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Brief History of American Indian Education

There are many research studies that support the need for transition strategies for American Indian students. In 1990, among those in the population 25 years and older, 66% of American Indians had completed high school, compared to 75% of the total U.S. population; 9% had attained a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 20% of the total U.S. population; and 3% held graduate or professional degrees, compared to 7% of the total U. S. population (Pavel, et al., 1993). In 1992, the dropout rate for American Indians was 56% and 46% for Alaskan Natives (Cahape & Howley, 1992). In 2000, in the state of Minnesota, where this curriculum was developed and piloted, the statewide high school graduation rate for American Indians was 42.6% compared with 82.8% for Caucasian students; the high school dropout rate for American Indian students in Minnesota in that same year was 34.4% compared to 9.2% for Caucasian students.

There are a multitude of reasons for these statistics. The status of American Indian student achievement has its roots in history. Trainers and students must be aware of the historical impact on the state of American Indian education today. While there may have been collaboration in some communities, federal policies did not support cooperation on a national level. Federal policies for American Indian cultural assimilation were implemented after policies of extermination and removal were set aside. Indeed, an industry of assimilation was supported with federal and faith-based resources, targeting the children of American Indian nations in particular.

One historical occurrence that has had long lasting and far-reaching impact on the education of American Indian people was the formation of the American Indian boarding school. The American Indian boarding school, as an institution of assimilation, was designed to suppress the culture, language, and spirituality of American Indian nations throughout the United States. Such institutions were built and operated throughout the country, controlled by non-American Indian government agents and churches. During the late 1800’s and into the mid-1900’s, boarding school attendance was mandated. Thus, from the age of 5 through 18, American Indian children were removed from their families, for month or years at a time, and placed in the boarding school where a harsh indoctrination occurred. A systematic suppression of American Indian culture occurred during this era, which included the banning of American Indian spiritual practices and the speaking of native language, all of which held severe punitive repercussions.

The Indian boarding school served as a means to assimilate American Indian children and to train American Indian students as laborers. For the most part, the level of education and training afforded American Indian students prepared them for menial vocations. As a result, most American Indian students today do not have several generations of professionals, such as doctors, lawyers, or bankers to emulate. Today, it is often the first or second generation of the American Indian professional that is being encountered, not because of cultural inferiority or academic indifference, but because of the lack of a dignified, humane system of education. Indeed, many of the psycho-social ills that persist in American Indian communities today can be traced to the boarding school era and the systematic enforcement of child maltreatment. While not as prevalent, the American Indian boarding school still exists, although attendance is voluntary. Most schools now work closely with surrounding American Indian tribes, employing tribal members as staff and reflecting the culture of American Indian students as part of its educational programming.

A summary of additional key events in the history of American Indian contact with the U.S. systems of government and education can by found on page 9 of the Expanding the Circle curriculum for review and reference. Despite these historical factors, American Indian tribes throughout the United States have maintained their culture, language, and spirituality. This chapter in American history is seldom discussed or presented.

Cahape, P. & Howley, C.B. (Eds.). (1992). Indian Nations at risk: Listening to the people. (Contract No. RI-88-062016). Charleston, WV. ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools.

Pavel, D.M. & Padilla, R.V. (1993). American Indian & Alaska Native postsecondary departure: An example of assessing a mainstream model using national longitudinal data. Journal of American Indian Education, 32, (2), 1-19.

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