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From the time Whites first began to live among North American Indians, they sought to change those cultures. Their goal was to make the Indians "civilized" or give up their own ways and adopt White culture. Along with Christian religion, schools and education were seen as integral to the process of transforming Indian people.

Christian missionaries were often eager to have Indians adopt White culture because they believed that this was a necessary prerequisite for becoming Christian. Because of this, Roman Catholic and Protestant missions from the 1600s to the late 1800s founded schools on or near Indian lands to teach European languages, reading, and writing. Following the creation of the United States, the federal government worked with Protestant missions to further the goal of breaking down Indian cultures.

 

Nineteenth Century Indian Education

The federal government took its first steps to support Indian education by providing funds to religious missions so they could set up schools. The United States government gave sporadic support to mission schools from the American Revolution onward. The Congress took a more definite step in 1819 when it appropriated $10,000 for the "Civilization Fund," which was used to provide funds for Indian mission schools. President Ulysses S. Grant took this policy further in 1869 when he initiated his famous Peace Policy. Under this policy, the federal government entrusted the education and "civilization" of entire tribes to various religious denominations.

The Peace Policy ended in failure in 1882 as Protestant denominations failed to make significant headway in "civilizing" the Indians or solving what Whites saw as America's "Indian Problem." While many Indian people saw the benefit of aspects of White education, they resisted giving up their own languages and cultures and replacing them with English and White ways of life. Even before the program ended, the federal government began to explore new ways to achieve its goals. In the 1870s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and White reformers came up with the idea of creating boarding schools for Indian youth. These schools were funded and operated by the federal government and stressed agricultural and mechanical education for boys and household skills for girls. Many of the reformers believed that these schools could succeed only if Indian children lived at the schools year round. They felt that Indian children could more effectively be "civilized," or indoctrinated, by removing them from the influences of their families and tribes. The children were often purposely sent to schools hundreds of miles away from their homes in order to make it difficult for them to escape and return home on foot.

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The Boarding School Model

The first and most important of these boarding schools was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Richard Henry Pratt, a former army officer, established the Carlisle School and brought many children from western tribes there as students. Pratt believed that Indian children had to be immersed in White culture, forced to speak English, made to wear American clothing, and isolated from tribal or familial influences. Pratt wanted to see his system used as a foundation for establishing other boarding schools, but the federal government was reluctant to spend more money on these expensive institutions. Moreover, many of the Indian students who graduated from Carlisle returned to their tribes and took back their tribal languages, practiced tribal cultures, and lived as members of their own tribal communities.

Other White reformers believed that day schools on the reservations were more effective and less expensive, since Indian children only attended school during the day and went home to their parents at night. Pratt fought vehemently against this idea because he believed that for Indian education to be successful, children had to removed from their families and tribes. In the 1880s, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to focus more of its efforts on reservation day-schools. However, the boarding school method did not die out. Instead, it was integrated into the Indian education system established by the federal government which included reservation day-schools, schools run by religious missions (often funded by the federal government), boarding schools on Indian reservations, and off-reservation boarding schools such as Carlisle. While these schools functioned differently, they all had the same goal: to strip Indian children of their languages, cultures, and tribal identities.

Boarding schools both on and off reservations were most aggressive in this regard since they took Indian children away from their families and tribes and immersed them in White culture. In many cases, children as young as six years old were taken from their parents and did not see them again until they were teenagers. Parents could visit their children, but boarding schools were often far from reservation homes, and many parents could only make the trip once or twice a year. Many Wisconsin Indian children attended off-reservation boarding schools such as the Carlisle School and the Hampton Institute in Hampton, Virginia, while others went to religious boarding schools such as the Morris Indian School in Morris, Minnesota, which was run by Roman Catholic nuns.

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Wisconsin Indian Boarding Schools

Reservation boarding schools were also established in Wisconsin, the most important of which was the Tomah Indian Industrial School in Tomah. The federal government began building the school in 1891 on a two-hundred acre tract. The school opened in 1893 with a total of six students, all of them Ho-chunk. Other Wisconsin tribes had students enrolled there as well, but the Ho-chunk always provided the most students because of the school's proximity to their settlements. Like most boarding schools, the curriculum stressed industrial training for boys and household skills for girls. Later the Tomah Indian Industrial School initiated an experimental farming operation to teach agricultural skills as well. The school also taught reading, mathematics, music, athletics, and military training. Religious training in Christianity was also required.

The government also established a reservation boarding school on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe Reservation and on the Oneida Reservation. Roman Catholic boarding schools on the Menominee Reservation at Keshena and the Bad River Ojibwe Reservation at Odanah were funded in part by the federal government. While boarding schools were important, many Indian students in Wisconsin and other states attended government-run day schools. While the federal government operated or funded five boarding schools in Wisconsin, it operated twelve day schools. In part, this was due to cost: boarding schools cost four to five times more to run than day schools. Cost-conscious officials in Washington D.C. hoped that less expensive day-schools would accomplish the same goals as boarding schools in educating and assimilating Indian children.

Administrators who ran the schools did everything in their power to deny Indian children access to their cultures. One Ojibwe man who attended the government boarding school on the Lac du Flambeau Reservation noted many years later that he was taken away from his family at age six without his parents' consent. Once he and other Indian children arrived at the school, White administrators "cut our long hair short, made us all wear little black uniforms, speak a completely different language, [and] sleep with other kids on high bunk beds." After several years at the boarding school, many children returned to relatives they barely knew. Often, they could no longer speak their tribal languages and had forgotten many tribal customs. The Ojibwe man at the Lac du Flambeau school noted that he never spoke the Ojibwe language very much after that since "most of it was taken away in that so-called government school."

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More Tribal Control of Education

In the end, government-run or government-funded boarding schools and day schools failed to to destroy Indian culture, but the federal government and the schools did succeed in undercutting the cultural foundations of several generations of Indian people. Government-run boarding schools and day schools are now a thing of the past and, in the last thirty years, Wisconsin Indian tribes have done much to undo the damage done to their cultures by this type of schooling. Tribes have been able to do this in large part because the passage of the 1972 Indian Education Act acknowledged tribes control over their educational systems within the guidelines set by the federal government for all schools in the United States.

Tribes gained control over their schools as well as a degree of control over federal funds for education. This change has brought about the creation of Indian schools run by the tribes. Indian schools now teach Indian children about their languages and cultures, which is a dramatic change from earlier government policies. In 1976, the Menominee used these new powers and funds to create their own school district. By 1993, the Menominee had also established the Menominee Indian Tribal College on their reservation. Other tribes in Wisconsin have also taken control of their own school systems.

While the government and religious schools aggressively sought to wipe out Indian culture, their attempts generally met with failure: Indian students in the schools refused to completely assimilate into White society. Indian people and their societies have remained resilient in retaining their cultures and in shaping the generations to come.

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