The Schools That Tried—But Failed—to Make Native Americans Obsolete

“Education was something that was done to us, not something that was provided for us.”

A mural painted on the campus of the Pine Ridge Reservation's Thunder Valley Workforce Development Program (Kristina Barker)

Two centuries ago, Congress passed a law that kicked into high gear the U.S. government’s campaign to assimilate Native Americans to Western culture—to figuratively “kill the Indian,” as one general later put it, and “save the man.”

The Civilization Fund Act of 1819, passed 200 years ago this week, had the purported goal of infusing the country’s indigenous people with “good moral character” and vocational skills. The law tasked Christian missions and the federal government with teaching young indigenous Americans subjects ranging from reading to math, eventually leading to a network of boarding schools designed to carry out this charge. The act was, in effect, an effort to stamp out America’s original cultural identity and replace it with one that Europeans had, not long before, imported to the continent. Over time, countless Native American children were taken from their families and homelands and placed in faraway boarding schools, a process that was often traumatic and degrading.

The Civilization Fund Act stressed that the boarding schools were only to enroll Native students whose families gave their consent. But as the novelist and historian David Treuer notes in his latest book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America From 1890 to the Present, government workers often coerced Native parents through police seizures and threats. Many others surrendered their kids to these institutions simply because they lacked a better alternative—perhaps they were so destitute that the schools, where child labor and malnourishment were rampant, felt like an improvement. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that Congress outlawed the forced removal of Native children from their families. “The full effect of the boarding school system wouldn’t be understood until decades after the agenda of ‘civilizing the savage’ ground down,” writes Treuer, a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe’s Ojibwe band who was raised largely on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

Treuer sees The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee as an antidote to the sort of modern-day writing on indigenous America that he argues relies on pitiful “poverty porn” or romanticized stereotypes of Native Americans. I recently spoke with Treuer about harmful depictions of indigenous people, the legacy of the Civilization Fund Act 200 years later, and 21st-century Native America. An edited and condensed transcript of that conversation follows.

Alia Wong: You write about how Native Americans have often been dismissed as an afterthought in conceptions of the United States’ identity. But you also point to the recent uptick in mainstream attention on and advocacy for their causes, much of which highlights the efforts, over the years, to force assimilation. Against this backdrop, what does it mean to you to be a citizen of the United States—an “American,” if you will—today?

David Treuer: Well, that very question is under assault, and [these debates] are evocative of American Indian history, I think. People tend to read American Indian history as a sideshow to American history; it’s treated, at least in schools today, as a breakout unit that one trots out around Thanksgiving, in November.

But American Indian history is part and parcel of American history: In what became known as America’s first revolutionary act, colonists dressed up as Mohawk Indians and then dumped tea in the Boston Harbor. America has since understood itself as being on the frontier, the advancing edge of global civilization, largely by experimenting and leveraging its unique set of resources. That experiment was conducted in the laboratory of the American landscape, which included us [Native people].

While America has always been engaged in a kind of civil war with itself over the fundamental nature of our country, [this dissonance] is perhaps most clearly seen in relation to the American Indian populations. Are we going to be a country where a person goes to get rich, or are we going to be a country that empowers and emboldens and supports its more vulnerable citizens? What kind of force in the world do we want to be?

Wong: What vestiges of the Civilization Fund Act are still apparent today, and what lessons do you hope the present-day United States takes away from that policy?

Treuer: Education was something that was done to us, not something that was provided for us. And the boarding schools are a great example of that: They were a means by which the government was trying to destroy tribes by destroying families. This is partly why education is such a tricky thing for Native people today. How are you supposed to go to school and learn about Mount Rushmore yet know that each person promoted the killing of Indian people? How are you supposed to say the Pledge of Allegiance to a country that was trying to kill and dispossess you and caused the horrible suffering of your parents and grandparents? How are you supposed to learn in an education system of which your ancestors grew deeply distrustful, and then be told we have to work hard at school to get ahead?

I can speak to this conflict autobiographically. When I was a kid, I remember a teacher on a school trip to the [Minnesota] capitol scowling at a group of Native American activists who were protesting, and saying, “All those Indians are just a drag on welfare; they should just go back to Canada, where they’re from.” I wasn’t the only Indian in class—and that was my high-school teacher.

Things are starting to change, but the changes are long overdue. And those changes trace back to the boarding schools: In many ways the plan succeeded, but in many ways it didn’t, because of various unintended consequences. For example, it took all these Native kids from different tribes who previously knew nothing about, or had been habitual enemies with, each other and put them in schools to suffer together. As a result, when they left school and went back to their homelands to promote the welfare of their individual tribes, they were armed with a network of other like-minded, educated people on whom they could rely. So, in this sense, the policy inadvertently strengthened tribes.

Today the vestiges remain in that many Natives are suffering. But as a Native person, I know that for every kid you find, say, standing in a pile of garbage, there are 20, 30, 50, 100 other kids selling Girl Scout cookies or going to tennis lessons or doing their homework or competing on the math team or getting excited about prom—often while also going to ceremony, for example, and speaking Lakota and engaging in other cultural customs. They’re living their lives—they’re not just exhibiting their pain.

Wong: How are Native youth today living their lives differently than their predecessors in your generation and from the generations subjected to the boarding schools?

Treuer: When I was in college, Princeton was in the process of hiring someone to teach American Indian studies and was debating what role that academic would have. I remember a faculty member turned to me and said, “You can either be a university professor or a medicine man—you can’t be both.” I remember being so upset, thinking, Who in the hell do you think you are to tell me what is possible? But he was expressing a long-held belief that you could be Indian or you could be American, that you could be Indian—which is to say the past—or you could be modern, which meant educated. And as much as I rejected this professor’s comment, it was an uneasy rejection.

Now I look at today’s kids—I look at my own children, other people’s children—and there doesn’t seem to be any tension in being Native and being modern. To them, being Native is not merely or only to be of the past, or to suffer, or to be a victim, or to be less than ideal Americans. They’re happily modern and Native at the same time; they happily switch between things like Fortnite and [tribal] ceremony and don’t see any contradiction between the two. Native kids today are way smarter and better off than I was.