Education: ‘The First Condition’

August 02, 1989 15 min read

The views of Native Americans toward what many call “Western” education reflect a profound ambivalence cleaved over many generations.

Since they first encountered white men in the 1500’s, Native Americans have been subjected to policies that alternately sought to exterminate and to “civilize” them--parting them, in the process, from their ancestral lands across the continent.

Long before the federal government became involved in Indian education, early North American missionaries--such as the Spanish Franciscans and the French Jesuits--attempted to introduce European religion, culture, agricultural methods, and vocational skills into Indian communities.

Many of these early educational experiments took a form that would come to haunt Native Americans for four generations: They removed Indian children from their homes to educate them away from the influences of the tribe.

But most historians agree that these initial attempts at schooling had little immediate effect; Indians could choose whether or not to participate in the white man’s education, and schools were not well attended.

Between the American Revolution and 1871, however, the Indian’s relationship with the white man and with his educational system would change markedly.

During that time, the U.S. government entered into nearly 400 treaties with Indian tribes. Native Americans put aside their weapons and ceded nearly one billion acres of land in exchange for services, particularly education.

“You can examine any treaty, any negotiation with the American whites,” a former president of the Indian Historical Society told the Congress in 1968. “The first condition specifically asked for by the Indian tribes was education.”

A Military Model

Initially, federal authorities were reluctant to provide the education directly. Instead, the Congress allocated funds to various religious groups that were already operating Indian schools. That practice did not change until the 1870’s, when the Indian Wars were winding down and federal officials determined that they needed some way to boost their pacification efforts. Edu6cation became the solution.

The U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs, established in 1824 as part of the War Department, originally had no educational mission.

By the second half of the 19th century, however, it had begun to develop a two-part educational system for Native Americans that survives today; it encompassed boarding schools, located off the reservation, and day schools, located on tribal land.

The earliest boarding schools were modeled after the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Founded in 1878 by a retired army officer, R.H. Pratt, the Carlisle boarding school housed students year round, reflecting the fear that Indian pupils would lapse into traditional ways if given the opportunity to visit their parents over the summer.

During the late 1800’s, Congress asked the Army to relinquish abandoned forts to the bia to convert into boarding schools based on the Carlisle model. In general, the style of education at such schools proved as military as the setting--complete with haircuts, uniforms, marching drills, work details, and punishment for speaking Indian languages.

Not surprisingly, many students ran away from these facilities and many Indian parents refused to surrender their children to authorities. In 1893, lawmakers authorized the Secretary of the Interior to use whatever means necessary to induce attendance, including withholding rations, clothing, and other supplies from parents whose children were not in school.

Alloting Lands, Moving Children

Day schools, while a less harsh ministration to Native Americans’ educational needs, did damage in other ways, Indian leaders charged. By clustering day schools in a central location, the bia prompted Indian families who hoped to avoid the threat of boarding schools to move in from the far reaches of the reservations. Often, the lands they left behind were claimed by white settlers.

With the Allotment Act of 1887, these dual purposes--of “civilizing’’ Indian children and moving their parents off their lands--were joined in an irrevocable way.

Under the Allotment Act, tribal lands were broken into small tracts and transferred to individual Indians. According to the researchers Estelle Fuchs and Robert Havighurst, many sold their allotments, unaware of what they had owned and mystified by the concept of land ownership.

Others lost land through their inability to pay property taxes, or had it seized by local authorities who arbitrarily determined that they were not Indians and thus had no claim. During the less than 50 years the Allotment Act was in effect, Indian land ownership shrank from 140 million acres to 50 million acres.

Funds raised by the land transfers were allocated to build more bia boarding schools. In an effort to keep these schools full, the federal government rounded up Indian children and transported them all over the country. They also introduced new threats--such as imprisonment--to induce Native American parents to cooperate.

The Allotment Act also had a more important and unanticipated consequence: It injected thousands of Indian children into the nation’s burgeoning public-school system, where most are enrolled today.

Demise of Tribal Schools

As communities of settlers moved onto former tribal lands in and around the reservations, they founded schools to serve their own children. And as early as the 1890’s, the Congress began offering financial incentives to states to open the schools to Indians.

In 1916, the ante was raised to 15 cents per day per Indian student enrolled in a public school. But state officials initially showed little interest in such incentives, often arguing that they had no obligation to educate “non-citizens.”

That argument became moot in 1924, however, when the government granted Indians U.S. citizenship. That same year, a California court ruled that an Indian child must be allowed to attend a public school, even if there were a bia school nearby.

The late 1800’s also saw the demise of the few existing Indian-controlled schools. Throughout the century, the Choctaws, Creeks, Chickasaws, Seminoles, and Cherokees had maintained their own tribal schools.

In the mid-1800’s, for example, the Choctaws of Mississippi and Oklahoma had supervised a system of about 200 schools and academies. The Cherokees of Oklahoma, using an alphabet developed by the tribal leader Sequoyah, achieved a literacy rate of 90 percent during the 1850’s.

By 1890, however, the federal government had either closed all of these tribal schools or absorbed them into its own system.

An Influential Report

The disastrous state of Indian education was first revealed in a comprehensive 1928 study sponsored by the Brookings Institution.

Known as the Meriam Report, after its chief researcher, the study pointed out the need for culturally relevant materials in the curriculum and suggested that Indian communities become more involved in school decisionmaking. It also advocated that schools foster, rather than obliterate, tribal values and family structures.

Although the Meriam Report generated some immediate changes, they were not widespread until the election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.

Under his “New Deal for Indians,” many boarding schools were closed and more day schools were opened. In 1933, for example, three-quarters of bia students were in boarding schools. By 1943, two-thirds were in day schools.

In addition, efforts were made to introduce bilingual textbooks and films, Indian adult education, training for Indian teachers, and cultural sensitivity sessions for non-Indian teachers.

But the results of President Roosevelt’s initiatives were limited, in part because more than half of all Indian students already attended public schools.

The reforms were also short-lived.

Harsh Word, Harsh Policy

From the outset, some members of Congress had attacked the President’s approach as catering too much to Indian ways. And with the advent of World War II, funding for most of the New Deal initiatives was eliminated.

Federal policymakers began to reconsider less accomodating approaches to the Indian problem and in 1950 approved a harsh new policy. The policy, which came to be known as “termination,” left many Native Americans with what one observer described as a lasting and “almost ineradicable suspicion of the goverment’s motives for every policy, program, or action concerning Indians.”

The goal of the new policy was to terminate federal support for tribes considered to be self-sufficient. But analysts of the policy later described lawmakers’ standards for the program as vague and haphazardly applied.

By 1958, 61 Indian tribes, rancheros, and communities had been terminated. Their schools and medical facilities were closed, their land re-federalized, and their econom6ic base, such as timber or fishing, no longer guaranteed.

Simultaneously, a policy of relocation lured Indian teenagers and young adults from reservations to urban areas with the promise of jobs.

According to a 1969 report for the U.S. Senate, most of these relocated Indians were greeted with short-term employment, poorly funded training programs, and no assistance in learning English. Thirty percent went home to the reservation within the first year. Eventually, 75 percent over all were thought to have returned. And those who remained often lost their cultural bearings and sank into the lowest depths of urban life.

By the 1970’s, the impact of “termination” had left many Native Americans more in need of federal assistance than ever before.

Educationally, this era also resulted in a reversion to boarding schools for those Indian children still under the bia system. By the 1960’s, two-thirds of bia students were back in boarding schools, and 60 percent of Indian students over all were in public schools.

The Promise of Self-Determination

Indian leaders say the wounds of the termination era still fester.

But they also point out that the policy unintentionally gave birth to what many now consider the most promising, if controversial, movement in the history of Indian education: the movement toward self-governance.

In the 1960’s, as “relocated” Native Americans returned to reservations after dismal experiences in the cities, many brought with them a growing sense that their ways were preferable to those of the American mainstream. Groups of activists, including an older generation that had experienced life off the reservations during World War II, resolved that their cultural and economic survival could no longer be entrusted to the federal government.

They began to press for more direct control over their schools and other affairs.

During the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, first steps were taken to help Native Americans move toward that goal.

The Office of Economic Opportunity, for instance, placed large numbers of Indians in management positions on the reservations through its community-action program. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 provided monies to educate disadvantaged youngsters, including most Native American children.

And in 1966, after three-quarters of a century, control of an Indian school was returned to an Indian community. With the aid of federal funding, Indians on the Navajo Reservation in northeastern Arizona took charge of administrative and educational policies at the Rough Rock Elementary School.

The concept of self-determination received a further boost in 1968, when President Lyndon B. Johnson called for the formation of local Indian school boards to oversee all bia schools.

But the biggest impetus for change in Indian education came from an unexpected source.

An Unexpected Champion

American Indians had anticipated few gains under President Richard Nixon. As Vice President during the Eisenhower Administration, Mr. Nixon was linked to the earlier termination proposals.

But the President surprised and pleased much of the Indian community in July 1970 by announcing a sweeping new Indian policy.

“It is long past time,” he told the Congress, “that the Indian policies of the federal government began to recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people. ... The time has come to break decisively with the past and to create conditions for a new era in which the Indian future is determined by Indian acts and Indian decisions.”

A policy of self-determination, Mr. Nixon said, would eliminate federal paternalism while maintaining “federal concern and federal support.” Among his proposals was that any Indian community wishing to control its schools be allowed to do so.

The Title IV program, created by the Education Amendments of 1972, provided funding for culturally relevant programs for Indian students in public schools. And it mandated local Indian parent committees to plan and monitor such projects.

Additional legislation in 1975 and 1978 required bia schools to establish and train Indian school boards, and developed a process whereby local Indian communities could contract with the agency to assume operational responsibility for their schools.

In 1975, the Congress also recognized what it called the “special needs” of Indian students by authorizing a 25 percent add-on to impact-aid payments to districts with substantial numbers of Indian students.

The idea of self-determination, implanted during the Nixon era, continues to guide the federal government’s policy toward Native Americans. But the concept remains controversial.

Although many Indian leaders say they want greater control over their own affairs, they are fearful that self-determination is merely a means of reducing federal support.

During the Reagan Administration, for example, the Title IV budget--the major source of funding for Indian curriculum projects in the public schools--shrank by 20 percent. Yet the number of Indian students in the public schools grew by the same percentage.

Opposition to ‘Acceleration’

In 1987, Ross O. Swimmer, then-assistant secretary of the interior for Indian affairs, called for an end to direct federal in5p6volvement in Indian education. Mr. Swimmer, a former chief of the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, proposed that all bia schools be transferred to states or tribes and operated as public schools.

He termed the initiative “accelerated self-determination,” predicting it would result in better and less costly education for Indian children. The bia director charged that tribal governments had been given ample time to take control of reservation schools but had failed to do so; they needed a push, he said.

Almost without exception, Indian leaders denounced the initiative as a reversion to the 1950’s policy of termination.

During 1987, representatives of 65 tribes and national Indian organizations gathered in Washington to lobby against implementation of the Swimmer plan, which was eventually blocked by the Congress.

In April 1988, President Reagan signed into law new Congressional mandates for Indian education as part of HR 5, the omnibus education bill (now P.L. 100-297).

The measure was a sharp rebuff to Mr. Swimmer. It not only canceled his initiative but imposed a moratorium on closings ortransfers of bia schools--which had been carried out repeatedly during the Reagan era--without tribal approval. The new law also created a simplified funding mechanism for contract schools, designed to eliminate unpopular and time-consuming red tape.

In addition, it limited the bia’s regulatory powers and required consultation with tribes prior to the issuance of new regulations. And for the first time in eight years, the Congress promised an increase in funding for culturally relevant instruction.

The measure also raised salary levels for bia teachers by more than $7,000 over a three-year period; made bia schools eligible for more Education Department grants; and required the department to have an office of Indian affairs staffed by individuals with expertise in that area.

Moreover, in a provision intended to eliminate a longstanding source of tension between Native American leaders and state governments, HR 5 barred states from counting impact-aid “add-on” funds for Indian students in state equalization formulas.

But despite the significant regulatory victories in HR 5, Indian interests have not been successful in pressing for increased appropriations for bia education programs.

The agency’s $274-million education budget has essentially remained level since fiscal 1987, after undergoing cuts during the Reagan Administration from its 1980 level of $266 million. The House Appropriations Committee has proposed a modest increase over the Reagan-Bush proposal, which again seeks essentially level funding; the Senate has yet to act on the measure.

Hopes for New Leadership

Given the continuing climate of fiscal constraint, Native Americans are hoping that the Bush Administration will at least signal a new federal attitude toward the problems of Indian communities.

This spring’s joint school visits by Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos and Secretary of the Interior Manuel Lujan pleased and surprised educators whose schools were targeted. They say they look forward to a report on Indian education that the two officials have pledged to produce.

But members of the Indian community are still awaiting word on a White House Conference on Indian Education that was mandated by the Congress in HR 5. Advocates had expected the conference to be scheduled for this year, but a bia spokesman said recently that there were “no current plans” in the agency to hold the conference.

If the Bush Administration is to generate more than a brief nod to the concerns of Native Americans, the impetus will most likely come from Mr. Cavazos, Mr. Lujan, and Mr. Lujan’s new assistant secretary for Indian affairs, Eddie Frank Brown. During his confirmation hearings last month, the new bia director, a member of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe and the former director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, echoed Mr. Lujan’s assertion that education would be a top priority.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a backer of the appointment, responded that the needs of Indians presented challenges that would require dedicated bia leadership. “Congratulations or condolences,” Mr. McCain said to Mr. Brown. “I’m not sure which is more appropriate.”

--Reported by Dennis McDonald

A version of this article appeared in the August 02, 1989 edition of Education Week as Education: ‘The First Condition’