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Native Pathways to Education
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Indigenous Education Worldwide


Scanned-Digitized Version
Thomas (Tom) R. Hopkins

Original Citation
Meriam, Lewis. THE PROBLEM OF INDIAN ADMINISTRATION. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1928, 872 pp.


Education and the Indian Problem as a Whole. That the whole Indian problem is essentially an educational one has repeatedly been stated by those who have dealt with Indian affairs. Commissioner Burke says in his foreword to " The Red Man in the United States ":

Practically all our work for the civilization of the Indian has become educational: Teaching the language he must of necessity adopt, the academic knowledge essential to ordinary business transactions, the common arts and crafts of the home and the field, how to provide a settled dwelling and elevate its domestic quality, how to get well when he is sick and how to stay well, how to make the best use of his land and the water accessible to it, how to raise the right kind of live-stock, how to work for a living, save money and start a bank account, how to want something he can call his own, a material possession with the happiness and comforts of family life and a pride in the prosperity of his children.

Similarly, Mr. Malcolm McDowell, secretary of the Board of Indian Commissioners, points out in his statement, issued following the conference of Secretary Work's Committee of One Hundred, that the program for the Indian centers on " the training of all Indians for the best type of American citizenship, looking to their absorption into the general citizenship of the Nation " essentially an educational policy.

Importance of Home and Family Life. Just what pronounce- ments like these should mean in actual practice has never, however, been clearly defined. None of the statements usually made, for example, takes into consideration home and family life as an essential part of the process of educating the Indian, yet this, as has already been suggested; is fundamental. "However important may be the contribution of the schools," says Dean James E. Russell, " the atmosphere and conditions of the home are, especially in the early days of the child's life, the primary determinant in the development of the child, and, since it is the parents who determine these conditions and create that atmosphere, it is they who are of necessity the most important educational factors in the lives of their children." A recent statement adopted by representatives of many nations places education for family and community as a first requisite in any educational program.

More Than Mere Schooling Necessary. The Indian educational program cannot simply take over the traditional type of school; it must set up its own objectives, finding out in general and for each reservation or tribal group the things that need to be done. It cannot too positively be stated that mere schooling, of the unrelated academic type, is not the educational answer to the Indian problem. The Indian Office has recognized this principle in part in its efforts to set up a school industrial program. As tools the three R's still have a place for the Indian, as for others, but they should by no means be the main objective, and, moreover, they cannot be taught to Indian children in the usual conventional way. Confusion on this point in the leadership of Indian education has led to an unjustifiable insistence by Indian school staffs upon learning English as the main objective of the elementary school. Even in the acquisition of this language tool, the older methods are relatively ineffective with Indians. Of what use is a classroom drill and technique with children, some of whom may never have spoken a word in school because of shyness? In such cases what the teacher has to deal with is a home and family condition far more important than any mere skill in speech.

Adults in the Education Program. No matter how much may be done in schools, or how much the educational program may center about the school, as it very well may, a genuine educational program will have to comprise the adults of the community as well as the children. Several of the superintendents have realized this keenly, and have started adult education campaigns of one sort or another that are deservedly praised in various parts of this report. Such a community program must include, as Commissioner Burke says, teaching how to farm; it must include a thorough campaign to eliminate illiteracy; it must teach interdependence and reliance upon their own efforts to a people who have been largely miseducated in this direction for several generations. It must put health and morals ahead of external attainments. Even the business side of the Indian enterprise has to be predominantly educational. Merely conserving the Indian's property and funds will not suffice. Every transaction with an Indian should be viewed not as a mere item in the daily routine of business, but as to its effect in putting the Indian on his feet. Some of the best of the superintendents act upon this principle, utilizing money advances, for example, to inculcate lessons in financial management and gradually extending responsibility with demonstrated ability to assume it, as with the Osages. The Osage situation also illustrates, however, the lack of a real social and educational approach in Indian affairs. The agency building at Pawhuska is itself symbolic of the way the task has been viewed. The first floor is like a beautiful city bank, and upstairs are the well-appointed meeting rooms for councils, directors, and the like. Down in the basement, occupying a corner in one small office, is the day school inspector, representing the only approach there is to a real social and educational program in a place which needs such a program—school, health, welfare, recreation—above everything else.

Civic Education Through Directed Experiences. It will take courage as well as skill to do some of the things that belong in a comprehensive educational program—such as, for example, helping the Indian to understand that many of the privileges for which he now asks, many of the unwise governmental promises he insists upon having kept, are in reality bad for him and for his own sake should not be granted. Instead of tolerating the Indian's dislike of paying taxes, for example, those in charge of Indian affairs will have to help the Indian to see that taxpaying is an essential part of the duty of citizenship, desirable and necessary if he is to be eventually freed from a system that will otherwise hold him permanently in the " irresponsibility of childhood." Such a change in point of view cannot be imposed upon Indians from above; it cannot be taught by doing things for Indians. The Indian will have to learn it, as others have, through actual experiences; and it is the business of education to furnish and direct these experiences.

Education and Other Indian "Business." If the whole Indian problem is to be regarded as educational there will have to be radical changes in personnel, as has already been intimated. The so-called " farmers," for example, many of whom are in reality poorly paid sub-agents and clerks, will have to become real agricultural teachers, with qualifications and compensation similar to those white communities demand when they employ farm demonstration agents. The whole situation will have to be viewed as an educational rather than a clerical or administrative one, and superintendents will have to be appointed on this basis. Everything in the Indian life and surroundings will have to tie into the educational program in a manner now seldom observed. At present it is not at all unusual to see the schools teaching one thing and the school plant and agency exemplifying something else. This is especially true in health teaching, where a conscientious teacher will be found instructing her children in the necessities of a good simple diet, and the school dining room will be violating most of the principles laid down, serving coffee and tea instead of milk and seldom furnishing the vegetables and fruits called for in the sample menus the children have learned in the classroom.

Undesirable Effects of Routinization. The whole machinery of routinized boarding school and agency life works against the kind of initiative and independence, the development of which should be the chief concern of Indian education in and out of school. What all wish for is Indians who can take their place as independent citizens. The routinization characteristic of the boarding schools, with everything scheduled, no time left to be used at one's own initiative, every movement determined by a signal or an order, leads just the other way. It symbolizes a manner of treating Indians which will have to be abandoned if Indians, children and adults alike, are ever to become self-reliant members of the American community.

Can the Indian be "Educated"? It is necessary at this point to consider one question that is always raised in connection with an educational program for Indians: Is it really worth while to do. anything for Indians, or are they an "inferior" race? Can the Indian be "educated"?

The question as usually asked implies, it should be noted, the restricted notion of education as mere formal schooling against which caution has already been pronounced; but whether schooling of the intellectual type is meant or education in the broader sense of desirable individual and social changes, the answer can be given unequivocally: The Indian is essentially capable of education.

Evidence of Intelligence Tests. Like members of other races, the Indian has recently been subjected to intelligence tests. Without entering into the objections sometimes raised to these attempts to measure inherent ability, it may be said at once that the record made by the Indian children in the tests, while usually lower on the average than that of white children, has never been low enough to justify any concern as to whether they can be " educated," even in the sense of ordinary abstract schooling. T. R. Garth, of the University of Denver, who is generally credited with having done more than any one else in the study of racial psychology of Indians, found in a study of over a thousand full-blood children of the southwestern and plains tribes that the ratio between the Indian mental age and that of the whites was 100 to 114, or that the whites were 14 per cent better than the Indians. Miss Goodenough, who tested California Indians with a drawing test intended to be less linguistic than the ordinary group test, reports a median score of 85.6 for Indians, as compared with 100.3 for American born whites, a score for Indians that is higher than that for Negroes, about the same for Spanish-Mexican children, and somewhat lower than for European, Japanese, and Chinese children, but obviously not below a workable point for even schooling of the conventional sort. Furthermore, Garth calls attention to the fact that there is a constant tendency for " I. Q.'s " as found to increase with education, and he concludes that " because of differences in social status and temperament " even the differences in intelligence quotients probably lose much of their significance.

Experience of Teachers and Others. The experience of teachers in the public schools having Indian children is almost exactly what one would expect from these experimental data. It shows clearly the ability of Indian children to do school work. Indian children, in both government and public schools, are usually abnormally old for their grade, but statistics collected during the present investigation show that this over-ageness is almost wholly a matter of late starting to school, combined with the half-time plan in use in government boarding schools. By far the great majority of public school teachers who have Indian children in their classes say that there is no essential difference in ability; that on the whole they get along satisfactorily and do the work. Once language handicaps, social status, and attendance difficulties are overcome, ability differences that seemed more or less real tend to disappear. Interviews with the teachers of the eighty-eight Osage children in the schools of Fairfax, Oklahoma (about one-tenth the total number of pupils in the school system), indicated that these children were doing just about the normal work that would be expected of white children. Fifty-six of the eighty-eight are full- bloods. The boy ranking second in scholarship in the senior high school in this community last year was a full-blood Osage. Graduates of the American Indian Institute, Wichita, Kansas, representing fifteen different tribes, a majority of them full-bloods, have in the past four years done successful work in higher institutions of learning in eight states. Among the nearly two hundred Indian students of varying degree of blood at the University of Oklahoma are students of every possible scholarship rank, including at least one member of Phi Beta Kappa, the honorary scholarship fraternity. Few people who have handled Indian children in public schools, who have observed their remarkable talents in the arts, who have worked with university students of Indian blood, or who have sat in Indian councils, have any doubts as to the inherent ability, mental and otherwise, of the Indian people.

Indian "Psychology." Differences in psychology there may be; but the resemblances are more striking than the differences. Garth quotes a chief of the Cheyennes and Sioux as saying:

There are birds of many colors—red, blue, green, yellow— yet all one bird. There are horses of many colors—brown, black, yellow, white—yet all one horse. So cattle; so all living things—animals, flowers, trees. So men, in this land where once were only Indians are now men of every color—white, black, yellow, red—yet all one people.

Much more important for the educational problem than the evidence of so-called intelligence tests is evidence as to the adaptability of the Indian for learning in the broader sense, for making those changes in individual, family, and community life that are necessary if the Indian is to maintain himself and progress as he should. Is the Indian capable of change in this sense? Can he take on new ways where necessary? While there is not the same type of experimental evidence available on this point that there is with regard to ability to do school work, there are at least strong indications that the Indian is indeed adaptable; that if anything the Indian is probably more adaptable, more docile, than is good for him. The submissiveness of Indian children to boarding school routine, the patience of Indians under difficult conditions, their willingness to surrender, at times, their most cherished cultural heritage, suggest that, without inquiring too deeply into the racial historical cause of it, the Indian of today is more than ordinarily susceptible to the changes the white man offers him under the label of education. This is simply another way of emphasizing, of course, the responsibility of those in charge of educating the Indian. Whether certain Indian characteristics of today are racial or merely the natural result of experiences—and the probabilities are strongly in favor of the latter assumption—it is the task of education to help the Indian, not by assuming that he is fundamentally different, but that he is a human being very much like the rest of us, with a cultural background quite worth while for its own sake and as a basis for changes needed in adjusting to modern life. Moreover, it is essential for those in charge of education for the Indian to remember that the Indian's attitudes towards society have been determined largely by his experiences, and that these can, wherever necessary, be changed to desirable social attitudes by exposing him to a corresponding set of right experiences in the relationships of home, family, and community life. A normal human attitude toward the Indian boy and girl in school and toward Indian parents as human beings not essentially different from the rest of us, is justified by the evidence and is indispensable for teachers and others who direct Indian education.

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Last modified April 24, 2008