Journal of American Indian Education

Volume 19 Number 1
October 1979


Donald K. Sharpes

UNKNOWN to most Americans, American Indians live in all 50 states, speak more than 300 languages, and are extraordinarily diverse ethnically among themselves. Also contrary to common understanding, twice as many live off as live on federal reservations. A growing number live in urban centers - more than 15,000 in Minneapolis for example - and more and more are declaring their ancestry when before they might have hidden it.

The history of the federal policy towards American Indians, including and especially its education policy, constitutes a national tragedy of the first magnitude. Federal schools for Indians constitute some of the oldest in the nation. There were 37 Indian schools as early as 1842 when the new Bureau of Indian Affairs was created in the War Department. The education policy was an extension of the policy towards Indians in general, namely forced assimilation and expropriation of Indian land. The Homestead Act of 1863 reputedly opened up more land to settlers, and the understood policy of forcing Indians to relinquish more of their land was extermination of the buffalo in order to starve them into reservations, always the most undesirable land at the time. The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887, known as the Allotment Act, was an attempt to offer land to Indians under the same conditions as it was to whites in the hopes of completing the break-up of Indian treaty land. It was one of the more odious pieces of national legislation, like the Alien and Sedition Acts, and in fact reduced the Indian land claims from 140 million acres to less than 50 million in 46 years.

The education policy, like the land policy, was to undermine the culture of the American Indian, by uprooting him or her from the home and forcing a disciplined education process in a boarding school environment. Both federal boarding schools under Bureau of Indian Affairs' control and mission schools - which at one time under Grant's administration actually had control of the appointment of agents on the reservation - were intended to strip the Indian child of his culture and substitute English language and American mores in its place. These schools' costs were borne by the money appropriated from the land allotments. The social and cultural disintegration of the family and the tribe quickly followed these misconceived and misdirected policies.

Federal boarding schools for American Indian students have been universally maligned by the Indian communities and in all federal reports. The goal of "Americanizing" students may have been in part acceptable to the immigrant population, but clearly was not to the indigenous one.

The Government as an Educator

According to a Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education Report, the Bureau of Indian Affairs operates 77 boarding schools with 35,309 children (about 9,000 under 9 years of age), and 147 day schools with 16,139 students. The disturbing statistic is that there are also 7,027 BIA employees engaged in education, or one for every seven Indian children in a BIA school.

About one-third of more than 150,000 school-aged children between 6 and 14 attend these federal BIA boarding schools. For example, more than 1,200 Alaskan Natives are sent to boarding schools in Oklahoma and Oregon for their elementary and secondary schooling. In a few states the education of Indian children rests with the state and not the federal government. But most American Indian children attend public schools with other non-Indian children. Only a small percentage attend mission and other private schools.

"The responsibility for the education of Indian children," according to the 1969 Special Subcommittee Report on Indian Education chaired by Senator Ted Kennedy, "is primarily in the hands of the federal government." Two-thirds of all American Indian children receive some kind of federal education assistance - one third from federal funds for BIA schools, and one-third under federal funds authorized under the Johnson-O'Malley Act for Indian children to attend public schools. Moreover, American Indian students receive special funds under many other categorical programs such as the Indian Education Act, Impact Aid, and ESEA.

The Johnson-O'Malley Act

A special word is needed about Johnson-O'Malley, an act passed by Congress in 1934 and amended in 1936, the form in which it still exists today. The original purpose was to confer upon the Secretary of the Interior the authority to contract with state-supported schools, colleges and universities for Indian education services. It was to "arrange for the handling of certain Indian problems in which the Indian tribal life is largely broken up and in which the Indians are to a considerable extent mixed with the general population." Education was one of those areas. Therefore, the legislation noted that "it becomes advisable to fit them into the general public school scheme rather than to provide separate schools for them." Johnson-O'Malley is one of the principle vehicles for subsidizing education by the federal government for Indian children. Policy by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and funding levels have been narrowly interpreted: funding criteria do not apply to Indians who have left the reservation.

American Indian children, for federal aid purposes, are defined as one-quarter or more Indian blood, and all Alaskan Natives. In fiscal year 1976 the last year in which reasonably accurate data were available - there were 216,168 Indian students aged 5 to 18 enrolled in public, federal, private and mission schools. Comparatively, this would make the total student population, were it grouped in one locale, the eighth largest school system in the nation, less than Detroit but larger than Houston. The break-down of these enrollment figures are:

Federal School Attendance


(over 18 years old 1,329)

Public School Attendance


(over 18 years old 4,356)

Other School Attendance


(over 18 years old, 15,505)

Not in School



The common myth is that these numbers, however, represent all Indian children residing in the United States. Actually, they represent only children of federally recognized tribes living on or near federal reservations or trust lands, which exist only in the western states. There is only one federally recognized tribe in the eastern United States, although there are a few Indian land trusts under state protection. The Mattaponi reservation (only 125 acres) in Tidewater, Virginia, for example, dates from 1666 - when Virginia was still a Crown colony of England.

The conclusion here is that eastern American Indians do not enjoy the status of federally recognized tribes in the West, and are therefore not eligible for federal BIA funds, except those available through public elementary and secondary schools participating in the Indian Education Act program.

Overall, government policy towards Indians, and consequently schools for Indians, has vacillated. Boarding schools for Indians living off reservations were fully designed to eradicate Indian life and culture. This policy of divestiture through schooling continued until 1934 when the Roosevelt administration helped pass the Indian Reorganization Act which helped make the tribes more autonomous and self-reliant, less dependent on the federal government. Congressional attitude in World War 11 rescinded these liberalizing tendencies and reverted again to a worse process - termination of tribes under federal protection. According to this policy, successful tribes were those which indicated a willingness to withdraw from federal services including education programs altogether. Later, a Kennedy administration report repudiated this termination policy drive, and emphasized economic and community development, a policy pursued by the Carter administration.

Emergence of Contract Schools

Partly as a result of the inability of the bureaucracy for Indians to respond to their schooling needs, contract schools began to emerge in the early 1970s, a century after boarding schools were formed. Contract schools were independent Indian school boards contracting with BIA funds to operate their own school. The money was federal, but the policy and the administration were local. In the West many became symbols of local control - Rocky Boy, Wind River, Red Cloud, Ramah, and especially Rough Rock. In large cities there were Little Big Horn in Chicago, the Milwaukee Urban Indian School, and alternative Indian school programs in big city schools like Seattle and Tacoma.

Congress passed in 1972 the Indian Education Act, the first education legislation for Indians in 50 years. It authorized funds for Indian children attending public schools, not the federally-controlled BIA schools. Part A of this act, also known as the Indian Elementary and Secondary School Assistance Act, redefined the formula for students eligible under impact aid - that program by which the government compensates local schools for monies not available to them because the children's parents live or work on federal reservations and thereby pay no property taxes, as is the case with Indian children whose parents live on Indian reservations.

Part B provided money for special educational training programs for teachers of Indian children, and 200 fellowships for selected Indian students for graduate and professional study. Part C established special programs for adult Indians, mostly for improved literacy opportunities and skills development.

The most common federal funding sources for federal Indian schools and public schools with more than 10 Indian students are: 1) impact aid: the redefined formula under the Indian Education Act; 2) Johnson-O'Malley funds; 3) Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act: money for the disadvantaged; and 4) the National School Lunch Act. Furthermore, schools can participate in federal programs like the Bilingual Education Act.

Education programs for American Indians, however misconceived and mismanaged, constitute one of the oldest federal education projects housed in one of the oldest federal bureaucracies. The past administration is an example of how the image of federal education can be sullied. But it is also an example of how reversible federal education policy can be.

Whatever the causes and changes of federal education policy towards American Indians, the results have been ambiguous, and often, catastrophic. This only highlights the importance of not only understanding the mechanics of how federal educational policy is formed for American Indians, but how to influence its development for meaningful programs.

Donald K. Sharpes is a Professor at Weber State College and Utah State University, and is Director of the Combined Graduate Program. An active writer, workshop conductor-advisor and consultant in American Indian Education, Dr. Sharpes was a contributor to JAIE in January, 1978.

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