Flight A Brief History of "Assimilation through Education" for Native American children

The historical relationship between the U.S. and Native Americans is long and complicated. To best understand Zits's inherent resentments towards white people, it is useful to contemplate the ways in which Native Americans have often felt patronized by U.S. culture. One fascinating story of this type is that of "assimilation through education."

Between 1790 and 1920, many attempts were made to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream U.S. culture. The concept of assimilation was proposed during the earliest days of the United States government. George Washington was an advocate of assimilation, and created policies to promote the Americanization of indigenous people. The thought process behind such initiatives was twofold. First, the wave of immigrants entering the Untied States after 1790 proved problematic. The government believed that new arrivals (and natives) would benefit from a centralized American culture, which could join together many different ethnic traditions. Second, a common religion and a standardized education would help to unite a country that was itself not quite stabilized.

After the Civil War, reformers created federally funded boarding schools for Native American children across the country. Policy makers at the time hoped that the early immersion of native born children would help them become “proper” and productive citizens. One of the first boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian School, established in 1879 in Pennsylvania. The founder, Henry Pratt, believed that education was key in order to “kill the Indian and save the man." This theory of the boarding school became know as "assimilation through education."

The boarding school model remained common until 1920. Native Americans either willingly sent their children (as young as six), or were coerced into compliance. Students, both male and female, were intermingled between tribes, forced to speak English, and wore mainstream American clothing. They were punished for speaking their native language, until many eventually lost the ability speak it fluently. Students would spend most of their year at the boarding schools, and were either forbidden or strongly discouraged from speaking to and visiting with their families. Those who tried to run away were publicly humiliated and whipped.

Daily life at the boarding school was strictly structured, almost militaristic in intensity. Students were prompted to perform various daily tasks by the ringing of bells. They woke to the musical call of the reveille, and went to sleep after taps. Half the day was dedicated to traditional academics lessons including geography, language, reading, writing, and arithmetic, while the rest of the day was spent learning a trade, commonly an agricultural one. Other skill sets were encouraged, such as carpentry, baking, nursing and secretarial work. Students also helped run the facilities. The male students cultivated crops and livestock, while the female students helped with household chores and prepared meals. Students marched everywhere, and were arranged in order of size and age. The severity of the structural system left little room for individual thought or growth; this became a major criticism after the 1920s.

Daily life at the boarding schools was also rife with danger. Sickness was especially prevalent, as measles, influenza, and tuberculosis caused frequent quarantines and occasional death. Cemeteries were erected on-site to accommodate the bodies of the children who died. Poor campus medical facilities aggravated the situation, while low funding prevented the schools from hiring extra help.

Despite these difficulties, many of the students gained considerable skills from their time at the boarding schools. Lasting friendships, and sometimes marriages, resulted from the community, and the skills students learned proved valuable in the workplace. Another benefit of the boarding schools was the access to electricity and running water, neither of which were usually available on the reservations. Students were also encouraged to play sports, and a deep enthusiasm for baseball and football arose amongst the boarding school generations. Many graduates of these programs went on to play semi-professionally.

By the 1920s, the collective thought on"assimilation through education" had changed. The boarding schools were deemed too expensive, while many students complained of poor diets, substandard teaching, overcrowding, and lack of quality medical care. Native American children were subsequently encouraged to attend public schools on or near their reservations. By 1923, many of the Indian boarding schools had closed, and a new generation of Native Americans began to assimilate to U.S. culture more or less on their own terms.