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Sociology Theory Paper

Native American Boarding Schools

Joe A. DiFulgentis

C&I 508

October 1, 2012

In the late 1800’s, the U.S. government turned to an unorthodox means to rid the Native American people of their cultural identity; schools. This paper will briefly explain the history of the Native American boarding school program developed during the late 1800’s. Furthermore, it will analyze the reasons why the Boarding Schools were created; through the critical eye and viewpoint of multiple sociological theorist schools of thought. Lastly, this paper will provide my personal reflection of the usefulness of analyzing this historical phenomenon through different sociological frameworks. The topic for this paper was explored in the School text (Author, year, pp.), pg. 58, 112. Nice intro/road map

During the late 1800’s the U.S. government realized they made promises to the Native American people that were not in America’s best economic?interests. Throughout the 1800’s, the U.S. government signed over the rights to many acres of pristine land to the Native American people. However, once the value of the natural resources on that land was discovered, the U.S. was unwilling to sit back on the heels of their previous decisions. In order to mediate this dilemma, the U.S. government was presented with two options— either kill all the Indians or assimilate them into white civilization through education (Native American Public Telecommunications, 2006). The latter idea was chosen and the boarding school movement was enacted. At the root of the boarding school philosophy, was the idea that if the U.S. could strip the Native American culture away from its people, less resistance would be encountered in the future when the U.S. was trying to gain back its land. In essence, the government would try to shape the younger population of Native Americans into white, lower-classed Americanized citizens in hopes to abolish their negative attitude towards the encroaching American ways.

According to Native American Public Telecommunications (2006), “In the boarding schools, the students were thrown into a military style regimentation of classes and activities. They were up at the call of a bugle at 5:45 a.m. with exercise and military drills following. Breakfast was at 6:45. Industrial work began at 8:00 and formal school at 9:00. After lunch there was more industrial work and school with lectures into the evening. There was less than an hour of free time during each day, and the students were in bed at 9:00 p.m. Students were prohibited from speaking their native languages. Instead, they were supposed to converse and even think in English. If they were caught "speaking Indian" they were severely beaten with a leather belt.” (source)

Why did the government choose to change the Native Americans by using the institution of education? A functionalist theorist would argue that the reason was one of productivity.

Functionalists view educational systems as one of the structures that carry out the function of transmission of attitudes, values, skills, and norms from one generation to another (de Marrais, LeCompte, p. 4). Generally, the Native Americans were regarded as a people who were not able to contribute to the “Americanized” way of society. However, by teaching the young Natives specific skills related to industrialization, it would allow them to be contribute to the American machine; while being forced to neglect their Native American traditions. Through boarding schools, the students would learn to become productive members of American society. In addition, the jobs they would be seeking would be away from tribal lands, which would break down their ties with the older members of their tribe. In theory, this would lead to a dissipation of Native American culture over time. Great analysis.

Using the four purposes of school; to teach intelligence, political, economic and social skills, a functionalist would argue several points (de Marrais, LeCompte,year, p. 4). Regarding intelligence, the boarding schools set a priority in teaching cognitive skills which would give students the tools needed to compete in American society. The political message of boarding school was to educate future citizens for appropriate participation in the given political order, to promote patriotism by teaching myths, history, and stories about the country, its leaders, and government and to ensure order, public civility, and conformity to laws (de Marrais & LeCompte, year, p. 5). The economic influences shaping boarding schools, was to prepare students for later work rolls and train them for specific jobs. A functionalist would maintain that the social goals were to wane the Natives away from their family traditions and teach them the “American” way to act. The schools did this by convincing the students that traditional Native culture was bad and their parents and siblings were “savages” (Native American Public Telecommunications, 2006). Joe, great job with functionalism here.

A critical theorist would explain the exact same phenomena of Native American boarding schools with a different emphasis. A critical theorist believes schools are sites where power struggles between dominant and subordinate groups take place. A major theme of this work is an analysis of how schools are used to help dominant groups maintain their position of power, as well as how subordinate groups resist this domination (de Marrais &LeCompte, p. 16). Therefore, the critical theorist would argue that the boarding schools were structured only to teach basic skills to Native Americans. Because they were considered a subordinate group, Natives were never taught advanced skills because the intent was to keep them below the middle and upper classes. Therefore, once Native Americans were working in mainstream society, they would remain non-threatening to the current population of middle to lower class American citizens.
The interpretive theorists would argue that the boarding schools were structured to change the Native American belief system and attach different meanings to how they were supposed to act. More importantly, they would argue that the level of instruction provided to Native Americans was intentionally poor, because they were perceived as a subordinate group of low level learners (de Marrais, LeCompte, year, p. 14). This would automatically ensure that there was little opportunity for Native Americans to receive an equal education compared with other students in higher classes of society. Therefore, the boarding schools were setting the students up to remain on the low end of the totem pole so to speak. The only group that would benefit from this system was the politicians. This idea by the interpretive theorist school of thought is only partially true however. Native American Public Telecommunications (2006) explains of “Esther Burnett Horne, who was a student at the Haskell Institute boarding school. Later she became a teacher at several Indian schools. She remembers her schooling as largely positive. She gained leadership skills, experienced a sense of community, met her husband and discovered role models in Native teachers Ruth Muskrat Bronson and Ella Deloria, women who supported tribal identities.” I also remember her saying that she was the only person to graduate from college from her class.

I feel that applying the different theories to the idea of Native American boarding schools was definitely useful in gaining a better understanding of what took place. Although I feel the boarding schools were structured mostly under the framework of functionalism, from the perspective of the elite, I think this is true…but the power differential and its role in social reproduction is undeniable) it was beneficial to apply the other theories in order to highlight the emphasis on economic class divisions and how that may have affected the quality and type of education they were receiving. Because the critical theories and interpretive theories were developed later during the 1900’s, after the boarding schools were created, it was interesting to imagine how some theorists would have responded to the phenomenon if they were around. Interesting! In addition, I feel that many of the points I brought up regarding critical and interpretive theories can be applied to the current state of Native American schools on reservations. There is a deficiency among Native American students at the present time. Are the deficiencies stemming from social issues or is the school system on reservations, which is set up similar to other schools in the U.S, not appropriate for allowing Native Americans to achieve their highest potential? I’d love to write about this topic in another paper.




Description of Issue

Description of issue is clear and accurate.



Analysis of Issue

Analysis utilizes two or more of the frameworks presented in the readings.

The frameworks are appropriately applied, demonstrating understanding of both the theories as well as the nuances of the issue.

References to readings effectively support analysis.




Reflection explores the usefulness of the respective theories in the effort of understanding the event/issue.

An exploration of each theory’s value is thoughtfully presented, and, if appropriate, a thoughtful explanation of the value of combining theories is presented.



Written presentation

Writing is clear; ideas are effectively presented. There are no mechanical, spelling, grammatical errors.

APA format is used for in-text citations and on reference page.



Total points (30 max): 27/30

Joe, Nice work on this paper! An interesting read. I am especially impressed with your analysis of functionalism. Well done.

Reference Page:

Mondale, S. & Patton, S. (eds). (2001). School: the story of American public education. Boston: Beacon Press.

Native American Public Telecommunications, 2006. Indian Boarding Schools. Indian Country Diaries. Retrieved from

de Marrais, K.B. & LeCompte, M. D. (1999). Theory and its influences on the purposes of schooling. In The way schools work: A sociological analysis of education (3rd ed.). New York: Addison Wesley Longman, Inc., 1-22.

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