Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 11 Number 2
January 1972


D. Eugene Meyer

D. Eugene Meyer, Ed.D., is associate professor of education at Northern Illinois University. DeKalb. He has lived in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Nebraska near Indian territories and educational systems.

In the efforts to provide better schooling in America, one group in the population has been tragically overlooked. The first American, the Indian, is the last American educationally, as he is economically, socially, and politically. The condition of Indian education has been termed a "national disgrace" by the Senate Subcommittee which recently investigated the issue. What then are the problems which beset Indian education?

Since the arrival of the white man in this country, the policy has been the subjugation of the Indian tribes. Relations with all whites and especially later with the federal government, were characterized by an attitude of white superiority and Indian inferiority. There were attempts to exterminate the Indian people, to forcibly remove them from their ancestral lands, and to convert them from their ancient religions. Yet in most agreements concerning the acquisition of Indian lands, a promise of education was involved, making the position of the Indian different educationally from that of other minorities.

There was some interest among the original English colonies in Indian education. A few of the early colleges, notably Dartmouth, Harvard, and William and Mary, were established to include the education of English and Indian youth. Tuition free admissions were provided the Indian student at Dartmouth and Harvard, and in 1775, a schoolmaster was provided for the Delawares by the Continental Congress (see Note 1).

But to a large degree, most efforts to educate Indians were made by various religious and missionary groups prior to 1870. "Although the Bureau of Indian Affairs was established in 1824, the federal government assumed only limited responsibility for Indian education during this period" (see Note 2). The religious groups attempted to Christianize Indians and to teach them farming, homemaking, and basic schooling, while the American governmentís policy towards Indians was one of suppression and isolation on reservations. However, these efforts had little impact because the majority of Indians did not accept the white manís form of education at this time. His newly acquired knowledge was of little use in his tribal life (see Note 3).

In 1870, a new phase of Indian-white relations began with the institution of the reservation period characterized by varying degrees of federal paternalism. By an act of Congress, no Indian tribe could "be acknowledged or recognized as an independent nation, tribe, or power," and no treaties could be contracted with them by the United States. They were made wards of the federal government. The growing role of the government in Indian education after 1870 was directed toward the same goals as those prevailing during the previous period and with the same success. Efforts aimed at weakening the tribal organization, destroying their culture and forcing their assimilation became an essential part of educational programs (see Note 4).

This policy can be seen in the BIA schooling of Navajo pupils. It states that the Navajo child "needs to begin to develop knowledge of how the dominant culture is pluralistic and how these people worked to become the culture which influences the American mainstream of life . . . " "needs to understand that every man is free to rise as high as he is able and willing . . . " "needs to understand that a mastery of the English language is imperative to compete in the world today" (see Note 5).

These policies and attitudes from the beginning of American history concerning Indian education are at the root of problems and issues being faced today. Their schooling is so inadequate and the jobs they can qualify for so limited that their average income is 75 percent below the national average. The dimensions of the problem are indicated by the record absenteeism, retardation and dropout rates in the Indian schools. The level of education for Indians is half the national average and their achievement levels are far below the rest of the students sometimes by as much as three years. The longer an Indian child stays in school the further behind he falls (see Note 6). That is, providing he stays in school. The drop-out rate for Indian children is twice the national average. The Indian students also tend to leave school earlier than white children. For adults over 25 in the general population, the average number of years of schooling is over ten, while for Indians on reservations, it is between five and six years (see Note 7).

In 1969, the 91st Congress appointed a Subcommittee on Indian Affairs. One of the specific functions was the study of Indian education and what could be done to improve it. The Subcommittee hearings, under the Chairmanship of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, have uncovered five significant areas of concern: 1) federal boarding schools; 2) the conflict of two cultures; 3) curriculum irrelevance; 4) administrative and teacher incompetence; 5) parental involvement.

Federal Boarding Schools

The Bureau of Indian Affairs established boarding schools in the last century under the assumption that the removal of children from family and tribal life would aid in the attempt to "civilize" the young Indians. The earliest boarding schools used were converted from old abandoned army forts. Todayís schools have improved physically, resembling those in some suburban communities. Most schools contain modern cafeterias, social halls, gymnasium/auditoriums, and modern classrooms with the latest facilities. But an antiquated system is still used to separate the schools, and therefore the students, from the communities they serve. The boarding schools on reservations are surrounded by fencing and create a "compound culture" separate from the reservation. Children are largely prohibited from seeing their parents, the schools being distant and inaccessible because of poor roads or lack of transportation facilities (see Note 8).

The children were removed from their homes sometimes forcibly to attend these schools. Characterized by a rigid discipline, the schools prohibited the Indian children from using their Indian language and from practicing tribal customs, wearing traditional dress and hairstyles. Violations of regulations were treated by punishment. Paying little attention to the multitude of linguistic and other cultural differences, the government continued in its efforts to assimilate the Indian into the American mainstream of life.

The students who attend the boarding schools are usually referred by social workers on the basis of criteria established by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. If the child meets one or more of the criteria listed below, he may be admitted:

1. those who are rejected or neglected by their families and for whom no suitable alternative care can be made;

2. those who belong to large families with no suitable home and whose separation from each other is undesirable;

3. those whose behavior problems are too difficult for solution by their families or through existing community facilities;

4. those whose health or proper care is jeopardized by illness of other members of the household (see Note 9)

Thus, when a child enters school, he already has his own special problems. Because most of the guidance counselors are also in charge of supervision and discipline, the student is frequently reluctant to confide in them and to discuss personal problems. Frequently, his problems go unsolved. Facilities for professional mental health are totally lacking in the schools. Presently, the BIA has one psychologist for the entire school system (see Note 10).

In addition to the personal problems of the students, the alien culture of the boarding schools and their military rigidity also have profound effects on the childrenís mental health. This is indicated by a study of boarding school students by the National Institute of Mental Health. The study concluded that anxiety, hostility and aggression levels were significantly higher for those Indian students in boarding schools than those in day schools (see Note 11).

Conflicting Cultures

In an educational system which believes in the right and superiority of one group over another, conflict is inevitable. When the Indian child leaves his tribe and culture to attend school, he enters a totally new environment. Suddenly his values are of no use as he is expected to subordinate them to the general standards of the school. He is expected to adopt a new way of living, casting aside all former ties with his family and heritage. "The fact that he must do all the modifying and compromising seems to say something about the relative value of his own culture as compared to that of the school" (see Note 12).

The segregation of Indian students in boarding schools leads to a feeling of inferiority in the students. The boarding schools interfered with their work and play and offered them an unsatisfactory life. The Indian children saw no rational explanation as to why they were educated separately from the dominant group yet expected to take on their values. Many saw their education as a form of punishment for being "Red" and therefore developed defenses against their anxiety, such as substitutions and antisocial behavior.

The situation was no better in the integrated schools where the Indian child was set apart by his clothes, language and social customs and noticeably different from his white classmates. The feeling of being different accounts in large measure for the low self concept among Indian students" (see Note 13).

Physical differences are not the only values in conflict. The American educational system holds individualism and competition in high esteem. This belief is in direct contradiction to tribal reservation life. The Indian child is not accustomed to high competition, particularly as it occurs in the classroom, for most Indian tribes are primarily cooperative in nature. "Many do not understand why they should have to alienate a friend just to place themselves higher on the normal curve." They see no value in competition and approach school with the desire only to gain knowledge (see Note 14).

The Indian youngster faces many conflicts in school. In the educational arena as well as other areas of contact with the dominant culture, he can never be certain of his status or of his welcome.

Curriculum Irrelevance

In most of the BIA-operated schools, the curriculum is standard, differing little from that used in all schools. It includes study of ancient history, European history, American history, geography, art, music, etc. Minimum or no attention is given to Indian heritage or to contemporary issues of Indian life. The curriculum is geared toward the American view of education. The Indian child is not taught to see pride in his heritage. History books speak of the victories of the white man as glorious and the victories of the Indians as massacres. Most other textbooks are unrelated to the studentís experiences. Primers used refer to fathers who go to work in business suits and to other facets of suburban life. Since many of the students will return to life on the reservation after completing their education, the course of study is of little use.

"Historically, Indian youth were educated for their cultural roles by taking part in the work, ceremonies and social life of the group" (see Note 15). Being accustomed to an informal method of instruction, the Indian student would naturally find an institutionalized system a foreign concept.

The schools also fail to serve the studentsí needs linguistically. The complexity of the educational process is indicated by the fact that two-thirds of all Indian children entering BIA schools have little or no skills in English. Yet once he is in school, he is expected to function in an environment which is totally English speaking. Learning their tribal language first, the children will encounter difficulty in learning the English language which contains sounds and symbols not found in the Indian speech patterns. But even the child who has spoken English all his life will have problems in school. His grammar may be different and certain words may have different connotations. The Indian child will have trouble with communication and interpretation. By the time he has begun to understand English, he will have fallen behind in other basic skills. Despite the difficulties the Indian children have with English, the BIA schools continue to conduct all classes in English.

Administrative and Teacher Incompetence

The Bureau of Indian Affairs system is unattractive to able and competent teachers. The teachers hired are subject to the rules of the civil service system. Although the teachers meet the national standards and have at least a Bachelorís degree from an accredited college or university with training in education, the quality of education remains low. The teachers have had the bare minimum in training necessary in Indian education. Most know little about the language and customs of the students they teach and therefore are ineffective as teachers. They express little concern for the Indian heritage and teacher training programs do little to upgrade the situation. Universities have ignored this area of specialization. But beyond ignorance there is also evidence of considerable disinterest among teachers. Health, Education and Welfareís 1966 Coleman Report indicated that 25 percent of those teaching Indian children would prefer to be teaching elsewhere (see Note 16).

The best teachers would be those coming from the tribes themselves. But only one percent of the teachers in BIA schools are Indians. Rigid requirements for certification within the system operate to keep the Indian from easily entering the teaching profession.

The administration of the schools is characterized by stagnation and a lack of creativity. The average age of the top level administrator is 58 years; BIA experience usually totals 27 years; and outside experience totals 4% years. Promotion occurs from within the structure so very few innovative ideas are found. Also, the director for the area is seldom an educator. He is usually more interested in other concernsómanagement, roads, welfare, tribal politics. When schools make a request for funds, they often have to compete with these other interests (see Note 17).

Parental Involvement

The Indian communities have constantly complained about the type and quality of the education that their children receive. They have expressed a desire to control their own schools but because of their lack of political power or influence this has been impossible. "Parental influence can make the school a true expression of the communityís hopes and needs. Culture conflict could be minimized and more importantly local control of schools will add immeasurably to Indian self-respect" (see Note 18).

If Indian education is to be improved in America, these areas of concern must be settled. Inhuman, forced assimilation policies are largely a thing of the past, yet the educational methodology still disregards the acceptance of Indian culture. The boarding schools long ago provided the needed facilities for education to take place; they now need to provide quality education. The culture conflict can be resolved by merging the two value systems in such a way that each child can apply what is best to solving his problems.

A more intelligent mixture of the native language and English would not only improve the studentís language proficiency but also aid him in becoming a part of the larger society. The teacher of Indian children today must come to realize the responsibility he has to the development of the childís personality and character. And lastly, the Indian community needs to be given a greater opportunity to decide on school policy. When these tasks are accomplished, Indian education will not be a "national disgrace."

Gradually, the federal government is relinquishing its control of Indian schools. Many of the schools are coming under the influence of the communities which they serve. In an experimental program at Rough Rock, Arizona, many of the ideas expressed above are being explored. The Rough Rock Demonstration School, funded by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Office of Economic Opportunity, Provides education for more than 250 Navajo children.

The project, entitled DINE (Demonstration in Navajo Education), is being conducted at this site. The operational control is handled by a board of education consisting of five middle-age Navajos only one of whom has had even a few years of schooling.

The most important aspect of the school is its emphasis on Navajo culture, history and language. Because they are proud of their homes and families, these areas are a vital part of the identification. The use of Navajo language is encouraged while English is taught as a second language. Traditional customs are practiced. Lessons are conducted by the elders of the community in building a hogan, farming, caring for livestock, and Navajo history and government.

The leaders of the school have not turned their backs to the modern world. Their philosophy is one of choice; it is essential that the school teach both the white and Indian ways of living so that the child can have a positive sense of identity while learning to live successfully in the modern world (see Note 19).

The separation between parent and child engendered by boarding schools is reduced as parents are encouraged to visit classrooms and dorms and to directly see the educational process. The parents are also given opportunity to voice their opinion on the curriculum and administration of the schools.

Rough Rock and other experimental projects demonstrate that much can be done to improve the quality of Indian education. The project attempts to solve the basic issues of all education today: the quality of the educational environment, its responsiveness to the rich diversity of American life, and the degree to which the local community shall share in the decision making (see Note 20).


1. Joseph S. Roucek. "The Most Oppressed Race in the United States, The Indian," Educational Forum, XXIX (May, 1965), p. 479.

2. U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Education, Quality Education for American Indians, A Report on Organizational Location, 90th Cong., 1st sess., May, 1967, p. 2.

3. Ibid., p. 2.

4. Ibid, p. 2

5. Daniel Henniger, and Nancy Esposito. "Regimented Non-Education Indian Schools," New Republic, CLX (February 15, 1969), p. 19.

6. Robert F. Kennedy. "Americaís Forgotten Children," Parentís Magazine and Better Homemaking, XLIII (June, 1968), p. 30.

7. Roucek, p. 484.

8. Estelle Fuchs. "Time To Redeem an Old Promise," The Saturday Review, LIII (January 24, 1970), p. 57.

9. U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Indian Education, A Compendium of Federal Boarding School Evaluations, 91st Cong., 1st sess., November, 1969, p. 254.

10. Ibid., p. 260.

11. Ralph Nader. "Ralph Nader Comments on Indian Education," Integrated Education, VII (November, 1969), p. 9.

12. Ibid, p. 6.

13. Roucek, p. 483.

14. Wilfred C. Wasson. "Hindrance to Indian Education," Educational Leadership, XXVIII (December, 1970), p. 279.

15. Ethelyn Miller. "American Indian Children and Merging Cultures," Childhood Education, XLIV (April, 1968), p. 494.

16. Nader, p, 9,

17. George D. Fischer and Walter F. Mondale, "Indian Education-A National Disgrace," Todayís Education, LIX (March, 1970), p. 26.

18. Nader, p. 10.

19. Estelle Fuchs- "Innovation at Rough Rock," The Saturday Review, L (September 16, 1967), p. 83.

20. Ibid., "Time To Redeem an Old Promise," p. 55.


Boyer, Susan. "Blazing a New Trail." The Saturday Review, LIV (January 16, 1971), p. 53.

Crow, John. "Schools for the First Americans." American Education, I (October, 1965), pp. 15-22.

Fischer, George D., and Mondale, Walter F. "Indian Education-A National Disgrace." Todayís Education, LIX (March, 1970), 24-27.

Fuchs, Estelle. "Innovation at Rough Rock." The Saturday Review, L (September 16, 1967), pp. 82-84.

Fuchs, Estelle. "Time To Redeem an Old Promise." The Saturday Review, LIII (January 24, 1970), pp. 54-57.

Henninger, Daniel, and Esposito, Nancy. "Regimented Non-Education Indian Schools." New Republic, CLX (February 15, 1969), pp. 18-21.

Kennedy, Robert F. "Americaís Forgotten Children." Parentís Magazine and Better Homemaking, XLIII (June, 1968), p. 30.

McBroom, Patricia. "Indian Education: Ferment." Science News, XCII (July 1, 1967), p. 13.

Miller, Ethelyn. "American Indian Children and Merging Cultures." Childhood Education, XLIV (April, 1968), pp. 494-497.

Moorefield, Story. "To Keep the Things We Love." American Education, VI (August, 1970) pp. 6-8.

Nader, Ralph. "Ralph Nader Comments on Indian Education." Integrated Education, VII (November, 1969), pp. 3-13.

Overby, H. D. "Tell It Like It Is; Only How Is It?" Todayís Education, LVIII (November, 1969), pp. 55-56.

Roucek, Joseph S. "The Most Oppressed Race in the United States, The Indian. "Educational Forum, XXIX (May 1965), pp. 477-485.

U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Education. Quality Education for American Indians, A Report on Organizational Location. 90th Cong., Ist sess., May, 1967.

U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Indian Education. A Compendium of Federal Boarding School Evaluations. 91st Cong., 1st sess., November, 1969.

U.S. Senate, Subcommittee on Indian Education. Field Investigations and Research Reports. 91st Cong., 1st sess., October, 1969.

Wasson, Wilfred C. "Hindrance to Indian Education." Educational Leadership, XXVIII (December, 1970), pp. 278-280.

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