Native American Education and Boarding Schools
What are the different forms of education Native Americans have experienced, and what has been the purpose in each case?
Past, Present, and Future: Native American Education
In the 1800s, boarding schools were just being started. The dominant Americans thought boarding schools were helping the Native Americans adapt to the white man’s way of life. Prior to boarding schools, Native Americans were taught their traditional and cultural ways. Some of these methods include gender roles, language, ceremony and dress codes. Unfortunately, many of the ways were lost after the boarding school era. The Natives didn’t fit in at home or in the American way of life. As a result, today’s Native American education focuses on retrieving their lost cultural ways.
A 6 minute video produced in 2014 interviewing Dr. Rudi Mitchell, Omaha Tribe elder and former professor of Native American studies at Creighton University. Mother went to Genoa Boarding School and he shares her experience. Much of the Omaha language was lost because of the boarding schools and in 2014, when this video was made, he was one of only 22 Omaha language speakers. Also interview with Tami Maldonado, director of the OPS N.I.C.E program.
Native American Education Today
Today’s education for Native Americans has been easier, but there are difficulties too. For urban Natives, there are programs to help them stay in high school, get scholarships, and go to college. For example, in Omaha, the program here is called the Native Indian Centered Education (N.I.C.E. program).
On the reservation, it is completely different. Native students learn their traditions and general education as well. Reservation schools also have programs so students can get scholarships.
Some urban Natives face problems outside of school. One of the problems sometimes faced is getting in with the wrong crowd. A big problem reservation schools have is that students can go to school as much or as little as they want. If a student misses half a year, they have to repeat that grade.
The thing that both urban and reservation Natives have is education. The fact that they are getting help with their education is what is most important. In the future, they will be well-educated and have amazing careers.
(Photo: N.I.C.E Students at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, learning the art of film making to preserve their own oral tradition.)
Imagine being taken from home and sent off to a new life where you have to learn a new language, wear new clothes, and be a part of a new culture. This is how it was in 1884 when Native Americans were forced out of their homes and sent to boarding schools.
A specific boarding school was Genoa U.S. Indian School in Genoa, Nebraska. It was the fourth federal Indian boarding school in the U.S. in 1884. It was in operation until 1934 and hosted 46 different tribal nations. Genoa took kids from 10 different states across the U.S. The school enrolled 599 students in the year 1932. When the kids arrived at school, their hair was cut, they couldn’t speak their own language, and officials took their traditional native dress code and forced them to wear more American-type clothes. In each class, the age ranged from 4 years old to 21 years. Boys were taught blacksmithing, harness making, and shoe repairing. The girls were taught cooking, nursing, and sewing. Other activities were boys and girls basketball, football, track, and baseball.
Genoa U.S. Indian school was another way that the dominant American culture tried to strip away Native American traditions and way of life. The U.S. thought that it was helping the Native Americans by adapting them to U.S. culture, but in actuality, many Natives believed their rights and traditions had been taken away.
Before European settlers forced Native Americans into boarding schools, they had their own education system. Their education system revolved around traditions. These traditions were passed down in the form of oral storytelling. They learned their place in the tribe.
When a girl got her first period, she would go with the older women in her family, and they would teach her the ways of womanhood. She learned how to cook, clean, and raise a family. The girl’s family would create a beaded ball for her. She would then throw the ball over her shoulder as a part of the tradition. This ceremony is still used today.
The boys learned to hunt and clean out animals from older male tribal members. It was important for the boys to learn how to use every part of the buffalo. They also learned how to protect their tribe, build earth lodges and teepees, and how to plant and harvest crops.
Their education system was important to their culture. It revolved around land, family and resources. Their ceremonies and traditions were also very important to them.
(Photo: These artifacts are used in Native American traditions and ceremonies.)
Native American Education through a Western lens has been an ongoing struggle. United States government officials worked to “Americanize” Native Americans during the late 19th century. Anchored by Western-style boarding schools, this system sought to improve the “uncivilized” Native Americans in a way similar to Progressive settlement houses that worked to Americanize new European immigrants. Indian Industrial Schools like those in Carlisle, Pennsylvania and Genoa, Nebraska forced its Indigenous students to give up their cultural traditions and adapt to Western ways including hair style, dress, and language.
Having endured a heinous induction to Western education, early boarders found themselves in an identity crisis as many could not relate to the traditional ways of their people nor could they adapt and thrive in white society. As a result, the Sacred Hoop--as many Native Americans refer to as their way of life--was broken and left for future generations to repair.
Like most boarding schools, the Genoa Indian School was eventually closed. Many students then attended local reservation boarding and non-boarding schools. Today, the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) mandated schools on Indian reservations emphasize cultural and linguistic revitalization and urban Native American support services coexist with public school systems to offer off-reservation Native American students access to cultural enrichment and awareness.
2014 MIHV Project
"What I got from this program is information that I feel I can pass on to future generations. One thing I liked about this program is my group teachers and coworkers. The teachers helped me a lot with the things I needed to get done and I enjoyed getting to know the two students in my group. I also liked the field trips. It was fun to go to some places I never been and understand the places I have been."
"I learned Native American culture has special traditions just like I do. My favorite part that I learned is when the girls have a ball ceremony when they come to a certain age."
"I met new people and learned that my great-grandmother went to the Genoa boarding school. I changed by learning how my great-grandma was treated in the boarding school. I'm native so, I already knew 90% of the information except the Genoa project. I enjoyed this program. I had a whole bunch of fun!!!!!!!!!"
Jacobs, Margaret D. White Mother to a Dark Race. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
Trennert, Jr., Robert A. “Selling Indian Education at World's Fairs and Expositions, 1893-1904.” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 11 No. 3 (Summer 1987): 203-220.
Research by Melina H., Sierra M., and Arlin W.
Special thanks to: Genoa Indian Boarding School, Rudi Mitchell, and Tami Maldonado for assisting us with our research.