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.