A Legacy of Assimilation?

“Kill the Indian to save the man.”

This quote from Richard Henry Pratt explains the core educational philosophy of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, a boarding school founded by Pratt in 1879. Youth from various reservations throughout the country were forced to attend the school in an attempt at Native American assimilation. The school punished children for speaking in their native languages and taught students industrial skills that would ideally allow them to integrate into white society. [1]  While contemporary reservation schools do not share the assimilationist philosophy employed at Carlisle and other boarding schools, the quality of Native American education is still a major concern. In The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie explores the challenges faced by youth living on reservations today, as a result of unequal educational opportunities and racist assumptions.

Alexie’s semi-biographical book is a first-hand perspective of a young Spokane Indian named Arnold Spirit, Jr. The book revolves around Arnold’s decision to attend a high school outside the Spokane reservation to receive a better education. Arnold learns to adapt to the new environment despite the racial prejudice of his peers and teachers at Reardan High School and the animosity he receives from members of his reservation who felt he had abandoned the tribe “to become white.” The book provides an important view of the frequent disparity between the education and living conditions of people living on reservations and the white residents of nearby towns. The book also provides a framework for comparing the assimilation philosophy of the boarding school period and the contemporary experience of students growing up on reservations.

In the beginning of the book, Arnold is content with the education he has received on the Spokane reservation. However, on his first day of high school he finds his mother’s name on the inside cover of his textbook and is hit with the realization that she also once had a future, but was unable to escape life in the reservation. In anger, Arnold throws the book back at his teacher, Mr. P. Arnold is later confronted by Mr. P, and expects to be punished for his outburst. Instead Mr. P tells Arnold about the teaching philosophy employed at the beginning of his career on the reservation. Mr. P had participated in the physical punishment of students in an attempt to “kill the Indian and save the child.” Mr. P explains that this method of assimilation ultimately failed, and continues to tell Arnold that the reservation school cannot provide him the education he deserves as a bright young student.  [2]  At his teacher’s advice, Arnold enrolls at Reardan in pursuit of a better education and future. The rest of the book portrays the racist assumptions and privileges of Arnold’s white peers, as well as the challenge Arnold faces in his decision to reject the education provided to him on the reservation. Arnold eventually adapts and becomes successful at Reardan, but realizes that his rise above reservation life does not address the white racism still received by other members of the reservation.

Much like the students of the Carlisle school, Arnold was expected to adapt to white culture in order to become successful. Contemporary education rejects the assimilation philosophy and practices favored by boarding schools like Carlisle, but there is still inequality between the quality of education in reservation schools and those off the reservation. In this way, I think our educational system still perpetuates the view that adapting to the mainstream culture allows greater success than can be achieved on a reservation.


[1]  http://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/palitmap/CarlisleIndianSchool.html

[2] Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, 25-36.

17 thoughts on “A Legacy of Assimilation?

    1. 49 percent of Native students graduate high school? That was an eye-opening opinion piece, Michelle. What struck me in Alexie’s book was his initial description of reservation teachers through Mr. P: lazy and washed up white people. According to the writer here, Teach for America is increasing the push for better teachers, and therefore making better education. The thought returns, however, about how these young people will teach. Reservation schoolmasters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as Keith describes, were responsible for eliminating pieces of tribal culture in the classroom. How are volunteer teachers today bettering education while maintaining a distinct Indian identity?

      1. It’s also interesting to note the inherent distrust Alexie describes in the reservation school teachers. The Native American students were aware that the teacher was giving them an inferior education. It’s possible they understood their Native identity was openly being eliminated by the people set up to “better their future” as well.

    2. This is indeed an eye-opening article, as Patrick has put it. I think that one of the points both Keith and the article raise is the idea that the people who teach in these schools are white. While I certainly do not feel that people outside of a community cannot do good work, especially when well trained, I do think that one of the important points the author of the article makes is that she is empowering others within the Native American community to help each other. I think this can often be an issue with programs like Teach for America in general, where the participants are well meaning, but there may be a disconnect in experience.

      1. I agree, Britney. It’s encouraging to see that the Native Alliance Initiative also focuses on recruiting those of American Indian descent. So many civic organizations like Teach for American and AmeriCorps still perpetuate the idea of the “white savior” to some extent, though their memberships are becoming increasingly more diverse. I read this article (http://pippabiddle.com/2014/02/18/the-problem-with-little-white-girls-and-boys/) earlier in the year and it really made me rethink the roles of race and class when helping others.

    3. Thank you Michelle and Emily for the articles. I think they both provide interesting context for this topic. It is especially interesting to think about how the “white savior” complex can prevent even well-intentioned individuals from providing effective aid.

  1. Keith, I would say that schools do force us into mainstream culture. Even the clothes we wear are regulated. At the boarding schools you mentioned, students had to wear traditional clothing and haircuts. These Victorian styles were supposed to show how “civilized” their Native students had become. My school added anything to the dress code that they deemed too distracting to the educational experience in the classroom. This ran from the expected required length for shorts/skirts to any color hair that was not a “natural” color. There was a girl in my class who was asked by the principal to remove large clip-in hair extensions because they were “blocking visibility.” While she was not black, her hairstyle was exceedingly close to an afro. So in many ways, I think our school systems are oriented towards the larger, white, mainstream culture.

    1. Emily, I can remember going to school in what amounted to a minimum security prison. It wasn’t that we were in a particularly dangerous area, or had a lot of gangs, or anything of the sort. There were occasional fights and arguments in the hallways, but the school’s response was to crack down on dress codes, gate off the hallways so you couldn’t move around, and hire a former bar bouncer to patrol the school.

      I bring this up because I think it’s interesting how even today there is a tendency towards control and limitations, rather than creativity and learning, in many of today’s schools. This is a disastrous model in any area, from the middle class suburbs where I went to high school to the low income, inner city areas.

    2. The flip side of clothing regulations and even uniforms is that it is supposed to allow students to focus on learning and removes status markers in clothing. Although I understand the rationale behind these clothing restrictions, I do not think that clothing restrictions are successful in levelling the playing field for students. School regulations go beyond clothing to other forms of expression. High school is a key time for students to construct and discover their identities; mainstreaming expression in schools constitutes a significant barrier to this identity development.

  2. “Arnold eventually adapts and becomes successful at Reardan, but realizes that his rise above reservation life does not address the white racism still received by other members of the reservation.” And it also comes at the price of being almost excommunicated from his tribal community (thinking of the brawl that ensued at his basketball game). Arnold is treated as a sell-out by his own community, making his balance within the educational realm difficult to maneuver.

  3. Keith, thank you for the history on the Carlisle school and its philosophy. You bring up some good points. I think the quality of education can tie into funding that these schools receive. It is likely that reservation schools receive much less funding for their schools than mainstream schools, which brings the quality of education down. Potential problems with that is reservation schools cannot afford textbooks, after school activities, resources, etc., which then turns into a low success rate for students. This is not only seen in reservation schools, but also schools in poor rural and urban areas. The idea that mainstream schools are better can be due to the resources they have.

    1. This brings up all kinds of class issues. Why are we more willing to give money to schools that are already doing well? Why don’t we support schools that need help? Why do we take resources away from schools that are struggling when we know that doesn’t help? I get so frustrated with our education system and this is just one example of why.

      1. I don’t believe that our education problem will be fixed by throwing money at schools. I went to a poor Catholic school filled with students from working class families. Our tuition was $500 a year per family. Our teachers made probably $7000-$10000 a year with benefits. At the same time, I was given an education that far exceeded that local public school that spent close to $11000 per elementary school student. Are money and resources a problem for many underperforming schools? Definitely. Is more money the magic bullet to save our education system? No. I think the bigger issue is that while every US child has the right to an education, they do not have the right to a quality education free from oppressive stereotypes and expectations.

      2. I think the issue here, is that we reward schools more money and other resources, if they get high enough test scores on state tests consistently and therefore will do anything to keep these schools successful over others who are struggling.

  4. I wonder if there are ways to keep Native languages and traditions alive in reservation schools and still get a good education that is comparable to “white” schools. I have to think there are. It wouldn’t hurt if students in “white” schools had a more thorough education in Native American culture and history as well.

    1. It is absolutely is possible for schools to teach traditions and still be of a high quality. Note thezestyhistorian’s comment above. She went to a high-quality Catholic school. Catholic schools don’t just teach regular subjects; they teach Catholic traditions. Indians could have schools that do the same thing, and also teach the native language. This would produce well-educated, bilingual students who are knowledgeable in their own traditions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s