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Documents - Document 3 - 27 J.D.C. Atkins/The English Language in Indian Schools

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27 J.D.C. Atkins/The English Language in Indian Schools

Great emphasis was placed upon the use of the English language in schools attended by Indian children. One of the strongest advocates of the policy was J.D.C. Atkins, Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1885 to 1888. His directives to agents and to superintendents of Indian schools reflected his belief that the Indian vernacular had to be replaced entirely by English. In his report to the Secretary of the Interior in 1887, Atkins gives a brief history of the movement for English in the Indian schools and his arguments in favor of that policy. He supplies as well testimonials from other reformers in support of his position.

In the report of this office for 1885 incidental allusion was made to the importance of teaching Indians the English language, the paragraph being as follows:

“A wider and better knowledge of the English
language among them is essential to their
comprehension of the duties and obligations
of citizenship. At this time but few of the
adult population can speak a word of English,
but with the efforts now being made by the
Government and by religious and philanthropic
associations and individuals, especially in
the Eastern States, with the missionary and
the schoolmaster industriously in the field
everywhere among the tribes, it is to be hoped,
and it is confidently believed, that among the
next generation of Indians the English language
will be sufficiently spoken and used to enable
them to become acquainted with the laws,
customs, and institutions of our country.”

From Report of September 21, 1887, in House Executive Document No. 1, part 5, vol. 11, 50 Congress, 1 session, serial 2542, pp. 18–23.

The idea is not a new one. As far back as 1868 the commission known as the “Peace Commission,” composed of Generals Sherman, Harney, Sanborn, and Terry, and Messrs. Taylor (then Commissioner of Indian Affairs), Henderson, Tappan, and Augur, embodied in the report of their investigations into the condition of Indian tribes their matured and pronounced views on this subject, from which I make the following extracts:

“The white and Indian must mingle together and
jointly occupy the country, or one of them must
abandon it. ... What prevented their living
together? … Third. The difference in language,
which in a great measure barred intercourse and
a proper understanding each of the other’s
motives and intentions. Now, by educating the
children of these tribes in the English language
these differences would have disappeared, and
civilization would have followed at once. Nothing
then would have been left but the antipathy of
race, and that, too, is always softened in the
beams of a higher civilization. ... Through
sameness of language is produced sameness of
sentiment, and thought; customs and habits are
molded and assimilated in the same way, and thus
in progress of time the differences producing
trouble would have been gradually obliterated.
By civilizing one tribe others would have followed.
Indians of different tribes associate with each
other on terms of equality; they have not the
Bible, but their religion, which we call
superstition, teaches them that the Great Spirit
made us all. In the difference of language today
lies two-thirds of our trouble. . . . Schools
should be established, which children should be
required to attend; their barbarous dialect should
be blotted out and the English language substituted.
… The object of greatest solicitude should be to
break down the prejudices of tribe among the
Indians; to blot out the boundary lines which divide
them into distinct nations, and fuse them into one
homogeneous mass. Uniformity of language will do
this—nothing else will.”

In the regulations of the Indian Bureau issued by the Indian Office in 1880, for the guidance of Indian agents, occurs this paragraph:

“All instruction must be in English, except in so
far as the native language of the pupils shall be
a necessary medium for conveying the knowledge
of English, and the conversation of and
communications between the pupils and with
the teacher must be, as far as practicable,
in English.”

In 1884 the following order was issued by the Department to the office, being called out by the report that in one of the schools instruction was being given in both Dakota and English:

“You will please inform the authorities of this
school that the English language only must be
taught the Indian youth placed there for
educational and industrial training at the
expense of the Government. If Dakota or any
other language is taught such children, they
will be taken away and their support by the
Government will be withdrawn from the school.”

In my report for 1886 I reiterated the thought of my previous report, and clearly outlining my attitude and policy I said:

“In my first report I expressed very decidedly
the idea that Indians should be taught the
English language only. From that position I
believe, so far as I am advised, there is no
dissent either among the lawmakers or the
executive agents who are selected under the
law to do the work. There is not an Indian
pupil whose tuition and maintenance is paid
for by the United States Government who is
permitted to study any other language than
our own vernacular—the language of the greatest,
most powerful, and enterprising nationalities
beneath the sun. The English language as taught
in America is good enough for all her people of
all races.

“Longer and closer consideration of the subject
has only deepened my conviction that it is a
matter not only of importance, but of necessity
that the Indians acquire the English language
as rapidly as possible. The Government has
entered upon the great work of educating and
‘citizenizing’ the Indians and establishing
them upon homesteads. The adults are expected
to assume the role of citizens, and of course
the rising generation will be expected and
required more nearly to fill the measure of
citizenship, and the main purpose of educating
them is to enable them to read, write, and speak
the English language and to transact business
with English-speaking people. When they take
upon themselves the responsibilities and privileges
of citizenship their vernacular will be of no
advantage. Only through the medium of the
English tongue can they acquire a knowledge
of the Constitution of the country and their
rights and duties thereunder.

Every nation is jealous of its own language,
and no nation ought to be more so than ours,
which approaches nearer than any other
nationality to the perfect protection of its people.
True Americans all feel that the Constitution, laws,
and institutions of the United States, in their
adaptation to the wants and requirements of man,
are superior to those of any other country; and
they should understand that by the spread of the
English language will these laws and institutions
be more firmly established and widely disseminated.
Nothing so surely and perfectly stamps upon an
individual a national characteristic as language.
So manifest and important is this that nations the
world over, in both ancient and modern times, have
ever imposed the strictest requirements upon their
public schools as to the teaching of the national
tongue. Only English has been allowed to be taught
in the public school in the territory acquired by
this country from Spain, Mexico, and Russia,
although the native populations spoke another
tongue. All are familiar with the recent prohibitory
order of the German Empire forbidding the teaching
of the French language in either public or private
schools in Alsace and Lorraine. Although the
population is almost universally opposed to German
rule, they are firmly held to German political
allegiance by the military hand of the Iron
Chancellor. If the Indians were in Germany or
France or any other civilized country, they should
be instructed in the language there used. As they
are in an English-speaking country, they must be
taught the language which they must use in
transacting business with the people of this
country. No unity or community of feeling can
be established among different peoples unless
they are brought to speak the same language,
and thus become imbued with like ideas of duty.

Deeming it for the very best interest of the
Indian, both as an individual and as an embryo
citizen, to have this policy strictly enforced
among the various schools on Indian reservations,
orders have been issued accordingly to Indian
agents, and the text of the orders and of some
explanations made thereof are given below:

December 14, 1886.

In all schools conducted by missionary
organizations it is required that all instructions
shall be given in the English language.

February 2, 1887.

In reply I have to advise you that the rule applies
to all schools on Indian reservations, whether they
be Government or mission schools. The instruction
of the Indians in the vernacular is not only of no
use to them, but is detrimental to the cause of
their education and civilization, and no school
will permitted on the reservation in which the
English language is not exclusively taught.

July 16, 1887.

Your attention is called to the regulation of
this office which forbids instruction in schools
in any Indian language. This rule applies to all
schools on an Indian reservation, whether
Government or mission schools. The education
of Indians in the vernacular is not only of no
use to them, but is detrimental to their
education and civilization.

You are instructed to see that this rule is
rigidly enforced in all schools upon the
reservation under your charge.

No mission school will be allowed upon
the reservation which does not comply
with the regulation.

The following was sent to representatives of all societies having contracts with this bureau for the conduct of Indian schools:

Your attention is called to the provisions
of the contracts for educating Indian pupils,
which provided that the schools shall “teach
the ordinary branches of an English education.”
This provision must be faithfully adhered to,
and no books in any Indian language must be
used or instruction given in that language to
Indian pupils in any school where this office
has entered into contract for the education
of Indians. The same rule prevails in all
Government Indian schools and will be strictly
enforced in all contract and other Indian

The instruction of Indians in the vernacular is
not only of no use to them, but is detrimental
to the cause of their education and civilization,
and it will not be permitted in any Indian school
over which the Government has any control, or in
which it has any interest whatever.

This circular has been sent to all parties who
have contracted to educate Indian pupils during
the present fiscal year.

You will see that this regulation is rigidly enforced
in the schools under your direction where Indians
are placed under contract.

I have given the text of these orders in detail
because various misrepresentations and
complaints in regard to them have been
made, and various misunderstandings seem
to have arisen. They do not, as has been
urged, touch the question of the preaching
of the Gospel in the churches nor in any wise
hamper or hinder the efforts of missionaries to
bring the various tribes to a knowledge of the
Christian religion. Preaching of the Gospel to
Indians in the vernacular is, of course, not
prohibited. In fact, the question of the effect
of this policy upon any missionary body was
not considered. All the office insists upon
is that in the schools established for the
rising generation of Indians shall be taught
the language of the Republic of which they are
to become citizens.

It is believed that if any Indian vernacular is
allowed to be taught by the missionaries in
schools on Indian reservations, it will prejudice
the youthful pupil as well as his untutored and
uncivilized or semi-civilized parent against the
English language, and, to some extent at least,
against Government schools in which the English
language exclusively has always been taught. To
teach Indian school children their native tongue
is practically to exclude English, and to prevent
them from acquiring it. This language, which is
good enough for a white man and a black man,
ought to be good enough for the red man. It is
also believed that teaching an Indian youth in
his own barbarous dialect is a positive detriment
to him. The first step to be taken toward civilization,
toward teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of
continuing in their barbarous practices, is to teach
them the English language. The impracticability, if
not impossibility, of civilizing the Indians of this
country in any other tongue than our own would
seem to be obvious, especially in view of the
fact that the number of Indian vernaculars is even
greater than the number of tribes. Bands of the
same tribes inhabiting different localities have
different dialects, and sometimes can not
communicate with each other except by the sign
language. If we expect to infuse into the rising
generation the leaven of American citizenship,
we must remove the stumbling blocks of hereditary
customs and manners, and of this language is one
of the most important elements.

I am pleased to note that the five civilized tribes
have taken the same view of the matter and that
in their own schools—managed by the respective
tribes and supported by tribal funds—English
alone is taught.

But it has been suggested that this order, being
mandatory, gives a cruel blow to the sacred
rights of the Indians. Is it cruelty to the Indian
to force him to give up his scalping-knife and
tomahawk? Is it cruelty to force him to abandon
the vicious and barbarous sun dance, where he
lacerates his flesh, and dances and tortures
himself even unto death? Is it cruel to the Indian
to force him to have his daughters educated and
married under the laws of the land, instead of
selling them at a tender age for a stipulated price
into concubinage to gratify the brutal lusts of
ignorance and barbarism?

Having been governed in my action solely by
what I believed to be the real interests of the
Indians, I have been gratified to receive from
eminent educators and missionaries the strongest
assurance of their hearty and full concurrence
in the propriety and necessity of the order.
Two of them I take the liberty to append herewith.
The first is from a former missionary among the
Sioux; the second from an Indian agent of long
experience, who has been exceedingly active in
pushing the educational interests of his Indians.

As I understand it, your policy is to have the
Indian taught English instead of his mother
tongue. I am glad you have had the courage to
take this step, and I hope you may find that
support which the justice and rightness of the
step deserve. Before you came to administer
the affairs of the country the Republicans
thought well to undertake similar work in the
Government schools, but lacked the courage to
touch the work of the mission schools where it
was needed. If the wisdom of such work was
recognized in the Government school, why not
recognize the wisdom of making it general? When
l was in Dakota as a missionary among the Sioux,
I, was much impressed with the grave injustice
done the Indian in all matters of trade, because
he could not speak the language in which the trade
was transacted. This step will help him out of the
difficulty and lift him a long way nearer equality
with the white man.

Seeing there is now being considerable said in the
public press about the Indian Office prohibiting
the teaching of the vernacular to the Indians in
Indian schools, and having been connected with the
Indian service for the past sixteen years, eleven
years of which I have been Indian agent and had
schools under my charge, l desire to state that I
am a strong advocate of instruction to Indians in
the English language only, as being able to read
and write in the vernacular of the tribe is but
little use to them. Nothing can be gained by
teaching Indians to read and write in the vernacular,
as their literature is limited and much valuable time
would be lost in attempting it. Furthermore, I have
found the vernacular of the Sioux very misleading,
while a full knowledge of the English enables the
Indians to transact business as individuals and to
think and act for themselves independently of each

As I understand it, the order applies to
children of school-going ages (from six to
sixteen years) only, and that missionaries are
at liberty to use the vernacular in religious
instructions. This is essential in explaining
the precepts of the Christian religion to adult
Indians who do not understand English.

In my opinion school conducted in the vernacular
are detrimental to civilization. They encourage
Indians to adhere to their time-honored customs
and inherent superstitions which the Government
has in every way sought to overcome, and which
can only be accomplished by adopting uniform
rules requiring instruction in the English
language exclusively.

I also append an extract on this subject from one of the leading religious weeklies:

English is the language overwhelmingly spoken
by our sixty millions of people. Outside of these,
there are two hundred thousand Indians old enough
to talk who use a hundred dialects, many of which
are as unintelligible to those speaking the other
dialects as Sanscrit is to the average New England
schoolboy. Why, then, should instruction in these
dialects be continued to the youth? Why, indeed?
They are now in the teachable age; if they are
ever to learn English they must learn it now—not
when they have become men with families, knowing
no other tongue than their own dialect, with its
very limited resources, a dialect wholly unadapted
to the newer life for which they are being prepared.
And they must learn English. The Indians of Fenimore
Cooper’s time lived in a terra incognita of their
own. Now all is changed; every Indian reservation in
the country is surrounded by white settlements, and
the red man is brought into direct contact and into
conflict with the roughest elements of country life.
It is clear, therefore, the quarter of a million of
red men on this continent can be left to themselves
no longer...

There are pretty nearly ten thousand Indian boys
and girls who avail themselves of educational
privileges. We want to keep right along in this
direction; and how can we do so but by beginning
with the youth and instructing them in the language
by using which alone they can be qualified for the
duties of American citizenship? . . . If the Indian
is always to be a tribal Indian and a foreigner, by
all means see to it that he learns his own tongue,
and no other. But if he is to be fitted for American
citizenship how shall he be better fitted than by
instructing him from his youth in the language of
his real country—the English tongue as spoken
by Americans.

As events progress, the Indians will gradually
cease to be enclosed in reservations; they will
mingle with the whites. The facilities of travel are
being as greatly extended by rail, by improved roads
and increasing districts of settlement that this
intercourse between whites and Indians must greatly
increase in future—but how shall the Indian profit
by it if he is ignorant of the English tongue? It
is said that missionaries can not instruct at all
in the Dakota tongue. We do not so understand it.
On the whole, when sober reflection shall have
been given to the subject, we think many who
have assailed the Indian Bureau for its recent
order will see and will acknowledge that the
action taken by the Interior Department is wise,
and that it is absolutely necessary if the Indian
is ever to be fitted for the high duties of
American citizenship.
(Prucha, Documents of
United States Indian Policy, 1975. pp, 169–17.)

Continue to Document 4: Ritual on Admission
of Indians to Full American Citizenship...