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Missionary Schools

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Missionary Schools

In 2021, Canada made headlines with the discovery of mass graves of children near residential schools. We already knew that European settlers committed atrocities against Native Americans, but the discovery of these graves forced Canada and the United States to confront the horrors of the recent past. As much as we'd like to think these schools would have ended centuries ago, they didn't even pop up until the late 19th century and remained well into the 20th century.

The Concept of Missionary Schools

Missionary schools, also known as boarding schools or residential schools, were schools created during the late 19th century with the goal of assimilating Native American children into white society. The founder of the first off-reservation missionary school put it simply:

A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man" - Colonel Richard Henry Pratt, Speech at the Nineteenth Annual Conference of Charities and Correction, 1892

The History of Missionary Schools

In 1860, the Office of Indian Affairs, now the Bureau of Indian Affairs, established the first missionary school on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. Well-meaning reformers from the East believed that missionary schools like this one would help Native American children to assimilate into white culture.

Missionary Schools History Carlisle Indian School Students StudySmarterA teacher and her students at the Carlisle Indian School,

Colonel Richard Henry Pratt believed that missionary schools off of reservations would be better suited for assimilation purposes. In 1879, he founded the Carlisle Indian School, the first off-reservation missionary school, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While the Carlisle Indian School was the only of its kind in the East, many off-reservation schools popped up in the West throughout the 1880s.

Aims of Missionary School Education

As we know now, the aim of missionary schools was assimilation. Education, then, was the method. Upon their arrival at a missionary school, Native American boys had to cut their tribal braids off, and girls had to cut their hair short. They wore uniforms that had no hint of traditional tribal wear and they had to take on white names. Teachers required that the children speak English, even amongst each other.

Classes were meant to remove any hint of the children’s heritage and prepare them for life in white society. Of course, there were English classes, but there were also classes directly aimed at attacking Native American culture. These included lessons on the nuclear family and the importance of the individual over the collective. There were also religious classes that attempted to convert the children to Christianity.

In history classes, Native American children learned about and were forced to celebrate white holidays that had roots in the oppression of indigenous peoples, such as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day.

Although they did spend time on typical academics, there was a large emphasis on non-academic, skill-based classes. The young girls learned domestic skills such as sewing and cooking, whereas the young boys learned trade skills such as blacksmithing and how to farm.

The Impact of Missionary School Education

In reality, missionary schools were a traumatic experience for the Native American children forced to attend. The schools had a military-like structure and punishments were particularly cruel, even for something as small as speaking in their native language. These punishments included restriction of food, confinement, loss of privileges, and even corporal punishment. In addition to punishments, the children faced outbreaks of disease as well as abuse of all kinds.

I remember one evening when we were all lined up in a room and one of the boys said something in Indian to another boy. The man in charge of us pounced on the boy, caught him by the shirt, and threw him across the room. Later we found out that his collar-bone was broken. - Lone Wolf, 1894

The Navajo Code Talkers

Despite these missionary schools' attempts to force Native American children to only speak English, the government was very happy when the Navajo were able to use their language to create a code for transmitting information during WWII. The Navajo code proved successful and was never broken.

Classes were so focused on assimilation that actual academic topics did not receive much attention. The teachers expected the children to use the domestic and trade skills they spent so much time on to do the majority of the work and upkeep for the school. The “placing out system” was a particularly terrible and exploitative innovation that forced selected students to live within white society for a certain period of time. There, these children often found themselves doing unpaid labor.

Native American children working in the garden of a missionary school,

Resistance Against Missionary Schools

On a small scale, Native American children resisted their imprisonment in missionary schools by running away, but their parents also resisted the schools in any way they could in an attempt to keep and protect their children. During times when agents were rounding up children, some families would temporarily leave the reservation. Others would pretend to play hide and seek so that their children were out of sight.

In some instances, entire tribes joined together in refusing to send their children to missionary schools. The Office of Indian Affairs would respond by withholding rations, and if that was not successful, their agency police force was not below imprisoning adults and kidnapping children.

In 1895, the agency police force arrested nineteen men of the Hopi tribe for their resistance. They served their sentences at Alcatraz.

In the rare cases that schools allowed children to go home during breaks, their parents tried to instill in them as much of their culture as possible so the school could not take it away from them. They also encouraged children to run away.

The Significance and Importance of Missionary Schools

Missionary Schools Significance Teachers and Students Study SmarterA photograph of teachers and young girls at a missionary school,

While most of the missionary schools closed in the mid-1930s due to reports of abuse and their overall ineffectiveness, it was not until the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 that parents finally had a choice in whether they wanted their children to attend a missionary school or not.

For the most part, children who attended missionary schools experienced horrific treatment as well as a full-on assault on their culture, leaving an entire generation traumatized. A large number of children also died as a result of the abuse and rapid spread of disease. In many cases, the schools buried them in mass, unmarked graves.

“The health of the school [120 students] has been exceptionally good during the year. Four girls and one boy, the latter an infant, have died here. Christian civilization is the best therapeutic for the Indian.” - M.M. Waldron (school physician), Report on Health at the Hampton Agricultural and Industrial School in Virginia, 1886

Missionary schools - Key takeaways

  • The Office of Indian Affairs created the first missionary school in 1860. Colonel Richard Henry Pratt followed with the first off-reservation missionary school in 1879.
  • By the 1880s, missionary schools were widespread with the common goal of assimilating Native American children into white society via education.
  • Missionary schools had many rules and lessons to rid the children of their heritage and culture. The schools had a military-like structure with cruel punishments.
  • Many children died as a result of abuse and outbreaks of disease, and those who survived were traumatized.
  • It was not until the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 that parents could refuse to send their children to missionary schools.

Frequently Asked Questions about Missionary Schools

The Office of Indian Affairs started the first missionary school in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington.

The purpose of missionary schools was to assimilate Native American children into white society.

Missionary schools taught typical subjects, but also intoduced lessons on the nuclear family, domestic skills, trade skills, and more.

Final Missionary Schools Quiz


What was the goal of missionary schools?

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to assimilate Native American children into white culture

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What was the first off-reservation missionary school?

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Carlisle Indian School

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Where were the majority of missionary schools?

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the East

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What would the Office of Indian Affairs do if parents refused to send their children to missionary schools?

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withhold government rations

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What system led to Native American children doing unpaid labor?

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the placing out system

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Which was not a punishment used at missionary schools

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loss of privileges

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In what decade did many of the missionary schools close?

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What act allowed parents to decide whether to send their kids to missionary school or not?

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The Indian Child Welfare Act

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When did forcing children to attend missionary schools become illegal?

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Who founded the first off-reservation missionary school?

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Colonel Richard Henry Pratt

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