Brief History of American Indian Education

There are many research studies that support the need for transition strategies for American Indian students. In the 2013-2014 school year, only 69.6% of American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) students graduated high school in four years, compared with 82.3% of the total U.S. population (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). The AI/AN graduation rate was the lowest among all races/ethnicities, and even lower than economically disadvantaged youth. In this same report we find that in the state of Minnesota, where this curriculum was developed and piloted, the statewide high school graduation rate for AI/AN students was 51% compared with 86.3% for Caucasian students. In addition, in 2009, the national status dropout rate for AI/AN students between the ages of 16 and 24 years was 15% compared with 6% for Caucasian students of this age (Aud et al., 2011).

There is a multitude of reasons for these statistics. The status of American Indian student achievement has its roots in history. Facilitators 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 a 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 1800s and into the mid-1900s, boarding school attendance was mandated. Thus, from the age of 5 through 18, American Indian children were removed from their families, for months or years at a time, and placed in the boarding school where a harsh indoctrination occurred. The 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 be found on the following pages 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.


National Center for Education Statistics. (2015). Table 1. Public high school 4-year adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR), by race/ethnicity and selected demographics for the United States, the 50 states, and the District of Columbia: School year 2013–14. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Author. Retrieved from

Aud, S., Hussar, W., Kena, G., Bianco, K., Frohlich, L., Kemp, J., Tahan, K. (2011). The Condition of Education 2011 (NCES 2011-033). U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Retrieved from PDF