American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling: A Comparative Study

American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling: A Comparative Study

American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling: A Comparative Study

American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling: A Comparative Study

Synopsis

For centuries American Indians and the Irish experienced assaults by powerful, expanding states, along with massive land loss and population collapse. In the early nineteenth century the U. S. government, acting through the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), began a systematic campaign to assimilate Indians. Initially dependent on Christian missionary societies, the BIA later built and ran its own day schools and boarding schools for Indian children. At the same time, the British government established a nationwide elementary school system in Ireland, overseen by the commissioners of national education, to assimilate the Irish. By the 1920s, as these campaigns of cultural transformation were ending, roughly similar proportions of Indian and Irish children attended state-regulated schools. In the first full comparison of American and British government attempts to assimilate "problem peoples" through mass elementary education, Michael C. Coleman presents a complex and fascinating portrait of imperialism at work in the two nations. Drawing on autobiographies, government records, elementary school curricula, and other historical documents, as well as photographs and maps, Coleman conveys a rich personal sense of what it was like to have been a pupil at a school where one's language was not spoken and one's local culture almost erased. In absolute terms the campaigns failed, yet the schools deeply changed Indian and Irish peoples in ways unpredictable both to them and to their educators. Meticulously researched and engaging, American Indians, the Irish, and Government Schooling sets the agenda for a new era of comparative analyses in global indigenous studies.

Excerpt

As an Irishman specializing for over three decades in Native American studies, I have long felt strong “resonances” between Indian and Irish histories. These “problem peoples” experienced centuries-long military and cultural assaults by more powerful expanding states. They suffered massive land loss and demographic collapse through disease, famine, population movement, and emigration. in myriad ways they also demonstrated resilience, adaptability, and manipulative pragmatism. Moreover, for centuries they faced sporadic attempts by missionaries, sometimes state-supported, to wean them from their supposedly uncivilized or disloyal ways. Most significantly—and the subject of the present comparative study—from the early nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries Indians and the Irish peoples confronted systematic, state-controlled, and assimilationist educational campaigns, as the United States strove to Americanize the Indians and the British government to Anglicize the Irish. These campaigns were designed to absorb supposedly deficient peoples into larger, dominant nations, leading not to cultural crossfertilization but to the erasure of minority cultures and identities.

From the early sixteenth century, as white colonists spread onto tribal lands in what would later become the United States of America, Catholic and Protestant missionaries began the formal schooling of Indian children. Missionary societies back in Europe sometimes aided these ventures, and the imperial and colonial governments also saw the usefulness of education for the “civilization,” Christianization, and pacification of Indians.

To achieve an acceptably humane solution to its “Indian problem,” the new United States immediately put its prestige, power, and increasing amounts of its money behind similar but far more ambitious efforts. in 1794 the nation made its first Indian treaty specifically mentioning education, and many more treaties would contain similar offers and even demands for compulsory schooling of tribal children. in 1819 Congress provided a specific “civilization fund” of $10,000 for the “uplift” of Indians, and the assimilationist campaign continued to employ legislation, treaty making (until 1871), and other expedients to achieve its goals. Initially the United States government, through its Office/Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), depended upon Christian mission-

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