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Educating Indian Girls, Essay Example

Pages: 3

Words: 780

Essay

Educating Indian Girls at Nonreservation Boarding Schools,1878-1920. Robert A. Trennert,  pp. 82-97, Mosaic of America, Vol. II

Robert A. Trennert makes his position unquestionably clear, from the very opening of his essay regarding the education of Indian girls in the late 19th and early 20th century, and it is one not favorable to the policies in question.  Referring from the start to a wider, national movement to destabilize Indian tribes – and presumably weaken Indian presences – Trennert presents an agenda both cold-blooded and ultimately destructive culturally: “By the 1870s, officials had adopted the idea that boarding schools offered a better chance…to acculturate Native Americans” (Trennert 82).  Moving on to the more specific practices of installing Indian girls in such places, the author consistently notes the disregard of Native American interests and familial relationships, and the vast ignoring of an ancient culture in the interests of “education.”   Ultimately, as presented by Trennert, the boarding school imperatives for Native American girls of this era were unconscionable efforts to Americanize a different culture, and doomed to failure.

Trennert offers his opinions in a way firmly founded on a chain of evidence.  He begins by noting the growing American initiative in the 1840s, prompted largely by Christian missionaries,  to more rigorously train Indian women in household duties as performed by an idealized American wife and mother.  Interestingly, the government’s ideas of how Native American women were treated within their own culture reflected a mainstream view of conditions bordering on slavery, as Indian men were depicted in government reports as abusive, drunken, and lazy (83).  Then, as Trennert notes, there was a further agenda in assimilating Indian girls into white society: the entire Native American structure would follow suit.

The ensuing processes outlined by Trennert reinforce the consistency of the government approach, as well it its unethical aspects and disregard of blatant realities.  For example, even as women everywhere were being educated in ways beyond household duties, the emphasis for Indian girls was unclear, presumably because it was first thought essential to “civilize” them.  However, when recruiting of girls began in 1878, there was a problem; Native Americans did not wish to give their daughters up to the boarding schools, a reluctance taken by the government to mean that they resented the loss of female “slaves” (84).

Then, as Indian boys and girls were first placed with blacks in boarding schools, concerns over race-mixing were strong, and efforts then focused on all-Indian schools, also segregated by gender.  Trennert notes that, by the end of the 19th century, 25 such schools were in place for Indian girls.  He acknowledges that some eased regimentation and even took into account cultural diversity but, by and large, the model was uniform: Indian girls were to be taught to become “white” wives and mothers.  This so evolved into its own ideology that Indian girls received three-page instructions on the proper way to make a bed, and courses in flower arranging (91).  In a bitter irony, Trennert points out that, upon completing this education, many Indian girls returned to lives with no place for them.  Mainstream society was not prepared to absorb single, Indian women, as the “skills” they had acquired were irrelevant to life on the reservation.  One such woman was ridiculed by her people as “foolish as a white woman,” when she used her baking skills for her Native family (94).  Other Indian girls, no longer at home on the reservation and largely unacceptable to mainstream, white society, turned to the cities and worked in menial labor or as prostitutes.  A departure from this ongoing and failed system finally occurred by the 1930s when John Collier, an opponent of the Indian boarding school policy, was appointed Indian Commissioner (96).

To the author’s credit, Trennert never merely relies on a few pieces of historical evidence to attack American policy in this regard.  He employs research, documented case histories, and personal accounts to offer an expansive picture of an ongoing, and wholly unethical and ineffective, process.  It was, moreover, a process essentially shameful in the history of the nation.  Simply, girls of another culture were compelled to abandon that culture as uncivilized, and trained to fit into a mold of perfect, white, Christian womanhood idealized at the time.  That it failed so consistently is not overly stressed by Trennert, because the facts speak for themselves, and make his argument for him.  The Indian girls boarding school experience as documented by Trennert represents  unconscionable efforts to Americanize the women of a different culture, and was doomed to failure.

Works Cited

Trennert, Robert A. “Educating Indian Girls at Nonreservation Boarding Schools, 1878-1920.”  Mosaic of America, Vol. II, Ed. Hartzell, Larry. Dubuque: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 2002-2007.  82-97.  Print.

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