top of page

An Examination of the Historical Educational Discrimination Facing Native American Students and its Impacts.

For me as a writer and student, the topic of education has always brought on an interest in advocating for the upliftment of marginalized students. I can emphasize with those students from my own experiences, and have a shared history with similar instances where discriminatory and racist behavior brought challenges for me in grade school and high school. During this Native American Heritage month I (personally) wanted to have a takeaway topic I could seek to change or highlight in our ongoing discourse to alleviate the oppression still faced by Native Americans. So it came easy to focus on the educational discrimination Native American students face from grade school to college. Native Americans have had a troubling history on many social, economic, and academic points, for those of us who are nonnatives, we may only have a slight idea in the beginning, the deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more horrific and senselessly oppressive history you'll find. Students from First Nations peoples face complex and historical issues, starting with the general treatment they received from the US government during the occupation of their lands, to the troubling process of forced assimilation that attempted to erase their heritage and culture.

To further control Native American tribes and force them to assimilate into Euro-American culture, the US government developed and established Indian boarding schools. Forcibly removed from their homes, many of these children were educated hundreds of miles away from everything they knew. Aside from being abused and exposed to deadly diseases, Native American youth were deprived of their culture, language, and traditions. Most administrators viewed Native American students in the same manner as Captain Richard H. Pratt, an administrator who famously wrote, "Kill the Indian that is in him and save the man." (Segal and Susan D. Rose p. 2). A perception among White Americans that Native Americans lacked intelligence and were uncivilized led to some incidents of abuse and torture. This racist sentiment filtered into the social environment of the schools as well. Boys were forced to shave their heads and strict dress codes were enforced for both genders. These tactics weren't meant to shape discipline in students but more to keep them from resisting the school’s attempt to assimilate them. 

David Wallace Adams a professor at Cleveland State University described many instances of the horrible abuse Native American youth experienced ranging from harsh beatings to sexual violence. In Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences, 1875-1928, he states that children attending the Carlisle Indian Industrial school, for example, “suffered loneliness, harsh punishments, isolation, dangerous diseases, and a continual assault on their traditional cultures.” (Trafzer, pg. 1). One of the earliest casualties occurred in 1894 at the Indian boarding school at Carlisle. Lucy Pretty Eagle, a Lakota girl from the Rosebud Agency whose death was mysterious due to the disappearance of her records. Tuberculosis was prevalent at the school at the time of Lucy’s death, and this became the cause of her case without a deeper inquiry surrounding the mysterious nature surrounding her death.


Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the federal government had taken full custody of indigenous education. While religious groups continued to play a minor role, the federal government now oversaw a three-tiered system of schools such as those at Albuquerque and Sante Fe Indian Schools. John Gram writing for American Indian Quarterly in “Acting Out Assimilation: Playing Indian and Becoming American in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools” noted that despite the racial overtones of many of the Wild West exhibitions the school forced the children to take part in, “They began talking about what it meant to be Indian as well as American.” (Gram 6). These attempts at resistance to harsh and overwhelming tactics to assimilate these children also came in the form of education and activism. These children used theatrical performances to hold on to their traditions as well as tell their stories.


While many Native American youth had a tough time outwardly resisting this forced assimilation, others subtly went along while finding ways to hold on to their traditions. One tradition Celia Haig Brown mentions in her book “Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential Schools”, was tattooing. During the golden age of tattooing in the 1940s students from the Tohono Oodham Tribe were found to still be practicing the art by the Tohono Oodham Agency Child Guidance Committee. One residential student, Linda (a pseudonym) told the story about her friend's fatal experience when she attempted to apply a tattoo on her hand with a needle and ink. Linda then tells how her hands soon began to swell and reports it to one of the nuns. On seeing the girl's swollen hands, she simply sent her to bed where she soon developed a fever and died a few days later (Dawley, Martina M.).   

As we've touched upon the many ways the legislation, and how it was implemented against Native American from their early education on through higher education settings. We must remember that they aren't simply historical events of a long past we should slip into the background of American history, but rather the foundations of continuing forms of oppression that extend up to the present day. While not as blatant and out in the open it still festers subtley, but actively under the skin of American culture to this day.  What should we take from this article, you the reader as well as myself, the writer? That as long as we view all of this as simply history to get dusty in history books and left to be forgotten ( and get worse for those truly affected) we have to work towards active change.



    Works Cited 

Dawley, Martina M. "Indian Boarding School Tattooing Experiences: Resistance, Power, and Control through Personal Narratives." American Indian Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 3, 2020, pp. 279-301. ProQuest,

Gram, John R. "Acting Out Assimilation: Playing Indian and Becoming American in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools." American Indian Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 3, 2016, pp. 251-273. ProQuest,


Hoerig, Karl A. "Remembering our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience / Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences." American Anthropologist, vol. 104, no. 2, 2002, pp. 642-646. ProQuest, 

Trafzer, Clifford E., et al. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. University of Nebraska Press, 2006. EBSCOhost,,uid&db=nlebk&AN=162267&site=ehost-live


bottom of page