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[Detail] Chilkat dancers, Alaska, 1895

Indian Schools

One of the first Indian boarding schools, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was founded on the principle, "kill the Indian and save the man." In her essay, "Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest," (external link) Carolyn J. Marr explains:

"The goal of Indian education from the 1880s through the 1920s was to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of America by placing them in institutions where traditional ways could be replaced by those sanctioned by the government."

Treaties made in the Pacific Northwest stipulated that the U.S. government would provide education to Native Americans living on reservations. Though it took several years, day schools and boarding schools were eventually established on reservations. In addition, boarding schools such as the Carlisle school were established off reservations. Students were required to live at boarding schools most of the year, thereby removing them from the influence of their families and traditional cultures.

Reports to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs reflect the reformist attitudes of Indian school teachers, administrators, and staff. Along with photographs, they also provide a detailed picture of the practices and effects of Americanization upon young Native Americans:

"Since my last annual report I have visited nearly all the reservations on this coast and found many of the scholars that had gone out from this school now in the employ of the Government, filling various positions of trust at their several agencies, and others engaged in the different pursuits of life, where they were exerting a good and healthful influence among their people, proving most conclusively that the money expended by the Government is not wasted, but is bringing forth fruit that will ripen into a rich harvest of peace, prosperity, and happiness to these poor, unfortunate, and misguided children of the forest. The only way to save the fragment of this once numerous and powerful race of people is for the good work recently inaugurated by the Government to go on and educate and train their children in the better ways of advanced civilization."

(Page 272-273, "Reports of Superintendents of Indian Schools: Report of school at Chemawa, Oregon")


Government schools generally offered a curriculum of academic and industrial training. On many reservations, missionaries established schools that combined academic and religious education. In some cases, the government supported missionary schools in fulfillment of its treaty obligation to provide education. Search on Indian school, missionary school, teacher, student, boy, and girl for texts and images.

  • What knowledge and skills were young Native Americans encouraged to acquire at Indian schools and why?
  • Why would Indian school officials think it important that Native Americans have industrial training?
  • What are the similarities and differences between government schools and missionary schools? Was the curriculum different? The atmosphere?
  • Do the photographs of the collection emphasize certain aspects of Indian education? What don't the photographs show? Why do you think that is?

Marr's essay (external link) in the Special Presentation (external link) describes the rigid daily schedule and strict discipline of Indian schools. Documents such as the "Report of school principal at Puyallup agency" indicate that students were expected to speak English and punished for speaking their own languages. Strict policies were also devised for compelling attendance. In his report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, Agent Jackson describes the policy imposed to insure that boys were in attendance at the Sitka, Alaska Indian school:

"Captain Glass . . . caused the houses to be numbered, and an accurate census taken of the inmates--adults and children. He then caused a label to be made of tin for each child, which was tied around the neck of the child, with his or her number and the number of the house on it, so that if a child was found on the street during school hours the Indian policeman was under orders to take the numbers on the labels and report them, or the teacher each day would report that such numbers from such houses were absent that day. The following morning the head Indian of the house to which the absentee belonged was summoned to appear and answer for the absence of the child. If the child was willfully absent, the head man was fined or imprisoned. A few cases of fines were sufficient. As soon as they found the captain in earnest, the children were all in school. . . .”

(Page 257, "Report of Sitka School")

  • Why weren't Native-American youth permitted to speak their own languages?
  • Were the measures taken to insure school attendance by Captain Glass appropriate? Why or why not?
  • How do you suppose Native American communities regarded such policies that restricted language and enforced attendance?
  • What can you infer from these agents' reports about attitudes they held regarding Native American students?

"Part 5: Negatives and Positives," (external link) of Marr's essay (external link) includes reminiscences of Native-American students and discusses the overall impact of Indian schools. The Collection Connection for Prosperity and Thrift: The Coolidge Era and the Consumer Economy, 1921-1929, discusses the movement to Americanize immigrants in the early twentieth century. Were the efforts to assimilate Native Americans different from efforts to assimilate other groups of people? If so, how and why?