New Clear Vision

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Reassessing Assimilation

April 26, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Family, Guest Author

Historical Conversations, Lost and Found

by Lori Walsh

What happens when a child is taken away from her family and thrown into a strange environment where the child does not understand any of the angry words spit out at them by would-be caretakers? What happens to children when they are forbidden to express the one and only part that they truly own, the only thing that connects them to their ancestors – their heritage and a sense of where they belong and who they are? Hundreds of thousands of Native American children were forced to attend Indian [sic] boarding schools where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. As a result Native American cultures have suffered grave harm and in some instances this has led to disappeared languages and extinct ways of life. However, a good people cannot be kept down for long and we are in the midst of decades-long and ever-widening resurgence of indigenous languages and heritage.

Beginning in the 1860s, including during the so-called Progressive Era, and running all the way through the 1960s, Native American children were forcibly taken from their homes and placed in boarding schools.  It started during the so-called American Indian Wars. In an attempt to “civilize” the Native American, children were placed in federally-run boarding schools from the age of six until the reached their teens.  “Kill the Indian . . . save the man” (Pratt)  was the apparent racist philosophy deployed in an attempt that was actually designed to destroy Native American cultures and to have every Native American assimilate into what would become the dominant American society.

The government invented for itself what can only be likened to took a ‘parental’ role over Native Americans. This was also part of the general popular culture and extant political narratives. For example, William Clark and Meriwether Lewis addressed Native Americans as children some 18 times in the letter to Otoe in 1804, stating: “Children . . . the Great Chief of the seventeen great nations of America has become your only father, do these things.” (Benson, 6) It is this insidious rationality of paternalism that guided efforts to reduced Native American children to “wards of the state.” Presumably then all autonomy could be taken away and Native American rights of parenthood completely diminished. Indeed, federal Indian [sic] education and child welfare [sic] programs were principal forces in the government’s systematic attempt to eradicate Native American culture. Disrupting the child-parent relationship and the connectedness of clans severed the modes for the transmission of culture generation-to-generation. In the book Children of the Dragonfly, Robert Benson notes that:

The assimilative aims of education that radically changed Cherokee, Poawatomi and Eastern peoples in the 1840s were advanced to the Plains after the Civil War.  If the country was to expand across the entire continent, agricultural, industrial, and domestic English-speaking laborers were necessary. Civilizing 1/3 of the million Indians was necessary by education. In 1875 the Board of Indian Commissioners recommended the Federal Government provide a universal school system.  At first education was integrated with whites in the public school system, but soon the boarding school movement gained momentum in 1879 in Carlyle, Pennsylvania.  And one new school per year for 24 years opened up across the country.  Attendance of day schools and boarding schools grew from 4,976 in 1881 to 21,568 in 1900.  (Benson, 9)

The government operated as many as 100 boarding schools for Native Americans, both on and off reservations. In an interview with Charla Bear (2008), Tsianina Lomawaima, the Director of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona, explained how coercion and threat of violence was not the only reason families let their children go but armed police sometimes were the ones that were forcibly removed the children.

In the late 1920s, the Secretary of the Interior directed the Brookings Institute to conduct research and survey the economic and social condition of Native Americans. This report, The Problem of Indian Administration(1928) is also known as “The Meriam Report.”  This federal document clearly meant to clarify efforts to civilize [sic] the American Indian [sic] would require systematic assimilation but cautioned against forcing people “to be what they do not want to be”:

The object of work with or for the Indians is to fit them either to merge into the social and economic life of the prevailing civilization as developed by whites or live in the presence of that civilization at least in accordance with a minimum standard health and decency . . . . Some Indians proud of their race and devoted to their culture . . . have no desire to be as the white man . . . the survey staff . . . . would not recommend the disastrous attempt to force . . . . Indians . . . . to be what they do not want to be . . . . Such efforts may break down the good in the old without replacing it with compensating good from the new. (Meriam et al., 1928: 86-87 as quoted in Lomawaima and McCarty 2002: 286-87)

The recommendation to the government in the Meriam Report was to give Native Americans autonomy in their choice of living. The report continues:

The position taken, therefore, is the work with and for the Indian must give consideration to the desires of the individual Indians. He who wishes to merge into the social and economic life of the prevailing civilization of this country should be given all practicable aid and advice in making the necessary adjustments. He who wants to remain an Indian and live according to his old culture should be aided in doing so. (Meriam et al., 1928: 88 as quoted in Lomawaima and McCarty 2002: 288)

Taking away the native language undermined the ability for future generations to hold on to most aspects and qualities of their native culture. Native Americans have tended in the past to transmit culture from generation to generation through oral traditions including origin stories and ceremonial songs. The words convey the tribal legacy of history and knowledge. Disrupting the transmission of linguistic knowledge stripped children of their strongest asset for maintaining an indigenous identity. Native Americans had no written language that we know of until European settlers arrived, and so their histories and laws were recorded and kept alive through rich and complex oral narratives (songs, stories, prayers, etc.), ceremonial practices, and a wide range of symbolic and material handicraft customs including the production of beadwork, carvings, and other artifacts inscribed with social memories of place and tribe.

Given the context of an orally based cultural literacy, native languages were vulnerable to attack and white settler colonizing governments saw that the erosion of linguistic competency would accelerate the rate at which Indians [sic] would freely [sic] choose to assimilate. This occurred in Canada as well: “The importance of language in the replacement of Native American culture ‘cannot be overstated,’ according to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. According to Benson (2001: 48): “The entire residential school project was balanced on the proposition that the gate to assimilation was unlocked only by the progressive destruction of Aboriginal languages…Some of the most horrific punishments were given for speaking tribal language, after all, it is the chief repository of culture and collective memory.”

Indigenous languages once flourished across the Americas.  In North America (not counting Mexico) there were once an estimated 250 distinct indigenous languages (dialects).  Map 1 below lists the nine most important language families. Linguists define a language family as a collection of languages with a common origin that can be further differentiated into different dialects and languages over time. In North American context (excluding Mexico), the principal language families include Algic (Algonquin), Iroquoian, Muskogean, Siouan, Athabaskan, Uto-Aztecan, Salishan and Eskimo-Aleut. In addition, there are many other smaller families, such as Sahaptian, Miwok-Costanoan, Kiowa-Tanoan and Caddoan. Some languages, such as Zuñi, have no known relationship with any other language, and are known The size of the Native American population prior to colonization is a matter of debate, but most scholars agree that it was once at least 20 million. That figure, most likely an underestimate, was reduced to only 2 million (by 1990) after decades of the ravages of disease, war, and displacement with hunger and famine took their toll. The collapse of the Native population has had devastating effects on the survival of languages. Only eight of the 200 or so languages spoken today are used by more than 9,000 persons. The Navajo language (Diné Bizaad), which is part of the Athabaskan family, is spoken by nearly 150,000 Diné. However, many dozens of Native languages today are spoken only by older persons and the threat that the language will die with them is a very real concern:

 Table 1. Native Languages with 9,000 Speakers or More
 Language         Family                Locations                   Number of Speakers
 Navajo           Athabaskan            AZ, NM, UT                     148,530
 Cree             Algic                 MT, Canada                     60,000
 Ojibwa           Algic                 MN, ND, MT, MI,                51,000
 Cherokee         Iroquoian             OK, NC                         22,500
 Dakota           Siouan                NE, ND, SD, MN,                20,000
                                             MT, Canada
 Apache           Athabaskan            NM, AZ, OK                     15,000
 Blackfoot        Algic                 MT, Canada                     10,000
 Choctaw          Muskogean             OK, MS, LA                      9,211
 Source: Indiana University.

Recently, National Public Radio aired a story on boarding schools and the effects of the “education” on Native American cultures.  When children return home from these schools, they could no longer speak their native language and most of their traditions and cultural practices had disappeared.

Native American children were removed from their homes, often by force, and placed in boarding schools off the reservations and usually in different states from where they were taken.  They were forced to wear “white” clothes and shoes and to learn English.  They were never allowed to speak their native language or practice any native customs.

Native Americans’ Testimonials

Critical Native narratives of these experiences are only now getting recognized, and these often involve tales of resistance, of a refusal to acquiesce and assimilate. For example, consider the work of Tom Porter, who attended St. Regis Mohawk School. He recalls:

Mine was always getting hit with the ruler. Mine was always hearing them saying, ‘Don’t talk Mohawk’. And so everything for me was like hardball! That’s why I grew up sort of like a fighter — to defend who I am. Because I was attacked all the time. My language was attacked in school, year after year, and I was punished for it…. I was talking about the 102 year-old lady before. At that time she was raised they were almost devoid of knowledge of the traditions. You might wonder, how could that be that she’s a 102 year-old lady and yet she wouldn’t be able to tell about these things. But it’s because she was not raised traditionally. Hardly anybody was. So these days you can find a fifteen-year-old that can tell you way more than that old lady can tell you about tradition and about history…. I’m going to give my best guess, that about 75 percent, if not more, of my generation were fluent Mohawks and were not fluent in English when I was a little boy. And I bet we were the last ones to get hit on our hands by a ruler, to get our ears pulled, to get our hair pulled because we couldn’t understand English. I’m probably the last generation of all the Iroquois too. Because I think Akwesasne is the one place that has really used the language the most, any of the reservations. (Porter 2008: 27-28)

Tom Porter proudly recalls how his Grandpa Bero was the leader of the runaways of the Carlilse Indian School in Pennsylvania. He led a pack of young people that ran away from that place.  “When he was only 7 or 8 years old, he ran away from Carlyle, in the winter months.” In those days, there were few highways and certainly no Interstate. But, “He made it all the way through the Allegheny Mountains and all the way through the Adirondacks, in the winter, as a seven-, eight-year-old boy. All the way to Akwesasne. That’s over six hundred miles, in dead winter. And he got home. To me he’s a hero, a hero.” (Porter 2008: 31).

Native American children were often rebellious at boarding schools due to their mistreatment. They either ran away or were defiant in other ways and found help and sympathy from other tribes, clans, and parents. This was a very difficult thing to accomplish and local native communities often gave refuge to runaway children. Perhaps we can even call this an ‘underground railroad’ for runaway boarding school children? The historian Brenda Child (1996), relying on National Archives, Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Haskell Indian School, (dated September 8, 1907), offers this compelling narrative pointing to a widespread, concerted, and organized resistance:

Native communities, often sympathetic to the plight of boarding school runaways, were known to shelter Indian children from authorities who tried to arrest and return them to school. The Iowa tribe of northeastern Kansas developed a reputation among school administrators for taking in runaways from Haskell [Boarding School]. In 1908, after authorities had been unable to track down a runaway named Jesse, Superintendent Peairs at Haskell thought Jesse, though from Pine Ridge, was likely to be still in Kansas because “We have had one or two reports from that section of the country that strange Indian boys have been seen in that community. Peairs complained that the Iowa Indians “harbor the Indian boy runaways and do everything to assist them in avoiding arrest.”. . .While some Indian communities gave asylum to runaways, others ignored compulsory attendance laws and simply did not send their children to school, either on or off the reservations. Communities sometimes encouraged children to leave boarding schools they considered inadequate, and others refused to cooperate with officials who tried to apprehend deserters. During the 1920s, the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota was boycotted by people from the Sisseton-Wahpeton Reservation. (Child 1996: no pages in html version; brackets added)

In recent times, most boarding schools have shut down due to funding issues and, most importantly, due to investigations of abusive treatment students experienced while attending the boarding schools.  As boarding schools were shutting down, a new threat loomed in the form of a movement for Indian Child Welfare, which was by the 1960s in full swing. At 1974 Congressional hearings, Senator James Abourezk objected to the “unwarranted removal of children from their homes [which] is common in Indian Communities.” According to data presented to the hearings, 35 percent of Native American children were living with non-Indian families and likely lacked access to their own cultural resources and traditions. The white settler society was apparently now ‘outsourcing’ the forced assimilation of Native children by farming them out to white parents far from their roots (Benson 2001:  13).

From the start of the invasion and colonization of what is now the United States, the Native American has been viewed as the opposite of what a civilized American is thought to be. There is a deep hypocrisy here. When convenient or politically expedient, we grab on to the Native American to define ourselves as completely American by laying claim to their love of nature and freedom as our own, “while justifying the expropriation of Native qualities on the grounds that Native people are endangered, vanishing, or in fact extinct.” In this example, “the essentialized, imagined American Indian…provide[s] a romantic, spiritual, ecological and noble idea for the non-Indian citizenry to look up to, but typically that stereotype has not translated into tolerance for real Native people pursuing sovereign goals.” (Lomowaima and McCarty 2002: 280)

Only a few boarding schools remain open and they are quite different from the racist brainwash mills of the 19th and 20th centuries. One such school is Sherman Indian High School in Riverside California where Native American culture is taught and celebrated and not just Native Americans attend classes there. Navajo student Herzel Martinez gathers with his friends and forms a drum circle. He enjoys the cultural actives taught at Sherman.  “Everyone was wondering what nationality, what race am I,” Martinez said when asked about being at a public school. “I’d tell them and they’re like, ‘Wow, you’re Indian. You’re like the only guy I know who’s Native.’ But here, at Sherman, they know how I feel about being Native. And they understand where we’re all coming from.” (Bear 2008).

Joane Nagel’s (1995) research documents the resurgence of indigenous culture. The ‘ethnic’ renewal among Native American populations has been brought about by three forces according to Nagel: Dramatic changes in Federal Indian policy, the more open and accepted trajectory of American ethnic politics, and Native American political activism. Quoting the work of Vine Deloria, Jr. (1978), Nagel argues that “the civil rights movement of the 1960s along with the shift in the American social and political culture;…President Lyndon Johnson’s solution to the race [problem] in America, the War on Poverty…Civil Rights Legislation of the 1960s…and social movements have fostered change in the Native American Communities.” The most important social movement was the Alcatraz Movement, where Native Americans, from many tribes joined forces to reclaim the Island of Alcatraz. The 19-month take over caught the nation’s attention. The Alcatraz event was a major turning point for many young Native Americans. This movement was the inspiration of many movements to follow.  Native Americans were publicly acknowledged and many felt proud. In years following these movements and the Civil Rights Movement, more American Indians [sic] were labeling themselves as “Native American” in the following Census.

Table 2 below shows the Native American population increased substantially in the 1970 and 1980 following these social movements. In 1960 an increase of 46%; in 1970 an increase of 51% and in 1980 increase of 72% from the following year. This was due to the fact that mixed race Native Americans were identifying themselves as Native Americans. The population did become more urbanized. The urban population has grown three times faster that the rural population.

Table 2. American Indian Population, 1960-1990
 Census Year                                       Population Size                                    Percent Change
 1900                                                237,196                                                  -
 1910                                                276,927                                                 17
 1920                                                244,437                                                -13
 1930                                                343,352                                                 40
 1940                                                345,252                                                   1
 1950                                                357,499                                                   4
 1960                                                523,591                                                 46
 1970                                                792,730                                                 51
 1980                                             1,364,033                                                 72
 1990                                             1,878,285                                                 38
 Source: Nagel (1995)

Table 3 below shows the percentage of households speaking a native language at home. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1980, 74% of Native Americans spoke only English in their homes. By 1990 the percentage increased to 77%. This does vary by region, and suggests that Native American populations from regions with larger populations of Native Americans are more apt to speak a native language than those who live in mostly non-Native American regions.

Table 3.  Selected Characteristics of the American Indian Population, 1960-1990
 Year  Percent           Percent              Children Given            Indian Language 
         Living in        Intermarriedb     Indian Racec                 at Homed
 1960   27.9                15.0                                    na                                    na
 l970    44 .5               33.0                                    na                                    na
 1980    54.6               48.0                                    47.4                                  26.1
 1990    56.2               59.0                                    46.7                                  23.0
 a For 1960 and  1970, Sorkin  0978: 10); for 1980, U.S. Bureau  of the Census  (1989: 150); for  990, U .S. Bureau of the Census (1992).
 b For 1960 and 1970,  Sandefur  and  McKinnell (1986:348);  for 1980,  Snipp  (1989 : l57);  for 1990, Eschbach (1995, table 1).
 c For 1980, Eschbach (l992 :150); for 1990, Eschbach (l995, table  2).
 d For 1980, U .S. Bureau of the Census (1989:203); for 1990, U.S. Bureau of the Census (1992:66).
 na Data not available.
 Source: Nagel (1995)

Native Americans have long relied on the strength and depth of their place-based heritage to reconnect with their ‘ethnic’ roots. The political climate and energy unleashed by the civil rights era included a renewal of Native American struggles to reclaim indigenous heritage and raised consciousness by making long-held grievances more salient to an ignorant public that too often retreated into facile denial. This was done in part through ‘strategic essentialism’ — by communicating an empowered image of “Indianness” that often drew on and subverted the old expectations of a people in harmony with the environment. This was effective because people are capable of recovering their traditions self-government and self-reliance. The era of civil rights movements increased Native Americans participation in the political discourses, protests, and mobilizations of the time, including youth who became involved and took actions directed at the larger causes of marginality and poverty in Federal American Indian law and policy and corporate malfeasance while sustaining and changing politics and the resurgence of the Native American heritage.

As for the brutish and shameful legacy of boarding schools?  They could beat the girl out of the Indian but not the Indian out of the girl, and that’s fortunate for everyone striving for liberty, equality, and solidarity in a diverse multiracial democracy.


Bear, Carla 2008. American Indian Boarding Schools Haunt Many. National Public Radio. Original aired May 12, 2008. Available at:

Benson, Robert 2001. Children of the Dragonfly: Native American Voices of Child Custody and Education. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Campbell, Lyle 2000. American Indian Language: The Historical Linguistics of Native America (Oxford Studies in Anthropological Linguistics, 4). New York: Cambridge. URL for language maps at:

Child, Brenda 1996. Runaway Boys, Resistant Girls: Rebellion at Flandreau and Haskell. 1900-1940. Journal of American Indian Education 35:3 (Spring): no page numbers for Web version at:

Deloria, Vine, Jr. 1978. Legislation and Litigation Concerning American Indians. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 436:88-96

Lomawaima, Tsianina K and Teresa L. McCarty 2002. When Tribal Sovereignty Challenges democracy: American IndianEducation and the Democratic Ideal. American Education Research Journal, Education and Democracy Thematic Issue 39:2:279-305. URL at:

Nagel, Joane  1995. American Indian Ethnic Renewal: Politics and the Resurgence of Identity. American Sociological Review 60:6:947-965.

Porter, Tom 2008. And Grandma Said: Iroquois Teachings as Passed Down through the Oral Tradition. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris

Lori Walsh is a student at the University of Washington. This essay was prepared for a class on Comparative Social Movements: Mexico and the United States (Winter 2013 quarter); it originally appeared on the MexMigration blog (moderated by Devon Peña), and is reprinted here by permission.

0 Comments to “Reassessing Assimilation”

  1. Randall Amster says:

    Thanks to all the students at UW who contributed these essays over the past few weeks! And for more great student writing, don’t forget to check out our Student Spotlight feature on NCV:


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