Native Education and Assimilation

Native peoples have undergone hundreds of years of education by settler communities. Education normally applied to children who were forced into day and boarding schools. At the boarding schools the children were forced into an immersive environment where they were forcefully taught not to be Indians and instead be white.  But adult populations were also subjected to missionization and forced into roles of farmers and ranchers as a way of teaching them the skills they needed to fit into Euro-American societies, to assimilate. Education was largely successful with many tens of thousands of children being forced to attend schools where they learned foreign languages, foreign cultures and skills for getting work in jobs and trades that were mainly outside of the reservation and their culture. Many students educated in this manner never returned to their communities.  Through education identities of native people were altered as the Americans sought to civilize them. The carrot was citizenship, because in 1869 Indian policy changed under President Grant, who said that he would support a path to citizenship for Indians who were civilized.

The education of Native peoples generally was a protocol of assimilation. The United States had an assimilation policy in order to eventually eliminate Native peoples culturally and make them all become Americans. The policy was originally created by missionary churches who wanted to “save” native peoples from their savagery by converting them to Christianity. Education and assimilation policies are written into tribal treaties and take three tracts. The first is a conversion of Native adults to farmers, to assimilate them to a more productive lifeway (To European Protestants) by making all native people farmers. In treaties, this conversion to farming is specified. Then through religious conversion. Many treaties specify “to encourage missionaries to come among them” which means religious conversion or saving them from the evils of being non-believers. Third, through education in schools. Native children were to be taught in schools American culture. Schools in the 1850s and into the 20th century were built on a religious base of knowledge, most were taught by teachers or scholars who had come directly from church scholarship, and so in nearly all schools, colleges, and universities students were taught western cultural traditions, as well as taught Christianity from the Bible. History education was very religious and replete with social-darwinistic concepts.

Education at Grand Ronde and other reservations in Oregon as part of their treaties, and schools were established using treaty funds. reservations were assigned only one religious church to run missionary operations, by the federal government so that there would not be too much competition on the reservation for conversion. The early schools were operated by the reservation minister or reverend with an Order of sisters to help with instruction. Sometimes teachers were hired for a limited time, but again many of these teachers came directly out of the church. Funding for education was inconsistent, many schools each year at first opened for only a few months based on funding. Sometimes several schools were established so that funds from specific treaties would not be co-mingled. Grand Ronde was well funded for education, with six ratified treaties, and Siletz Agency was lightly funded with only one or two treaties they could claim, as noted in the early reservation reports. Still, education services were inconsistent and crude. Even the reservation boarding school which was established at Grand Ronde, was a dark, dank, moldy single room, with little space for both bunks for the students and a single large table for their studies.

The following essays address mainly the education policies regarding native peoples on western Oregon with specific examples from the Grand Ronde tribe or Chemawa Indian school.

History of Early Oregon Indian Education

Two Schools at Grand Ronde Indian Reservation, 1863

The 1867 Manual Labor School at Grand Ronde

Agent McClane struggles with Native Culture, Grand Ronde 1886

Enforced Assimilation in Tribal Correspondence 
about the Grand Ronde Boarding School

Lessons from the Indian Internment at Indian Reservations and Boarding Schools

Dispelling the Cloud of Black Eternity: the Willamette School at Grand Ronde in 1857

Methodists in Oregon


The Charles Holmes Collection of Chemawa Indian School Documents
Chief Eagle Horse Baritone Singer from Alaska
Cowboys and Indians Forever
Pride for the True Americans