Art Education in American Indian Boarding Schools: Tool of Assimilation, Tool of Resistance

Marinella Lentis
American Indian Studies, University of Arizona
December, 2011


This dissertation examines the process of domestication of American Indian children in government-controlled schools through art education. At the end of the nineteenth century, Thomas J. Morgan, Commissioner of Indian Affairs (1889-1893), and Estelle Reel, Superintendent of Indian schools (1898-1910), brought changes to the curriculum of Indian schools by introducing the teaching of elementary art and instruction in Native industries such as pottery, weaving, and basketry. I claim that art education was as an instrument for the colonization of consciousness, that is, for the redefinition of Indigenous peoples minds through the instillment of values and ideals of mainstream society and thus for the maintenance of a political, economic, social, and racial hierarchy. Art education served the needs of the late-nineteenth century assimilationist agenda.
I consider Morgans and Reels national mandates at the turn of the twentieth century and examine their rationales for including drawing and Native crafts in the Indian schools curriculum. This knowledge of educational programs crafted at the bureaucratic level is applied to an analysis of art instruction in two selected institutions, the Albuquerque Indian School in New Mexico and the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, from 1889 to 1917. I examine local responses to government policies and daily practices of Indian education at the micro level in order to provide specific information as to the organization, structure, and pedagogy of art instruction within a school day in these particular localities. Finally, I discuss how students artworks were displayed in the context of exhibitions and national conventions as exemplary evidence of
the progress toward civilization, but also of the instrumentality of an Anglo education in reaching this goal. As Indian policy changed, so did the art curriculum of Indian schools; while drawing continued until the mid-1910s Native arts and crafts began to disappear and were eventually discontinued. As activities that promoted independence and individual creativity, they began to undermine the governments agenda. From the early 1890s when it was first introduced into Indian schools to the mid-1910s when it lost its significance, art education was a tool for the assertion of Americas hegemonic power.