Excerpt: Colonized through Art

The following has been excerpted from Colonized through Art: American Indian Schools and Art Education, 1889-1915 (August 2017) by Marinella Lentis. 

From the Introduction

Every child enjoys drawing with colored pencils, crayons, and markers and putting on paper his ideas about the world around him. Similarly, children love to touch and feel things with their own hands, give shape to something out of nothing, to build, to invent. Her mind directs her hand into spontaneous compositions that sooner or later are going to reflect the environment in which she grows and through which she learns about reality. But when such natural and imaginative instincts are forcibly rectified and redirected toward what someone outside of the child’s circle deems more correct—the right imageries, the right shapes, the more appropriate color and usage—something is inevitably lost. In the child’s mind, a door that was once open to uncountable possibilities of exploration, experience, and knowledge is now all of a sudden closed, although not permanently locked. This unnatural imposition no longer allows the young person to grow and develop to his or her full potential, because the pleasurable creative act has now become an oppressive instrument for reshaping the world according to a different set of foreign and unfamiliar standards that do not value the individual’s own imagination, background, and heritage. This is the art training American Indian children received in government schools at the turn of the twentieth century. The purpose and content of that kind of training are the subjects of this book.

The establishment of boarding schools for American Indian children at the end of the nineteenth century marked the beginning of a system­atized, government-sanctioned process of assimilation of the Indigenous population through education. Peopled with children often forcibly removed from their homes, extended families, and communities in order to erad­icate “savage” influences, boarding schools suppressed every aspect of Indian cultures, traditions, and languages. In the process, they acted as factories to produce a proletariat of industrious Christian citizens. As Richard Henry Pratt declared at the beginning of his experience at the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, there was “no holding onto Indianism in this transformation”; Indianism meant extinction and death; education opened the doors to a future as members of American society.1 With the proper kind of education, Indian boys and girls could learn to live and work like Anglo-Americans and thus advance from their primitive state to a civilized one.

Thomas J. Morgan, commissioner of Indian Affairs (1889–93), and Estelle Reel, superintendent of Indian schools (1898–1910), were key players in the education of American Indian children as they brought significant changes to the curriculum of federal institutions by introducing art instruc­tion. In 1890, Morgan proposed the teaching of elementary art while, a decade later, Reel called for the inclusion of “Native industries” such as weaving, pottery, and basketry, recommending Native artists as instructors. Why were American Indian children trained in basic principles of art such as colors and shapes? Why did they have to learn how to draw according to Anglo cultural standards and why were their Indigenous norms inadequate? Why, in a political climate of forced assimilation and Americanization, were they allowed and even encouraged to make their own crafts? How was art education used to help the Indian Service achieve its goals?

This book attempts to answer these questions by examining the process of domestication of Indian children through art education. I propose that instruction in art was included in the curriculum of government-controlled schools as an instrument for the “colonization of consciousness,” that is, for the redefinition of Indigenous peoples’ minds through the instilment of values and ideals of mainstream society. As nineteenth-century theo­ries of education saw art as the foundation of morality, a means for the promotion of virtues and of personal and social improvement, Indian policymakers and educators embraced it as one of the instruments through which they could reach the assimilationist goals of their time. Boarding schools aimed at the transformation of little “savages” into civilized men and women; art fit well into their curriculum because it contributed to this evolution. Using educational approaches already tested in public schools with working-class students and immigrant children, and taking advan­tage of the renewed interest in Native arts and crafts, Morgan and Reel introduced their respective art curricula.

Colonized through Art considers Morgan’s and Reel’s national man­dates at the turn of the twentieth century and explores their rationales for including drawing and Native crafts in Indian schools. It then compares the course of study envisioned by these two bureaucrats to the art instruction that was actually “offered” at two institutions, the Albuquerque Indian School in New Mexico (Territory of New Mexico, at the time of the school’s founding) and the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, from 1889 to 1915. Local implementation of government directives sheds light on the daily practices of Indian education at the micro level and provides specific information as to the organization, pedagogy, and goals of art instruction in these particular localities. The newly penned educational programs, crafted at an administrative level that was disconnected from the everyday reality of Indian schools, were not equally implemented in all government institutions. The two schools under examination clearly demonstrate this diversity of approaches in complying with Washington directives and show not only heterogeneous local responses to national policies, but also different educational praxes. Finally, this work discusses how students’ works of art were exhibited in the context of international expositions and national educational conventions as exemplary evidence of the children’s progress toward civilization and the instrumentality of an Anglo education in reaching this goal. As Indian policy changed, so did the art curriculum of Indian schools from the early 1890s, when it was first introduced, to the mid-1910s, when it lost its significance; this book attempts to retrace the major phases, objectives, and key players of this story.



1. Pratt, Battlefield and Classroom, 271.