A Brief History of American Indian Education

Policies of the past have denied American Indians their languages, family traditions, and religious practices. The formalization of American Indian education created many changes, most notably by introducing boarding schools to American Indians, which were the catalyst for the most notable destruction of Indigenous language, culture, and family structure to date (Grande, 2004).

Such institutions were established and operated throughout the country, controlled by non-American Indian government agents and churches. During the late 1800s and into the mid 1900s boarding school attendance was mandated. Thus, from the age of five through eighteen, American Indian children were removed from their families, for months or years at a time, and placed in the boarding school where harsh indoctrination occurred (Ness & Huisken, 2002). A wide and damaging systematic suppression of American Indian culture occurred during this era.

Most schools now work closely with surrounding American Indian tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the cultures of American Indian students in their educational programming (Ness & Huisken, 2002). Despite these historical injustices, American Indian tribes throughout the U.S. have maintained their cultures, languages, and spirituality.

Culture-based schooling for American Indian students has grown in the past thirty years as one way to reclaim lost language and culture, and has contributed to improving many American Indians' identity, self-esteem, and attitude towards school.

Significant Events between American Indian Tribes and the U.S. Government

European Contact

Federal Policies Over Time

Dawes Act of 1887

  1. Provided that reservation lands be divided among individual families
  2. White advocates hoped that small allotments (40-160 acres) would convert American Indians into individual farm entrepreneurs
  3. Un-allotted lands left over were sold to the white outsiders
  4. Resulted in large-scale land sale reducing American Indian lands from 140 million acres to 50 million by the mid 1930s
  5. American Indians could become citizens if deemed competent in management of land allotments, they were issued "certificates of competency" that proved worthiness.

American Indian Citizenship Act of 1924

  1. Granted citizenship and voting rights
  2. Did not change 'ward' status within federal government

American Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 (IRA)

  1. Developed by FDR under the New Deal
  2. Intended to establish civil and cultural rights, allow for semiautonomous tribal governments similar in legal status to counties, and foster economic development of reservations
  3. Would end land allotment, require careful BIA supervision of the sale of lands, and provide for federal credit and preferential hiring of American Indians in the BIA
  4. Defects of policy: ignored fundamental economic problems, maintained the subordinate ward relationship to the federal government, excluded some tribes, and put great power in the hands of the Secretary of the Interior (commonly known as the "dictator of the American Indians")
  5. Resistance on the basis of violation of the sovereignty guaranteed by treaties with the U.S. government

Shift in policy between 1954 and 1960

  1. Rejection of IRA
  2. Return policy of forced conformity regarding land use
  3. Termination of federal guardianship: House Concurrent Resolution 108
  4. Federal Relocation Policy of 1952
  5. Placement of Indian families and individuals in urban areas

1970s: Self-Determination

  1. Movement away from termination
  2. Supported by Richard Nixon's call on Congress to maintain American Indians tie to federal government and prohibit termination without consent
  3. Established self-determination procedure: Nations could assume some administration of certain federal programs on reservations
  4. By late 1970s, some American Indian groups began to run their own schools and social service programs
  5. American Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975

Role of Bureau of American Indian Affairs (BIA)

  1. Defines who is American Indian by determining federally acknowledged tribes
  2. Keeps records of blood lines to identify eligibility for benefits
  3. Supervises leasing and selling of American Indian lands
  4. Supervises tribal government, banking, utilities, highways and tribal trust funds
  5. Since 1980s, stronger movement developed for recognition of groups as sovereign nations
  6. Education
  7. Boarding schools: Carlisle Industrial American Indian School, Carlisle, PA
  8. BIA schools
  9. Day schools
  10. Johnson O'Malley Act- Federal aid for states that developed public schools for American Indians

Indian Religions Freedom Act 1978

  1. Policy to protect and preserve right to believe, express, and exercise traditional religions
  2. Allows access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, freedom to worship through ceremonial and traditional rights
  3. Indian Child Welfare Act 1978
  4. Policy to protect the best interest of American Indian children
  5. Establishment of minimum federal standards for the removal of American Indian children from their families and placement of such children in foster or adoptive homes which reflect the unique values of American Indian cultures

Resources used for this brief historical timeline: - Ness, J., & Huisken, J. (2002). Expanding the circle curriculum manual. University of MN Press, Minneapolis MN - Grande, S. (2004). Red pedagogy: Native American social and political thought. Roman and Littlefield Publishers.

View all lesson plans

Find Lesson Plans

Grade Level


Primary Content Area