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History of Indian American Education Systems

3301 words (13 pages) Essay in Education

08/02/20 Education Reference this

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 The history of American Indian education is one of a very tumultuous and tedious one. Unlike education for non-native Americans the education systems that have been implemented over the years for the native population have been what some would say cruel and unjust. Education is a vital part of one’s personal identity and a connection to one’s culture in this world. However, many Indians were denied the right to educate their children in according to their specific culture and values based on the belief that they were no more than savages and that their way of living was not the correct way to go about life. This terrible way of thinking would hold on for many decades as thousands of native Americans would be forced to forgo their culture under the strong fist of the education system that was in place to help “civilize” them. It wouldn’t be until the mid 1900’s when native Americans would gain control of their own education following the self determination act. From there, native American education would be in the hands of the tribes and they would have control over how everything was handled.

 Starting from the beginning of American Indian education we have the day schools and boarding schools that were formed to “educate” the native population. These schools formed in the late 1800’s and were used prominently up until the 1928 Meriam Report was released. Before the Indian boarding school there were the day schools. The children would live with their families on the reservations and would attend the schools which were located nearby during the day. “In 1870, Congress authorized an annual appropriation of $100,000 “for the support of industrial and other schools among tribes otherwise not provided for,… The facilities involved were run by various churches and missionary societies which, in 1869, had been provided with overall authority to act in behalf of the government, appointing all Indian agents and hiring all personnel employed on the reservations. Attendance at these mission schools was made mandatory by regulation on many reservations for all native children aged six through sixteen” (Keohane 1).  The children were also prohibited from speaking any language other than English, and any attempt to practice native American culture or spiritual practice was also strictly forbidden as to assimilate the children into society. This sentiment is clearly seen with commissioner of Indian Affairs E.A Hayt statement which said, “I [have] expressed very decidedly the idea the Indians should be taught in the English language only…There is not an Indian pupil whose tuition is paid by the United States Government who is permitted to study any other language that our own vernacular – the language of the greatest, most powerful, and enterprising nationalities under the sun. The English language as taught in America is good enough for all her people of all races [emphasis added].” It wasn’t long until it was realized that the day schools would never be successful in assimilating the native children as the children were too close to their families and cultures to truly be incorporated into the white man’s values and education.

 The next move to assimilate the children was to move the reservation boarding schools closer to the agency headquarters. On top of moving the school far from the children’s homes they would only allow them to go home during the summer months and a short time during Christmas. However even with the children separated from the influence of their home the assimilation was not moving at an acceptable pace for the government as parents would often visit their children which gave them an opportunity to speak their language and connect with their culture once more. This then led to the creation of off-reservation boarding schools. These were set up to ultimately rid the children of their language and culture altogether. The students were sent hundreds of miles away from their family and home, which brought them to a place deprived of their native culture. Once in these schools the children would then be introduced to the various curriculum that was deemed to be “civilized” such as  arithmetic, science, history, and the arts. It was also believed that Indians needed to be individualized. Indians were viewed as savages mainly because of tribal life placing an emphasis on tribal community rather the individual interest. This particular method of self reliance was found in teaching the young inidans in how to work, “…they must be inculcated with the values and beliefs of possessive individualism. They must come to respect the importance of private property, they must internalize the ideal of self-reliance, and they must come to realize that the accumulation of personal wealth is a moral obligation” (Adams 12).

 Boarding schools also emphasized Christianization of the students. Boarding schools did not necessarily need to be run by a Christian religious sect, as this was a teaching that was deemed as important as an academic education for the young Indians. As David Adams’ highlights when he says, ““…embracing Christianity meant embracing an entire ethical code which included…the principle that an individual was responsible for both his economic and spiritual self.” Finally the boarding schools also sought to train the young Indian into becoming citizens. As David Adams says, “Indian youth needed to be taught the fundamental principles of democratic government, the institutional and political structure of American society, the rights of citizens under the Constitution, and the role and sanctity of law in democratic society.” Along with teaching the Indians on how to be American citizens with American values the schools also sought to engender a deep devotion to the nation and its flag and learn to love the United States for all that it has done and will do in the future, “The Indian Student would have to study American history and in the process come to internalize the national myths that were central to it, including the idea that the westward sweep of the American empire, that is to say the dispossession of Indian land, was clearly justifiable.”

 Over time support for the reservation schools began to wither away and voices in opposition began to rise up. The boarding schools were openly criticized for being tools that made Indians dependent rather than self-reliant. The schools were also slammed for being cruel in the separation of the children from their families and home. G. Stanley Hall, a voice of the child study movement asked, “why not make him a good Indian rather than a cheap imitation of the white man?” In 1928 the report titled “The Problem of the Indian Administration” otherwise known as the Meriam Report was produced at the direction of the Indian Commission. The report was very critical of the government policy in terms of Indian education. Some of the criticisms that arose in the report had to do with the inadequate salaries, poor quality, unqualified teachers, and almost nonexistent health care. In the end the boarding schools attempt at assimilation had failed to do what it set out to do and in turn Indian culture and tradition had survived but at a cost. The boarding schools left a very profound negative effect on the young Indians who endured the schools. With the end to mandatory boarding schools came a new age of Indian education which centered around letting the native people taking control of their own education.

 By the mid 1900’s American Indians began to take control of their own education with major rising developments that would ultimately lead to the formation of the first of many tribal colleges across the United States. These tribal colleges would rise out of Indian activism of the 1960’s, socioeconomic reforms of the great society, and the emergence of the self determination movement of the 1960’s. Many tribal people were fully aware that the white dominant society had never encouraged the native Indian population to seek out a higher education for the vast majority of their people. In order to further the education of the native population, they came up with the idea to start and create native run universities and colleges that were located on reservations. The American Indian Higher Education Consortium (AIHEC, 2008) asserts that Tribal Colleges were created “in response to the higher education needs of American Indians and generally serve geographically isolated populations that have no other means of accessing education beyond the high school level.” These institutions that were located on the reservations were designed to provide the native population with opportunities for education that had eluded the older generations that came before them. The funding for these institutions would be provided by the Tribally controlled college or the University Assistance act of 1978 and the Bureau of Indian Education or the BIE for short.

 The first tribal college to emerge was the Navajo Community College which is now known as the Dine college. This first tribal college was founded on a reservation in Tsaile, Arizona in 1968 and was accredited in 1979. The formation of this school was not one that would be smooth to start off with. Tension would arise between two stemming philosophies on how to educate its students. The first philosophy is that tribal colleges should have criteria, curriculum, and procedures for educational quality as other mainstream colleges that were in The United States. The other philosophy was that staff and the curriculum should be closely linked to particular culture and history of the tribe that was located nearby. Because of the tight budgets that the tribal colleges had, there was a large turnover rate. However, several more tribal colleges were set up and established during the 1970s with their enrollment steadily growing and increasing. There are currently 32 accredited tribal colleges found in the United states at this present date with around 30,000 full and part time students enrolled in the tribal colleges found mainly in the southwest and Midwest of the country.

 Since the 1970’s the native Indian culture and their tradition have been a part of the school’s curriculum. These schools would face problems however, located on reservations these tribal college were not immune to issues that affect even mainstream colleges and universities mainly the institutions that are located in rural communities. These issues included common problems such as retention rates of students and staff, and some curriculum issues that arose too. Along with the issues mentioned previously many of the tribal colleges have faced problems when it comes to funding. The lack of funding and the small amount of resources that some of the tribes possess has been a large obstacle for some of the tribal colleges to overcome throughout the years. Unlike mainstream community colleges located throughout the United States the tribal colleges are unable to rely on taxation as a means for funding due to the mainly impoverished people and community that they provide for. The tribal colleges sought to gain funding from the Tribally Controlled College act however qualifying for the federal funding under this act proved to be quite difficult as the tribal colleges to receive the funding would have to undergo a eligibility study that would deem them worthy of the funding that they needed so desperately to provide for their community. Many tribal college leaders believed this system to be very difficult on purpose as to limit they funding that they would receive and so many tribal colleges were not satisfied with this system that was in place to receive some of their funding. The few colleges that did receive the funding that they requested and needed were still under the boot of the federal government and their relationship was not one that would be called friendly with one another but rather the tribal colleges needed any money they could receive so they would put up with this terrible system. The leaders of the tribal colleges began to turn to other means to receive the funding that they needed as the federal government was not helping the colleges to the extent that they needed. Some of the schools were able to use casinos to fund their institutions which aided in the development of more educational buildings. Many tribal colleges were not able to use casino revenue to provide their funding and unfortunately had to resort to painful funding decisions to scrape by.

 The demand for education from the tribal colleges continues to grow with the enrollment increasing in the academic year 2002-2003 and 2012-2013 by nine percent. These tribal colleges do not only provide an institution for which higher education can take place but rather they also provide a hub for community education programs, health and wellness classes, financial literacy, and cultural preservation programs. Approximately 100,000 community members have partaken in these programs which are run through the tribal colleges and universities. The responsiveness of the local communities in regards to their demand for higher education has been pivotal, many of the communities that surround these institutions are underdeveloped and underserved and their demand for a higher education continues to strengthen the tribal colleges and universities. However, in comparison to mainstream colleges and universities in the United States the tribal colleges and universities are still in their infancy as far are institutions for higher learning go. They are still developing their institutional capacity while facing the large funding issue that has been prominent since the beginning.

 As mentioned previously the tribal colleges and universities are highly dependent on federal funding and since they are so dependent on the federal funding are hindered. “Federal funding, the largest and most important source of funding for TCUs, is allocated through a complex series of titles within the Tribally Controlled College or University Assistance Act of 1978” (TCCUAA). Revenue sources between tribal colleges and universities and other public institutions differ quite extensively. Looking at just where these institutions get their money to fund themselves it is seen that federal, state, local appropriations, grants, and contracts account for the biggest share of revenue for all institution types when it comes to funding. The difference comes when we see that tribal colleges and universities receive a considerable amount more from federal funding than the other public institutions receive. Tribal colleges and universities average around 70-74% of their funding comes from the federal government when in comparison to other public universities in the United States who receive around 18-24% of their total funding through the federal government. Public non-tribal colleges and universities are also able to offset the decrease in federal funding over the years by increasing the amount of tuition that must be paid in order to attend their institution. Tribal colleges and universities do not have the luxury of easily raising their tuition to offset the decrease in their funding. This is due to a multitude of reasons such as, “The majority of students served by TCUs face significant economic barriers such as extremely high rates of poverty and unemployment. The average annual income of students attending TCUs in AY 2009–10 was below $18,000, and at least 75 percent of students attending TCUs are Pell Grant recipients” (AIHEC 2012). Another reason for their inability to raise their tuition is, “Because federal student loans are not practical for most TCU students, given the aforementioned high rates of poverty and unemployment, few of the TCUs participate in the federal student loan program, and all are committed to keeping tuition low to preserve access for the students in their tribal communities” (AIHEC 2012). However, like other public institutions, tribal colleges and universities do not derive their funding from private gifts and endowments.

 When it comes to state funding of the tribal colleges and universities, the state government have no obligation at all to provide funding for the institutions. Only a handful of states provide any support for the tribal colleges and universities. North Dakota and Montana provide the schools allocation per non-native student as a form of financial support to partially support the cost. The state of Arizona provides a yearly sum to be used for maintenance and capital expenses of the schools. The harsh reality is that most states provide no financial support for the tribal colleges and universities even when some of these institutions enroll a large number of non-native students.

 As time went on the benefit of the tribal colleges on the community became ever so present and prominent. As more student s graduate from the tribal colleges, more and more Indian businesses open up and will directly impact the Indian community and for the better. Without the struggles of the tribal colleges many Indian communities would have not benefitted from the increase in education and prosperity that they have brought to them. Tribal colleges continue to educate and graduate native Indians who would have faced a tougher time at a mainstream university or college in the United States. They provide many needs to the students enrolled and while the colleges do not have the same services or facilities as more well-funded schools in the United States the students that attend these schools praise the faculty who showed the effort and compassion to educate them and treat them with the respect that they deserved.

 Despite the problems that the Indian education system still faces today, they have come a long way from the harsh educational system that was forced onto them many years ago. The day schools and boarding schools that the young Indians were placed into by force are long gone in this day and age but have forever shaped the design and ideas of how and what to make of the Indian educational system. The cruel and harsh conditions lived with the many Indians who had to undergo the boarding schools all over the country. Once the age of the forced boarding schools came to a close it was finally the time for the American Indians to take control over their education. With the self determination movement of the 1960’s the American Indian would eventually form the very first tribal college. These tribal colleges would continue to be founded and grow all over mainly the Midwest and southwest of the United States. These institutions would educate the mainly poor and underprivileged population that lived on and near the Indian reservations. The tribal colleges and universities faced problems however, mainly having to due with the vast underfunding of their institutions. These problems of funding continue to deliver a blow to the tribal colleges and universities who desperately need the funding to help maintain their institutions and to educate their students. Indian education has come a long way from where it used to be in this country but it is far from being a perfect system and it will continue to be reformed in the future so that native people will be able to gain the education that they deserve.

Works Cited

  • “Expanding the Circle Resources.” Brief History of American Indian Education – Expanding the Circle, University of Minnesota, 17 May 2018,
  • Keohane, Sonja. “The Reservation Boarding School System in the United States, 1870-1928.” Hampton Institute – American Indian Stories, 3 June 2008,
  • Nelson, Christine, and Joanna Frye. “Tribal College and University Funding.” State Funding: A Race to the Bottom, American Council on Education,
  • Ridingin, Les, et al. “In Our Own Best Interest: A (Brief) History of Tribal Colleges in America.” In Our Own Best Interest: Tribal Colleges in America, Kansas State University,
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