Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
September 2004

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Education of Indians



[This text was originally published in 1907 by the Bureau of American Ethnology as part of its Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico . It was later reproduced, in 1913, by the Geographic Board of Canada. The work done by the American Bureau was monumental, well informed and incorporated the most advanced scholarship available at the time. In many respects, the information is still useful today, although prudence should be exercised and the reader should consult some of the contemporary texts on the history and the anthropology of the North American Indians suggested in the bibliographic introduction to this section. The articles were not completely devoid of the paternalism and the prejudices prevalent at the time. While some of the terminology used would not pass the test of our "politically correct" era, most terms have been left unchanged by the editor. If a change in the original text has been effected it will be found between brackets [.] The original work contained long bibliographies that have not been reproduced for this web edition. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


[The article reproduced below is especially open to criticism. It does not question the process by which the Amerindians were systematically stripped of their ancestral knowledge and identity. What Europeans brought to Indians is presumed to have been beneficial to them. Nor does it mention the frequent abuses to which the Native children were subjected to in the "residential schools". Consult the article on education at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Material on the residential schools may be found at the Religious tolerance site, at the Department of Indian and Northern Affairs. Consult this bibliography for further studies.]


The aborigines of North America had their own systems of education, through which the young were instructed in their coming labours and obligations, embracing not only the whole round of economic pursuits - hunting, fishing, handicraft, agriculture, and household work - but speech, fine art, customs, etiquette, social obligations, and tribal lore. By unconscious absorption and by constant inculcation the boy and girl became the accomplished man and woman. Motives of pride or shame, the stimulus of flattery or disparagement, wrought constantly upon the child, male or female, who was the charge, not of the parents and grandparents alone but of the whole tribe (Heckewelder). Loskiel (p. 139) says the Iroquois are particularly attentive to the education of the young people for the future government of the state, and for this purpose admit a boy, generally the nephew of the principal chief, to the council and solemn feast following it.


The [Inuit] were most careful in teaching their girls and boys, setting them difficult problems in canoeing, sledding, and hunting, showing them how to solve them, and asking boys how they would meet a given emergency. Everywhere there was the closest association, for education, of parents with children, who learned the names and uses of things in nature. At a tender age they played at serious business, girls attending to household duties, boys following men's pursuits. Children were furnished with appropriate toys; they became little basket makers, weavers, potters, water carriers, cooks, archers, stone workers, watchers of crops and flocks, the range of instruction being limited only by tribal custom. Personal responsibilities were laid on them, and they were stimulated by the tribal law of personal property, which was inviolable. Among the Pueblos cult images and paraphernalia were their playthings, and they early joined the fraternities, looking forward to social duties and initiation. The Apache boy had for pedagogues his father and grandfather, who began early to teach him counting, to run on level ground, then up and down hill, to break branches from trees, to jump into cold water, and to race, the whole training tending to make him skilful, strong, and fearless. The girl was trained in part by her mother, but chiefly by the grandmother, the discipline beginning as soon as the child could control her movements, but never becoming regular or severe. It consisted in rising early, carrying water, helping about the home, cooking, and minding children. At 6 the little girl took her first lessons in basketry with yucca leaves. Later on decorated baskets, saddle-bags, beadwork, and dress were her care.


On the coming of the whites a new era of secular education, designed and undesigned, began. All the natives, young and old, were pupils, and all the whites who came in contact with them were instructors, whether purposely or through the influence of their example and patronage. The undesigned instruction cannot be measured, but its effect was profound. The Indian passed at once into the iron age; the stone period, except in ceremony, was moribund. So radical was the change in the eastern tribes that it is difficult now to illustrate their true life in museum collections.


An account of the designed instruction would embrace all attempts to change manners, customs, and motives, to teach reading and writing in the foreign tongue, to acquaint the Indians with new arts and industries, and to impress or force upon them the social organization of their conquerors. The history of this systematic instruction divides itself into the period of (1) discovery and exploration, (2) colonisation and settlement, (3) Colonial and Revolutionary times, (4) the growth of the national policy, and (5) the present system.


Portions of the area here considered were discovered and explored by several European nations at dates wide apart. All of them aroused the same wonder at first view, traded their manufactures for Indian products, smoked the pipe of peace, and opened friendly relations. The Norwegians began their acculturation of Greenland in the year 1000. The Spanish pioneers were Ponce de Léon, Narvaez, Cabeza de Vaca, Marcos de Niza, De Soto , Coronado , Cabrillo, and many others. The French appeared in Canada and in the Mississippi valley, and were followed by the English in Virginia and in New England, the Dutch in New York , the Swedes in New Jersey , the Quakers in Pennsylvania , and the Russians in Alaska . Instruction, designed and undesigned, immediately ensued, teaching the Indians many foreign industrial processes, the bettering of their own, and the adoption of firearms, and metal tools and utensils. Domestic animals (horses, donkeys, cattle, sheep, goats, poultry) and many vegetables found congenial environment. It was through these and other practical lessons that the missionaries and teachers of the early days, who came to Christianise young Indians and bestow on them an education, were more successful instructors than they knew. By the subtle process of suggestion, the inevitable action of mind upon mind, the Indians received incalculable training in all arts and the fashion of living. Failures to accomplish the most cherished object of the missionaries grew out of the great distance which separated the two races, and of the contrary influences of many of the whites who were first on the spot, not from lack of zeal or ability. The Roman Catholic clergy were at first the most efficient agents of direct instruction; besides carrying on their proper missionary work they exerted themselves to mitigate the harsh treatment visited on the Indian. In the 16th century the expedition of Narvaez to Florida was a accompanied by Franciscans under Padre Juan Juarez, and the appearance of Cabeza de Vaca in Mexico prompted Fray Marcos de Niza's journey to the N. as far as Zuñi, and of the expedition of Coronado, who left Fray Juan de Padilla and a lay brother in Quivira, on the Kansas plains, as well as a friar and a lay brother at Tiguex and Pecos, respectively, all destined to be killed by the natives. The subsequent history of the S. W. records a series of disasters to the immediate undertakings, but permanent success in practical education.


In 1567 the agricultural education of Indians was tried in Florida by the Jesuit Fray Rogel, who selected lands, procured agricultural implements, and built commodious houses (Shea).


Early in the 17th century Franciscan missions were established among the Apalachee and neighbouring tribes, afterward to be abandoned, but forming the first link in the chain of causes which has brought these Indians through their minority under guardianship to mature self-dependence. Concentration. for practical instruction was established in California by the Franciscans. The results achieved by the missions inthe S. W. were chiefly practical and social. Domestic animals, with the art of domestication and industries depending on their products, were permanently acquired. Foreign plants, including wheat, peaches, and grapes, were introduced, gunpowder was adopted in place of the bow, and new practices and customs, good and bad, came into vogue, The early French missions in North America were among (1) the Abnaki in Maine, (2) the Huron in Ontario, Michigan and Ohio, (3) the Iroquois in New York, (4) the Ottawa in Wisconsin and Michigan, (5) the Illinois in the middle W., and (6) the tribes of Louisiana. Bishop Laval founded a school at Quebec for French and Indian youth, Father de Smet planted the first Catholic mission among the Salish tribes, and Canadian priests visited the natives on Puget ad. and along the coast of Washington.


One of the objects in colonizing Virginia, mentioned in the charter of 1606 and repeated in that of 1621, was to bring the infidels and savages to human civility and a settled and quiet government (Neill). Henrico College was founded in 1618. The council of Jamestown in 1619 voted to educate Indian children in religion, a civil course of life, and in some useful trade. George Thorpe, superintendent of education at Henrico, gave a cheering account of his labours in 1621. Many youths were taken to England to be educated. William and Mary College was founded in 1691, and special provisions were made in the charter of Virginia for the instruction of Indians (Hist. College of William and Mary, 1874). Brasserton manor was purchased through the charity of Robert Boyle, the yearly rents and profits being devoted to a boarding-school foundation in William and Mary College. In Maryland no schools were founded, but the settlers and Indians exchanged knowledge of a practical kind. The interesting chapter of Indian education in New England includes, during the 17th century, the offering of their children for instruction, the translation of the Bible (1646-90) into their language by Eliot, the founding of Natick, the appointment of a superintendent of Indians (Daniel Gookin, 1656-86), and the provision for Indian youth in Harvard. The spirit and methods of instruction in the 18th century are revealed in the adoption of Indian children by the colonists (Samson Occum, for example), the founding of Moor's charity school, Bishop Berkeley's gift to Yale, the labours of Eleazer Wheelock (1729), and the founding of Dartmouth College in 1754 (see Fletcher, Ind. Education and Civilization , 1888). In New York and other northern states large sums of money were appropriated for the instruction of Indians, and in Princeton College special provisions were made for their education.


The Moravians, models of thrift and good will, had in their hearts wherever they went the welfare of the aborigines as a private and public burden.


Between 1741 and 1761 began, under Vitus Bering and his successors, the series of lessons given for the acculturation of the Aleut, [Inuit], and Indians of Alaska. Schools were formally opened in Kodiak in 1794, and a little later in Sitka. This chapter in education includes the Russian Company's schools, as well as military, Government, and church schools. Pupils were taught the Russian and English languages, geography, history, arithmetic, geometry, trigonometry, and navigation. Industrial training was compulsory in many cases. Dall (Alaska, 1870) speaks of the great aptness of the Aleuts in receiving instruction. In all areas the voyageur, the trapper, the trader, the missionary, the settler, the school-teacher, and Government authorities were partners in education. The contact, whenever it took place, had its effect in a generation or two. The making of treaties with the Indians afforded an object lesson in practical affairs. Old things passed away whose nature and very existence and structure can be proved now only by impressions on ancient pottery or remains in caverns and graves. The twofold education embraced new dietaries, utensils, and modes of preparing and eating food; new materials and fashions in dress and implements for making clothing; new or modified habitations and their appurtenances and furniture; new productive industries and new methods of quarrying, and mining, woodcraft, hunting, trapping, and fishing; the introduction of gunpowder, domestic animals, and foreign handicrafts; the adoption of calendars and clocks, and the habit of steady employment for wages; new social institutions, manners, customs, and fashions, not always for the better; foreign words and jargons for new ideas and activities; new aesthetic ideas; changes in the clan and tribal life, and accessions to native beliefs and forms of worship borrowed from the conquerors.


In the Canadian colonies little was done for secular and industrial education by the provincial governments prior to confederation. The Roman Catholic missions inherited from the French, Anglican missions sent from the mother country, the New England Company's missions among the Six Nations and Mohawk, and Methodist schools founded by Lord Elgin and others, as well as those managed by Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists, all combined common school instruction and training in the practical arts with their special work . After the confederation (1867) the subject was taken up systematically and contract schools were established and put into the hands of the Christian denominations. In the older provinces agriculture and other industries had largely taken the place of primitive arts. After the admission of British Columbia, Manitoba, and the Northwest Territory into the Dominion, steps were taken to establish systematic training in those provinces. In 1911, there were 19 industrial, 5 4 boarding, and 251 day schools in operation throughout the Dominion. Day schools among the tribes aim to secure the co-operation of the parents; the boarding schools especially cultivate industrial training for various breadwinning trades; normal schools and girls' homed have been established to teach self-support under new conditions. Improvement in dwellings has developed a stronger attachment to home, as well as bettered health and raised the moral tone, for when houses are furnished with stoves, beds, tables, chairs, musical instruments, and sewing machines, the tastes of the occupants are elevated and other thoughts stimulated. Indians become individual owners of farms and of flocks and herds and sell the produce; they partake of the benefits of commerce and transportation and acquire thrift.


Competition in fairs and exhibitions stimulates proficiency in both the old and the new activities. The purpose of the Canadian government has been to encourage the Indians to emerge from a condition of tutelage and continue voluntarily what they have learned under close supervision. The schools discourage premature marriages and educate the young prospective mothers. Education has made the aborigines law-respecting, prosperous, and contented. Far from being a menace to or a burden upon the commonwealth, they contribute in many ways to its welfare. The able-bodied in the mixed farming districts have become practically self-supporting (Pedley in Can. Ind. Aff . for 1904).


Source: James WHITE, ed., Handbook of Indians of Canada, Published as an Appendix to the Tenth Report of the Geographic Board of Canada, Ottawa, 1913, 632p., pp. 137-140. See the entry under education at the Encyclopedia of North American Indians.




© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College