American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930

American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930

American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930

American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930

Excerpt

When I first read Francis La Flesche The Middle Five (1900), the account of an Omaha Indian's experiences at a Presbyterian boarding school in the 1860s, I was twice surprised. My first surprise was to discover that La Flesche remembered enjoying much of his schooling, although he himself depicted the sometimes harsh discipline imposed by the teachers. The second surprise sprang from recognition. La Flesche's memories closely coincided with the reports which these same teachers had written decades earlier while he was still a pupil at the school.

Presbyterian and other Protestant missionaries, along with officials and teachers at United States Government Indian schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, believed that tribal peoples allowed their children to run wild. Only Christian control, combined with a "civilized" curriculum, would mold the little "heathens" into future citizens of the United States. At Indian schools, the religious and secular educators rigidly divided each day into periods for eating, class work, and physical labor; even play could be indulged in only for a precise number of minutes between other planned activities. Positive and negative incentives varied from school to school and from teacher to teacher. But pupils could be subjected to corporal and other kinds of punishment and occasionally to outright brutality.

Francis La Flesche did not romanticize the Presbyterian mission school. His first day was close to traumatic; later he was often bored by monotonous instruction and religious sermons, and the assault by an outraged teacher on a dull student deeply embittered him. Yet the school introduced him to intense boyhood friendships, and offered him a chance to acquire the skills and knowledge of the powerful American nation. Thus he gained personal satisfaction while simultaneously pleasing his adaptation-minded father. A gifted student who later worked for the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, La Flesche overcame his difficulties at the school. He thrilled to the intellectual challenge as he advanced in the knowledge of English, American history, and mathematics.

Though impressed by the man, I was disappointed in La Flesche the pupil. He should have resisted the missionary contempt for Omaha culture characteristic of these decades of assimilationist education, when . . .

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