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History of Indian Schools Traced Through Reports

Throughout the history of the Native American boarding schools, the U.S. government has weighed in on the them — from arguing that Indians were savages who should be compelled to send their children to the schools by whatever means necessary to later, recommending increased Indian control over education.

In 1886, the government published the Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the Secretary of the Interior. It established the attitudes of Indian Affairs Agents in the early days of federal boarding schools. The report was a compilation of agent reports; the agents largely saw Indians as savages who should be compelled using whatever means necessary to send their children to schools.

EXCERPTS: "If it be admitted that education affords the true solution to the Indian problem, then it must be admitted that the boarding school is the very key to the situation.

"However excellent the day school may be, whatever the qualifications of the teacher, or however superior the facilities for instruction of the few short hours spent in the day school is, to a great extent, offset by the habits, scenes and surroundings at home — if a mere place to eat and live in can be called a home. Only by complete isolation of the Indian child from his savage antecedents can he be satisfactorily educated, and the extra expense attendant thereon is more than compensated by the thoroughness of the work. "

-- John B. Riley, Indian School Superintendent

"It was deemed necessary to establish during the year a stricter system of discupline than heretofore prevailed. A cadet battalion organization of five companies broke up the tribal associations."

-- Arthur Grabowski, Superintendent, Haskell Institute.

"The parents of these Indian children are ignorant, and know nothing of the value of education, and there are no elevating circumstances in the home circle to arouse the ambition of the children. Parental authority is hardly known or exercised among the Indians in this agency. The agent should be endowed with some kind of authority to enforce attendance. The agent here has found that a threat to depose a captain if he does not make the children attend school has had a good effect."

-- John S. Ward, United States Indian Agent, Mission Agency, California.

"Compulsion through the police is often necessary, and should this be required during the coming year, it will be heroically resorted to, regardless of results. The treaty with the Indians gives the children to the Government, for school purposes, nine months in the year, but the punishment therein provided in case they fail to comply is hardly humane or just. If taking ration tickets only metered out merited punishment to the heads of families, who are alone guilty, it would be a wise provision, but the children have togo hungry and suffer the disobedience of the parents. It is better, in my opinion, to compel attendance through the police than taking up ration tickets for non-attendance."

-- John P Williamson, Dakota Agency

In the 1920s, the federal government commissioned a groundbreaking investigation into the outcome of government policies toward American Indians, including boarding schools. The report that followed in 1928, The Problem of Indian Administration (also called the Meriam Report after Lewis Meriam, who supervised the study), found that children at federal boarding schools were malnourished, overworked, harshly punished and poorly educated.


"The survey staff finds itself obliged to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.

"The diet is deficient in quantity, quality, and variety.

"At a few, very few, schools, the farm and the dairy are sufficiently productive to be a highly important factor in raising the standard of the diet, but even at the best schools these sources do not fully meet the requirements for the health and development of the children. At the worst schools, the situation is serious in the extreme.

"The boarding schools are crowded materially beyond their capacities.

"The toilet facilities have in many cases not been increased proportionately to the increase in pupils, and they are fairly frequently not properly maintained or conveniently located. The supply of soap and towels has been inadequate.

"In nearly every boarding school one will find children of 10, 11, and 12 spending four hours a day in more or less heavy industrial work—dairy, kitchen work, laundry, shop. The work is bad for children of this age, especially children not physically well-nourished; most of it is in no sense educational since the operations are large-scale and bear little relation to either home or industrial life outside; and it is admittedly unsatisfactory even from the point of view of getting the work done. At present the half-day plan is felt to be necessary, not because it can be defended on health or educational grounds, for it cannot, but because the small amount of money allowed for food and clothes makes it necessary to use child labor.

"The term "child labor" is used advisedly. The labor of children as carried on in Indian boarding schools would, it is believed, constitute a violation of child labor laws in most states.

"The discipline in the boarding schools is restrictive rather than developmental. Routine institutionalism is almost the invariable characteristic of the Indian boarding school.

"Nearly every boarding school visited furnished disquieting illustrations of failure to understand the underlying principles of human behavior. Punishments of the most harmful sort are bestowed in sheer ignorance, often in a sincere attempt to be of help. Routinization is the one method used for everything; though all that we know indicates its weakness as a method in education. If there were any real knowledge of how human beings are developed through their behavior, we should not have in the Indian boarding schools the mass movements from dormitory to dining room, from dining room to classroom, from classroom back again, all completely controlled by external authority; we should hardly have children from the smallest to the largest of both sexes lined up in military formation; and we would certainly find a better way of handling boys and girls than to lock the door to the fire-escape of the girls' dormitory.

"The result is that Indian schools for the most part have as the only system of physical training applicable to all pupils a scheme of military drilling that is largely obsolete even in Army training camps. Whatever the advantages of military drill for boys of high school age (and this is a controverted matter even among military experts), few advocates of military training would find any value for girls and little children in the formal type of drill insisted upon in most Indian boarding schools.

"Almost without exception Indian boarding schools are "institutional" to an extreme degree. This is especially true of those non-reservation boarding schools that have upwards of a thousand students, where the numbers and general stiffness of the organization create problems that would be bad in any school but are especially serious in Indian schools."

More than 40 years after the Meriam Report criticized government boarding schools, a report known as the Kennedy Report declared Indian education a national tragedy.


"The BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs] education budget was found to be greatly inadequate: Since most Indian children begin school with the environmental handicaps of rural poverty, cultural isolation, low level of parent education, and in many cases a non-English native language, equality of educational inputs requires greatly superior inschool resources of teachers, curriculum, facilities, and equipment to balance the inadequate preschool preparation of most Indian children. Such superior education has not been and cannot be supplied by the BIA on its current budget of some $1,000 per student year, which must also pay for the boarding expense of nealy half its students. It has been pointed out that the Job Corps spent from $7,000 to $9,000 per student year for its resident high-school level education program.

"When asked to name the most important things the schools should do for their students, only about one-tenth of the teachers mentioned academic achievement as an important goal. Apparently, many of the teachers still see their role as that of "civilizing the native." BIA administrators believe that Indians can choose only between total "Indianness" --whatever that is — and complete assimilation into the dominant society. Thus, the goal of BIA education appears to direct students toward migration into a city while at the same time it fails to "prepare students academically, socially, physchologically, or vocationally for urban life. As a result, many return to the reservation disillusioned, to spend the rest of their lives in economic and intellectual stagnation."

"School environment was sterile, impersonal and rigid, with a major emphasis on discipline and punishment, which is deeply resented by the students.

"Dormitory discipline is often unnecessarily strict and confining.

"Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that even as custodial institutions, the Bureau's off-reservation boarding schools are not satisfactory. Several reports point to examples of overcrowding in dormitories or classrooms, of lack of privacy for the students, of inadequate areas for study and recreation, of unappealing meals, of rules which irritate older students by their rigid enforcement and inappropriateness to the student's age, and of punitive discipline."

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