American Indian Education and the Edward E. Ayer Collection

Brenda J. Child (University of Minnesota)

American Indian education in the United States is often viewed as beginning with the founding of the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle in 1879, and lasting for over a half-century when assimilation policy ruled federal policy-making. Earlier, plans for educating and Christianizing Indians had been initiated during the colonization of North America, when a few experimental efforts took places at institutions including Harvard and Dartmouth. In the early years of the United States, Thomas Jefferson expressed his favorable opinion of Indian education and native peoples’ intellectual abilities when he wrote, “Before we condemn the Indians of this continent as wanting genius, we must consider that letters have not been introduced among them” in his Notes on the State of Virginia.[1] Christian denominations also introduced mission schools as part of nineteenth- century “civilization” programs, but Indian education began in earnest in the United States during the twilight of the Indian Wars, when federal policies and American citizens aggressively demanded unencumbered access to Indian landholdings.

The Edward E. Ayer Collection at the Newberry Library illustrates key moments in the history of American Indian education, since countless commentators left voluminous writings about American Indian people. In addition, the collection contains newspapers from some of the mission and government schools—including the Oglala Light, published by the Oglala Indian Training School on the Pine Ridge reservation, South Dakota, in the early twentieth century—and also a collection of photographs taken at St. John’s Mission in Arizona during the same period. The St. John’s Mission album vividly illustrates the manual training of most mission and boarding schools, showing girls at work in one picture aptly entitled “Hanging the wash”, in addition to a sewing class, and a basket-making class. The photographs also document aspects of the social history of the schools, as in the 1916 photograph of a girls’ musical club at St. John’s complete with guitars and mandolins, and an all-school picture of older boys, girls, nuns, and priests. Education at Indian boarding schools consisted of vocational training, practice in agriculture, and an English-only approach to basic skills in reading, writing, and other subjects.