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Wicazo Sa Review 19.2 (2004) 25-32

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Taking the Indian out of the Indian

U.S. Policies of Ethnocide through Education

As the genocidal policies to eliminate Native American populations in North America began to lose momentum at the end of the nineteenth century (the Native American population in the United States had been reduced to 500,000 by 1890), American Indians faced a new U.S. colonial policy that aimed to obliterate American Indian culture through education. This "civilizing" policy had three cornerstones: Christianization, education, and the instilling of private property (usually in that order).1 Developed in the first half of the nineteenth century during the removal era and refined by midcentury, the drastic impetus for creating and enacting the three-pronged policy can best be summed up in the words of secretary of the interior Alexander H. H. Stuart, who stated in 1851 that American Indians were "encompassed by an unbroken chain of civilization... and the only alternatives left are, to civilize or exterminate them."2

Just after the Civil War, secretary of the interior O. H. Browning reiterated this sentiment when he reported that instilling the fundamental concepts of European agriculture in American Indian people "is no doubt the best, if not the only, policy that can be pursued to preserve them from extinction."3 These policies were erroneously based on the assumption that Native Americans had no educational structures, no sense of property, and an inferior brand of spirituality. In fact, Native Americans had educational systems long before 1492, with Native teachers and scholars imparting knowledge to children and adults on a [End Page 25] day-to-day basis both before and after white contact. Elders as well as people knowledgeable about specific ideas and techniques instructed members of their societies about a broad range of topics including history, religion, arts and crafts, literature, geography, zoology, botany, medicine, law, political science, astronomy, soil science, and theater. Since American Indian models of instruction centered on oral tradition, Europeans often typified Native American education as "primitive," defective, or nonexistent.4 Native American resistance to European educational initiatives, however, is well-known and widely reported.

In the late eighteenth century, Benjamin Franklin related a story about Native American leaders rejecting an offer to educate American Indian youth in Two Tracts, Information to Those Who Would Remove to America and Remarks concerning the Savages of North America. This manuscript attempts to demonstrate Native American resistance to white values. According to Franklin, American Indian chiefs, when they were invited to send their sons to the College of William and Mary, told Virginia missionaries and government officials:

But you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things: and you will therefore not take amiss, if our Ideas of this kind of European education happen not to be the same with yours. We have had some experience of it; Several of our young people were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your sciences; but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a cabin, take a Deer, or kill an Enemy, spoke our language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing. We are however not the less oblig'd by your kind Offer, tho' we decline accepting it; and to show our grateful sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their Sons, we will take great Care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men of them.5

Because Native Americans believed that education should feature an emphasis on human beings existing in relation with the natural world and not as lords over it, Europeans often denigrated American Indian education. In the nineteenth century, white Americans took these assumptions one step further and declared...


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