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University of Oklahoma Press
American Indian Education: A History / Edition 1

American Indian Education: A History / Edition 1

by Jon Reyhner


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American Indian Education: A History / Edition 1

In this comprehensive history of American Indian education in the United States from colonial times to the present, historians and educators Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder explore the broad spectrum of Native experiences in missionary, government, and tribal boarding and day schools. This up-to-date survey is the first one-volume source for those interested in educational reform policies and missionary and government efforts to Christianize and “civilize” American Indian children.

Drawing on firsthand accounts from teachers and students, American Indian Education considers and analyzes shifting educational policies and philosophies, paying special attention to the passage of the Native American Languages Act and current efforts to revitalize Native American cultures.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 2900806137833
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 03/01/2006
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Jon Reyhner is Professor of Education at Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff. He has taught on the Navajo Reservation and served as a school administrator for the Blackfeet, Fort Peck, Havasupai, White Mountain Apache, and other communities. He is editor of Teaching Indigenous Students: Honoring Place, Community, and Culture.

Jeanne Eder (Dakota Sioux) is retired as Professor of History at the University of Alaska and is author of The Dakota Sioux and The Makah.

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American Indian Education

A History

By Jon Reyhner, Jeanne Eder


Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4885-4



Before the arrival of European colonists North American tribes spoke more than three hundred languages, had different beliefs, and lived in different ways. But there were certain similarities among all the tribes. The anthropologist George A. Pettitt (1946), for example, documented similarities in child-rearing practices. He found that training for survival was central to Native education. Babies were taught not to cry by cutting off their air supply; this would prevent them from revealing the band's whereabouts to an enemy. The struggle for survival taught the Indians humility. They understood that, contrary to the teachings of Christianity, humans did not hold dominion over the earth but must live in harmony with it. A Cree hunter stated this philosophy thus:

The man who earns his subsistence from hunting, who survives, as the Indians say, from the land, depends on knowing where he must stand in the strangely efficient and mysterious balance that is arranged for the propagation of all life.... In this scheme of things the man is not dominant; he is a mere survivor, like every other form of life. (Quoted in Szasz 1988, 12)

Agricultural tribes of the East and Southeast had a similar attitude toward growing corn, melons, and beans.

Knowledge of tribal traditions was another component of children's education. Through ceremonies, storytelling, and apprenticeship, children learned the culture of their parents. Play was yet another means to educate Indian children. Some games, called "the little brother of war," taught boys the skills necessary to handle weapons and developed physical endurance. Pretty Shield described to Frank Linderman (1932) how as a child before the white people had changed Crow culture she and her friends put up a tent and played at carrying out all the household activities she would later take on when she married. Children learned by observing and then mimicking their parents.

The first European teachers of Indians were Christian missionaries who generally did not understand Indian child-rearing practices. The Jesuit father Paul le Jeune wrote in 1634, "These Barbarians cannot bear to have any of their children punished, nor even scolded, not being able to refuse anything to a crying child. They carry this to such an extent that upon the slightest pretext they would take them away from us, before they were educated" (quoted in Thwaites 1896–1901, vol. 6, 153–54). Le Jeune wrote again in 1639 that "the Savages love their Children above all things" (quoted in Thwaites 1896–1901, vol. 16, 67). The Jesuit priest Joseph Jovency recorded in a book published in 1710, "They treat their children with wonderful affection, but they preserve no discipline, for they neither themselves correct them nor allow others to do so. Hence the impudence and savageness of the boys, which, after they have reached a vigorous age, breaks forth in all sorts of wickedness" (quoted in Thwaites 1896–1901, vol. 1, 277).

Missionaries sought to Christianize, civilize, and assimilate Indians into European culture. They criticized Indian cleanliness and ceremonies, but they were even more critical of the apparent lack of discipline among Indian children. Contrary to European practice, in many tribal cultures the use of corporal punishment to discipline children was unacceptable. Indian children were taught that to endure pain without showing emotion was a sign of maturity. Therefore, using pain as a form of punishment did not make sense. Flora Greg Iliff (1954, 144), who taught on the Havasupai and Hualapai Reservations starting in 1900, observed, "Physical punishment was seldom inflicted on a child. In all my experience I never saw an Indian parent strike a child. A whipped child loses courage, they said, and his soul withers and dwindles away until he dies, for the soul of a child is a tender thing and easily hurt."

Instead discipline was enforced through teasing, ostracism, and peer pressure. In addition, tribal stories that described how children who went outside the bounds of tribal custom were severely punished by supernatural powers served as object lessons.

Missionaries attempting to transform tribal societies rarely studied Native child-rearing practices and other customs before seeking to change them. Some learned one or more tribal languages, but few understood, must less appreciated, tribal cultures. Indian religions were viewed as false and the work of the devil. For most Indian students being taught by missionaries, parental influence far outweighed the influence of missionaries. Since this frustrated their efforts at conversion to Christianity and the European way of life, missionaries soon sought to separate Indian children from their parents by placing them in white homes or boarding schools. Missionaries had the most success when Indian societies began to disintegrate from the onslaught of war, alcohol, European diseases, and famine. Conditions were made worse for the Indians when increasing numbers of immigrants caused their dislocation from ancestral homelands and lifestyles.

In addition, missionaries represented one segment of the white frontier population. Indians were confused when other "Christians," and even some missionaries, cheated and sexually abused them and did not practice what the missionaries preached. The Sioux author and physician Charles Eastman (1915) felt that the real civilizing influences on the Indians were whiskey and gunpowder, with the result that Indians often learned the whites' worst habits. Lewis Meriam (1932, 30), who headed an extensive study of the Indian Bureau (see chap. 8) was told repeatedly by missionaries that their "real difficulties" lay with "sinister white influences" rather than with the Indians.


After 1492, the Spanish sought both to exploit Indians through forced labor and to convert them to Catholicism. Whereas the English colonists who came later saw Indians as an impediment to settlement, the French and Spanish saw them as a cheap source of labor. The Spanish encomienda system gave the conquistadors grants of land, and local Indians went with the land in semislavery as the "spoils of conquest." According to the Law of Burgos of 1512, all Spaniards owning more than fifty Indians were required to provide for "the salvation of their souls ... and the conservation of their lives" (quoted in Heath 1972, 8). The Spanish government idealistically intendedholders of land grants to civilize and Christianize "their" Indians, but the Spanish conquerors often worked the Indians to death in mines and fields in their rush to return to Spain rich.

Bartolomé de Las Casas, perhaps the first Catholic priest ordained in America, claimed that in the first fifty years of the Spanish conquest more than 12 million Indians died (Las Casas [1542] 1992). Las Casas protested the mistreatment of Indians and their portrayal as irredeemable savages, and he fought against the encomienda system that he originally practiced himself, pleaded for religious toleration, and led the academic debate to recognize Indians as rational human beings with souls. In 1537 the pope gave them this recognition:

God created these simple people without evil and without guile. They are most obedient and faithful to their natural lords and the Christians whom they serve. ... Surely [they] would be most blessed in the world if only they worshipped the True God.... [T]he Indians are truly men and ... they are not only capable of understanding the Catholic Faith, but according to our information, they desire exceedingly to receive it. (Quoted in McAlister 1984, 154)

Unfortunately for the Indians, this liberal view of their humanity and optimistic view of their willingness to convert to Catholicism was more prominent among intellectuals in Europe than among colonists in the Americas. Yet the colonial attitude that Indians were savages, little or no better than animals, did not stop large-scale intermixing of races. Unlike the later English colonists, most of whom immigrated as family units and planned to settle permanently in the New World, many French and Spanish men came to make their fortunes and then return to Europe. Harold Driver (1969, 476–77) writes, "Since about 90 per cent of Spanish colonists were unmarried men, they cohabited with and married Indian women in large numbers.... Although almost everyone in Mexico today is of mixed ancestry, the Indian genes that went into the mixture are about 80 per cent of the total." This intermixing created new groups of people, including the métis of Canada and the mestizos of the American Southwest and Central and South America.

Because of the failure of landowners to look after the education of Indians on their lands, in 1542 Charles V of Spain transferred theresponsibility to Catholic friars. The Spanish colonial government's purpose was to Hispanicize the Indians, but friars sought to Christianize them. To separate Indians from both their nomadic way of life and the corrupting influence of frontier whites, the friars settled Indians around churches in a feudal pattern. When Pánfilo de Narváez took possession of the coast around Pensacola Bay, Florida, he had with him four Franciscan fathers who came to start missions. In 1568 the Jesuits established a school in Havana for Florida Indian youths (Indian Education 1969). Jesuits and Franciscan Gray Friars established several missions in what is now Florida after 1573 that lasted until the English attacked in 1703 and 1704.

Colonial Mexico

In 1529 a secondary school for Indians was established in Mexico City. The Franciscan Bernardino de Sahagún early on learned to speak Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, and to appreciate their culture. In 1536, seventeen years before the University of Mexico was founded, he helped to establish the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco for eighty Indian boys. The colegio was supported by the Law of the Indies and was largely turned over to the Indians in 1545. Latin, the language of the Catholic Church, was taught through the medium of Náhuatl.

However, by 1595 the school was in ruins and taught only elementary subjects. Colonial administrators had found that whereas non-Spanish-speaking Indians were "humble," those who spoke Spanish and especially those who knew Latin were "impudent." The average Spanish lajman "strenuously objected to the Indian's use of Spanish [for] Indians who learned Spanish threatened the social stratification system which assumed Spanish superiority and Indian inferiority" (Heath 1972, 43). On the other hand, a little education was seen as good: it motivated Indians to move to cities, where they could be further exploited.

In 1550 Charles V ordered all Indians to learn Castilian Spanish. However, missionaries thought their work would be impeded if Indians were to be first taught Spanish, and a friar presented the case for indigenous-language teaching to Charles V:

Your Majesty has ordered that these Indians learn the language of Castile. Can you understand that some Indians will never learn it, while others will learn it badly? After all, we know that although the languages of Castile and Portugal are almost the same, a Portuguese gentleman may spend thirty years in Castile and never learn the language. Then how are these people whose language is so different from ours and who have such elaborate ways of speaking ever to learn Castilian? It seems to me that Your Majesty should command that all the Indians learn the Mexican language [Náhuatl], for in every village there are many Indians who know this language and learn it easily, and many confess in it. (Quoted in Heath 1972, 19)

Friars took over from the Aztec government the promotion of Náhuatl as a common Indian language; it was easier to teach and learn than Spanish, and there were not enough translators available for all the local indigenous languages. The friars spoke of Nÿhuatl's "authority, stylistic variety, and expressiveness" (quoted in Heath 1972, 24) and of how Indians learned quickly how to write it in roman letters. Faced with these facts from the hinterland, in 1570 King Philip III of Spain declared Náhuatl the official language of New Spain's Indians and ordered that the University of Mexico establish a chair of Náhuatl and that all clerics should learn it. By then Franciscan friars had produced more than eighty grammars, vocabularies, catechisms, and scriptural translations in Mexico's indigenous languages. Chroniclers from the sixteenth century wrote of friars who preached in as many as ten languages (Heath 1972).

In 1603 Philip revived his father's 1565 order that all missionaries learn the language of their charges. King Charles II again promoted Spanish for Indians in the 1690s but was not supported by either religious or lay colonial leaders. In 1728 descendants of Indian nobles asked the archbishop of Mexico City to reopen the Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco. Primary education of Indians was considered poor, and "precision in penmanship and Latin oratory" were considered the "supreme goals" (Heath 1972, 59).

The Northeast

After 1611 Jesuits established missions in present-day Maine, New York, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, and Canada, plus one inLouisiana that was reached by traveling down the Mississippi River. A description of a Jesuit Indian seminary is found in the Jesuit Relations of 1637. Students rose in the morning to say their prayers and then went to mass. After breakfast they were taught reading and writing. After a brief recess, they were taught the catechism. Midday dinner was followed by more prayers and afternoon reading. Then there was a recreation period, supper, more prayers, and bed. Of the six young men who constituted the first class, two died of sickness after being "purged and bled" and one left the seminary. Both of the students who died had been involved in fights with Frenchmen. The priest claimed the students died from overeating (Thwaites 1896–1901, vol. 12, 49).

Early New Mexico and California

The first permanent mission in New Mexico was founded in 1598. Over the next three centuries nearly three hundred Franciscans, thirty-eight of whom were killed by Indians, served in the Southwest. The Indians of the Southwest tended to be more agrarian and peaceful than those of the Northeast, but they did not take kindly to domination by the Spanish. When in 1599 Acoma Pueblo resisted a Spanish military expedition's demands for food, finally by armed resistance, Spanish retribution was drastic. An estimated 800 villagers were killed and 580 survivors placed on trial. The survivors were convicted of killing eleven Spaniards and two servants. Men over the age of twenty-five had one foot cut off and were sentenced to twenty years of servitude. Men between the ages of twelve and twenty-five and women over twelve were punished with twenty years of servitude. Two visiting Hopis had their right hands cut off (Knaut 1995).

Hopis opposed Franciscan missionaries who established a mission in Awatovi in 1629 and later at Shongopavi and Oraibi. An apostate from one of the Christian pueblos had told the Hopis that "some Spaniards, whom they would meet shortly, were coming to burn their pueblos, steal their property and behead their children, and that other Spaniards with the tonsures and vestments were nothing but imposters and that they should not allow them to sprinkle water on their heads because they were certain to die from it" (quoted in Whiteley 1988, 17).

Records show there was good reason for the Hopi's hatred of missionaries, as savagery was widespread in New Mexican missions. The historian France V. Scholes describes one occurrence in 1655. "Indian captains" appeared before Custodian Ibargaray and testified:

[A]n Oraibi Indian named Juan Cuna had been discovered in some act of idolatry. In the presence of the entire pueblo, Father Guerra gave him such a severe beating that "he was bathed in blood." Then, inside the church the friar administered a second beating, following which he took burning turpentine and larded the Indian's body from head to feet. Soon after receiving this brutal punishment the Indian died. (Scholes 1937, 145)


Excerpted from American Indian Education by Jon Reyhner, Jeanne Eder. Copyright © 2004 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Colonial Missionaries and Their Schools,
2. Treaties and Western Removal, 1776–1867,
3. Reservations, 1867–1887,
4. Allotment and Dependency, 1887–1924,
5. Mission Schools,
6. Government Boarding Schools,
7. Students and Parents,
8. A New Deal, 1924–1944,
9. Termination and Relocation, 1944–1969,
10. Self-Determination, 1969–1989,
11. Higher Education,
12. New Directions in Indian Education, 1989–2003,
13. Entering the Twenty-First Century,

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