History, Department of


Date of this Version

March 2004


Published in Journal of Arizona History 45, no. 1 (Spring 2004): pp. 31-62. Copyright © 2004 Arizona Historical Society. Used by permission. http://www.arizonahistoricalsociety.org/default.asp


From the 1880s up to the 1930s, many American Indian children were forced by U.S. government agents to attend school against the wishes of their parents and community. To some observers, then and now, this confrontation symbolized a clash between civilization and savagery, between education and ignorance. A careful examination of these battles between government officials and Indian families, however, reveals a more complex picture.

The experiences of the Hopis and Navajos (Dine) in Arizona offer poignant case studies for examining the dynamics of the government's practice of removing Indian children from their families for the alleged purpose of education. Initially, neither the Hopis nor the Navajos opposed formal American education for their children. Many of them, however, actively resisted sending their children away to boarding schools. If the government had only wanted to educate American Indians, it could have adopted methods that would neither have engendered resistance nor brought about great upheaval in Indian communities. After all, other assimilation efforts directed toward immigrants, African Americans, and Mexican Americans during the same period never entailed the wholesale and systematic removal of children from their families' custody and care. The fact that the government adopted child removal as a policy toward American Indians suggests that it had motives beyond assimilation. Ultimately, the federal policy and practice of child removal arose from the desire to punish and control Indian people.

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