and to the extent that they resisted, for genocide. The Act served as the legal basis for Native American boarding schools later in the century, where children were forcibly removed from their parents, and sent to schools that mandated white people’s clothing, English as the language, and Protestant or Catholic Christianity as the only religion, usually Protestant. Deviation could result in punishment, such as whippings or withholding food. The close proximity to whites exposed the children to untold numbers of diseases for which they had developed no immunity, killing hundreds.

They were punished for speaking their native language, banned from acting in any way that might be seen to represent traditional or cultural practices, stripped of traditional clothing, hair and personal belongings and behaviors reflective of their native culture. They suffered physical, sexual, cultural and spiritual abuse and neglect, and experienced treatment that in many cases constituted torture for speaking their Native languages. Many children never returned home and their fates have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government.
Yufna Soldier Wolf, center, of the Northern Arapaho, with tribal elders, Mark Soldier Wolf and Crawford White Sr., holds pictures of Little Plume, Horse and Little Chief. The three Arapaho children died about 135 years ago while attending a government-run school in Pennsylvania, the Carlisle Indian School, where they were buried.
Charles Fox/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP Photo

By 1900 there were 20,000 children in boarding schools, and by 1925 that number had more than tripled.

By the 1926, nearly 83% of Native American school-age children were attending boarding schools.

  • 357 boarding schools in 30 states
  • 1900: 20,000 children in boarding schools
  • 1925: 60,889 children in boarding schools
“I was four years old when stolen and taken to Chemawa, Oregon. The matron grabbed me and my sister, stripped off our clothes laid us in a trough and scrubbed our genitals with lye soap, yelling at us that we were ‘filthy savages, dirty.’ I had to walk on my tip toes screaming in pain.” – Elsie, Yakima (Interview by Dr. Denise Lajimodiere)

“In America, we estimate less than 10% know about the US Boarding School Era.” –

On June 2, 1924, President Calvin Coolidge signed the Native American Citizenship Act, granting US Citizenship to Native Americans. By 1928, the failures of government policy toward Native Americans, especially in education, were becoming apparent.  Lewis Meriam filed a report with the Bureau of Indian Affairs entitled “The Problem of Indian Administration (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1928)”. The report was particularly critical of Indian boarding schools: “The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.” The report was a warning that went unheeded, and very little reform took place. The boarding schools reached their peak enrollment of about 60,000 in the 1970s.

Further changes in federal law gradually improved the lot of Native Americans, culminating in the 1968 Civil Rights Act, which contained provisions allowing freedom of worship for Native Americans, protection against illegal search and seizure, protection from double jeopardy, the right to a speedy trial, and other rights taken for granted by most Americans.

So how is Native American education today?

Giving children access to adequate education is the first step to breaking cycles of poverty. Education opens the door to new possibilities and opportunities and gives young people access to employment and independence. The importance of a good education is universally accepted, yet few people understand the tragic state of education for Native Americans in the United States today. The lack of educational opportunity for Native Americans is a serious challenge, one that impacts the success and health of Native communities for the long term.

Today, most Native American children attend public schools (90%). There are approximately 644,000 American Indian and Alaska Native students in the US K-12 system, representing 1.2 percent of public school students nationally. The graduation rate, 69%, is twenty percent below that of the corresponding white population. Some statistics range even lower –   less than 50 percent of Native students graduate from high school each year in the seven states with the highest percentage of American Indian and Alaska Native students (National Congress of American Indians). (For those still attending the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, the graduation rate is just 53%. Black inner-city students averaged 68% in the same year. Only 17% of Native Americans go on to college. Just 13% complete college, compared to 28% for other ethnic groups.

In a 2017 study by NPR and Harvard University, roughly 1/3 of Native Americans polled said they experienced significant discrimination in pay, employment, and interactions with police.

NPR / Harvard Study

While white society and Native Americans may no longer be at war, as they were 160 years ago, America still has a long way to go in its treatment of Native Americans.

Link to part 7

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