Harvard Educational Review
  1. Education for Extinction

    American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928

    By David Wallace Adams

    Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1995. 396 pp. $29.95 (paper)

    Education for Extinction is a poignant and heartbreaking book that chronicles the infamous history of the U.S. government's efforts to indoctrinate, deculturalize, and "Americanize" Native peoples through the use of boarding schools. Under the guise of "progress" and "civilization," thousands of native children were forcefully removed from their families and cultures, and deprived of their peoples' history. This book testifies to both the cruelties perpetrated against the hearts and minds of children and to the many acts of courage and resistance performed by these children.

    The genesis of U.S. government policy towards Native people began in the 1780s. The prevailing Lockean mentality held that only a society established on a consensus of private property could promote social stability, political independence, and public morality. As Adams notes:

    Whether discussing the Indians' worship of pagan gods, their simple organizations, or their dependency on wild game for subsistence, white observers found Indian society wanting. Indian life, it was argued, constituted a lower order of human society. In a word, Indians were savages because they lacked the very thing whites possessed--civilization. And since, by the law of historical progress and the doctrine of social evolution, civilized ways were destined to triumph over savagism, Indians would ultimately confront a fateful choice: civilization or extinction. (pp. 5-6)

    After almost a century of checkered policies (Indian removal, broken treaties, and bloody warfare), in 1871, Congress deemed Native peoples to be wards of the government, a de facto colonized people. The concept of Indian education was proposed by reformers in the 1870s and soon gained support among government officials and the public. The aims of Indian education were several: one, to provide Indian children with the rudiments of an academic education, including reading, writing, and speaking English; two, Indians needed to be individualized, as reformers felt that tribal life placed more importance on the tribal community than on the individual; and third, Indian education was Americanization. It was within this context that, in 1877, Congress began to appropriate funds expressly for Indian education.

    The boarding schools were primarily of two types: reservation schools and off-reservation schools. The typical teacher in the Indian schools was a single White woman in her late twenties, partly because teaching had been defined as "women's work," and partly because women were less expensive to employ than men. In the schools, the assault on the cultural identity of Indian children began with a haircut (to look more like White children), a change of the students' dress (usually a uniform), and the assignation of European names. So as not to contaminate the process of Americanization, Indian languages, customs, and religions were prohibited, and parental visits were discouraged.

    Both boys and girls were subjected to daily marching drills, presumably to exterminate their innate "wildness." They were also subjected to corporal punishment. Students who resisted or refused to conform to the school rules were remanded to the school "jail" or "guardhouse." Students suffered from either malnourishment, which arose from extreme dietary changes, or undernourishment, due to limited supplies of food. Diseases were rampant, because of dietary problems and because of the shoddy construction and dilapidated conditions of the school buildings, largely a result of corrupt Bureau of Indian Affairs bureaucrats who embezzled or misappropriated government school funds.

    Indian children and their home communities resisted their attempts at deculturalization. As Adams explains, "a major motivation for resistance, [was] namely, that a significant body of tribal opinion saw white education for what it was: an invitation to cultural suicide" (p. 212). He continues:

    Students resisted for several reasons. First, there was the deep resentment occasioned by the institution itself. . . . Second, resistance was in part political. For older students especially, it took little imagination to discern that the entire school program constituted an uncompromising hegemonic assault on their cultural identity. . . . Finally, resistance can be explained in psychological terms. In the context of severe cultural conflict, students were experiencing education in terms of what anthropologists have come to call "acculturation stress," "cultural discontinuity" and "cognitive dissonance." (p. 223)

    Despite daily humiliation, many children's spirits remained unbroken; they remained "patriots" to their own people. They resisted attempts to "Americanization" by running away, committing arson, and, most pervasively, through acts of passive resistance (i.e., acts of defiance, class disruptions, "work slow downs," unresponsiveness). Still others clandestinely kept alive and taught others their languages, customs, rituals, and history.

    This is a must-read book for all educators, especially for those who wish to work with students of color. As this book powerfully reminds us, education is an encounter, not a discovery.

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    Book Notes

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    Anything but Mexican
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