black and white photo of three native american men in street clothes, with two of them looking at the camera

From the Archive

The Reappearance of the Vanishing American

Across the United States, secondary school students are largely ignorant of Native American history. But, as this Spring 1990 article from The College Board Review argued, efforts in Wisconsin could have been the start of a nationwide change. 

Native and Indigenous peoples struggle with some of the worst educational inequity in the United States. Many students, families, and educators on reservations lack reliable access to necessities like clean water, electricity, and high-speed internet. Native students have a 72% high school graduation rate (compared with 89% for white students). Only 17% of students continue into college (compared to 60% of all U.S. students), and that number has actually decreased between 2016-17 and 2017-18. And 23% of first-year Native students graduate in four years (compared to 44% for white students).

Despite these realities, this community and its students are often left out of larger conversations about improving resources, infrastructure, and outcomes—not only in media but in data gathering. “It is difficult to track accurate college participation rates for Native American students as they are not tracked at all attainment levels,” the Postsecondary National Policy Institute reports. The reasons for this gap are many, but one culprit is that Americans are rarely exposed to Native experience, either in their daily lives or in their education. William A. Gollnick tackled that discrepancy in the Spring 1990 issue of The College Board Review, arguing for American students learning more about Native history.

Thirty years later, it’s difficult to say much improvement has been made in educating Americans about Native experience—or, indeed, in educating Native peoples. That makes the urgency to add such lessons to syllabi even greater than in 1990. “The Indians had vanished,” Gollnick writes. Today, with so many non-Natives and young people focused on tribal lands (in the fight over pipelines, for example), there is no better time to ask, as Gollnick does, “How can we make them reappear?”

Most of America's elementary school classrooms no longer have the alphabet prominently placed on the walls, with pictures as mnemonic devices. However, I can recall my childhood days, when I would look at the pictures and see the apple for "A," the block for "B," and the Indian for "I."

A dehumanizing drawing that lumped me with inanimate objects and animals was the only thing in the classroom that acknowledged my Indian heritage at all, except for all the activities during Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving always meant construction paper headdresses and "ughs" and tom-toms. Children were encouraged to jump around the room doing "Indian dances" and "war whoops." In 40 years I have never seen an Indian sound a war whoop, say "ugh," or dance like those first graders danced. Since this was as positive an image as my school offered of Indian culture, it is abundantly clear why many Americans retain their stereotypes of Indians.

Most American Indians have been relegated to a non-status position—merely a historical phenomenon—and the issues that they have faced from 1492 until now have merited only occasional mention. Those issues have only been included when there were points of intersection with "significant" American or colonial persons or settlements. Many myths about the American Indian have evolved from a lack of accurate information in schools, and America's stereotypes have been cultivated, reinforced, and intensified by the media. Media, in the broadest sense, means children's literature, cartoon caricatures, and certainly Hollywood's many contributions. But in all of this, perhaps the most damaging stereotype is one you would probably not suspect.

The literature of the late 1800s and early 1900s spoke of the Vanishing American. Indian people were supposedly fading away. Soon, it was suggested, there would be no more Indians. Except for the acknowledged existence of reservations and Indian urban centers, it appears that Americans simply assumed this was true. Schools have reinforced this notion through omission; one example is textbook content. While much has been done to eliminate sexism and racism in America's textbooks, very little has been done to present American Indian history, culture, and tradition. The broad education community knows little about Indians; Indian concerns have been overlooked, and textbook information about Indians has changed very little since my 1950s versions. Perhaps because we make up less than one percent of the population in this country our collective voice often does not carry very well in academia. Schools continue to recycle the same misinformation to successive generations, and American Indians continue to wonder: Wherein lies our reality?

a posed black and white photo of a Native American wearing a headdress and holding a rifle

Smithsonian Institution

The true story of American Indian life has been overlooked in class­rooms across the nation, but it is now being recounted, partly through the revision of school curriculums. And in days ahead, Native American children will no longer have to wonder: "Wher

The movie industry, from the first days of "talkies," portrayed Indians as pidgin English-speaking nomads. They were on the losing side of glorious battles that resulted in the "winning of the West." There were seldom mentions of treaties and trade. In Hollywood's case, stereotypes sell; the truth would provide a fascinating story, but it probably wouldn't create box office success. Movies and schools have thus provided an inaccurate, fixed-frame view of America's Indigenous peoples.

On reservations and in urban centers there continue to be Indian people with cultures and languages different from mainstream America. As members of Indian nations, they have legal status that has consistently made them different from their fellow citizens. Their challenges and successes evolve much more from law than combat.

For a moment, let us briefly examine some American Indian history.

When Columbus arrived here in 1492, he referred to the people he found as Indios. They treated him kindly and one should read his chronicles to learn how he treated them in return. In 1532 Father Franciscus de Victoria (a Spanish priest also known as the “father of international law”) reasoned that although Indians were not Christian, they nonetheless were humans and, indeed, owned the New World. This was not big news to Indian people, but it was a dramatic event in that it set the stage for treaty relationships that continued between Indian nations and colonial and American powers until 1871. Neither the right of discovery nor divine right could legally extinguish the Indians' legal title. Free and voluntary choice—treaties—became the vehicle for "acquiring" the New World.

In 1790 the federal government passed the Indian Non-Intercourse Act. This legislation reserved to the federal government the right to enter into treaties with the Indian nations. Treaties that secured rights to trade, that forged alliances, and that secured land and resources, were the primary basis of the relationship. Some treaties even spoke of education. Education took different forms in those days, however.


America’s images of Indians in the 1700s were savage and menacing, but even in those early times, some colonial and American colleges were offering to educate Indian men. Efforts in education were equated with acculturation, and there was a special interest in Europe in the education of Indians. Behind the colleges' altruism was the ironic fact that sometimes it was easier to raise money to educate Indians than it was to raise money to educate colonists. This was a significant attraction for a number of fledgling academic giants that included Harvard and Dartmouth.

In 1774, the College of William and Mary extended an offer to the Iroquois (of whom Oneida is one nation) to educate six chiefs' sons. That the Iroquois understood the acculturation implications is illustrated by their response to the college:

We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those colleges . . . But you who are wise must know that different nations have different conceptions of things; and you will, therefore, not take it amiss if our ideas of this kind of education happen not to be the same with yours ... We are, however, not the less obliged by your kind offer, though we decline accepting it. To show our grateful sense of it, if the gentlemen of Virginia will send us a dozen of their sons, we will take great care of their education, instruct them in all we know, and make men of them.

Hollywood would have had us believe that in the 1830s, Indians were attacking wagon trains on a weekly basis and were generally being their nomadic selves, just roaming the prairies. The Cherokee, however, had schools, churches, and a strong government. In many ways they were a model of the American Dream. They were also, however, standing in the way. President Jackson was determined to march them to the Indian Territory (which he ultimately did, in what was called the Trail of Tears), but the Cherokee did not ride submissively over the hill. They went to the Supreme Court.

In two landmark cases, Cherokee Nation v. Georgia and Worcester v. Georgia, the Cherokee challenged the legal right of the United States to remove them arbitrarily from their territory and their homes. Fifty years into the great American experiment in democracy, two of the three branches of government were at loggerheads over what constituted the land base of the country. Legally, the court could only find in favor of the Indians; but the decision would have been politically devastating. To find in favor of the President's position would have been equally devastating. It would have meant that all of Indian country was up for grabs. And that would most likely have meant warfare on a massive scale.

Chief Justice Marshall pulled a rabbit from his legal hat and decided that Indian nations were ''domestic dependent nations," that they were "nations within a nation,'' and that it was the responsibility of the American government to protect the interests of those nations within its borders. Thus began the trust responsibility and continuing involvement of the federal government in the daily affairs and operations of American Indian tribes.

cover of the spring 1990 issue of the college board review

When the treaty period ended in 1871, federal involvement with the tribes continued. For instance, Indian children were still being pulled from their homes in the name of education. Many were being "educated" in former military posts. In 1894 a “kinder and gentler” America finally prohibited removing Indian children from their state or territory without parental consent and forbade withholding food rations as a means of acquiring that consent.

The 1920s were years of new directions. Indians in public schools outnumbered Indians in Bureau of Indian Affairs schools for the first time. In part because of its gratitude that Indians had fought in substantial numbers in World War I (even though they were not citizens), Congress extended citizenship to American Indians in 1924.

The 1930s brought discussion of the Merriam Report, which was a scathing indictment of the government's Indian policy. Its comments on Indian education beckoned sweeping changes. This period also brought a call for restructuring tribal governments which had been devastated by numerous federal actions. The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 encouraged tribes to establish elected forms of government that would, from that point forward, be formally recognized by the United States. Most tribes complied.

In the 1950s, the federal policies of termination and relocation were instituted. The first was designed to make Indians "melt" by terminating their status as Indians (that is, no longer recognizing them or their governments); the latter was intended to move Indians from their homes to urban centers. A number of tribes were terminated, and relocation (designed by the same person who relocated Japanese-Americans during World War II) also had a significant impact.

In 1969, the Kennedy Commission report, Indian Education: A National Tragedy—A National Challenge,' was published. While pointing out what was contemporarily wrong with Indian education, it referred to the continuing existence of many of the problems identified in the Merriam Report 40 years earlier.

The following year, Richard Nixon tried a new approach. Indian self-determination would be the new cry. Rather than attempting to further undermine tribal governments, Nixon proposed to support them in their efforts to define their own problems and generate their own solutions. The Indian Education Act of 1972 and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 were watersheds in America's relationship with Indian tribes.

In 1970 the average Indian's life expectancy was 47 years. The Bureau of Indian Affairs had become a vast, self-perpetuating entity that cost millions to run, and which left meager support for the benefit of the tribes. The “first American” had become the “last American” in almost every socioeconomic category. Despite this gloomy reality, the new laws provided new hope. The tribes began to gear up. Jobs were being developed on many of the reservations where they were vitally needed: Many had unemployment rates exceeding 75 percent. Tribes also encouraged their members to pursue new education opportunities and obtain college degrees.

From the outside looking in, one might suppose that an Indian who became educated would strive to leave the reservation, enter the mainstream, and make a reasonable living. Although many chose to do just that, many others began to investigate how so much had been lost, how the status of Indian people had fallen so low, and they began to look for ways to improve the condition of their people. What they learned was that conditions were worse than the script of a John Wayne movie might have revealed.

Tribes across the country began to pursue legal remedies for the federal and state actions that had devastated their economies and governments. More tribes began to realize success, as their increased numbers of formally educated students joined with long-suffering leaders of their communities. Many non-Indian people near these communities rose up and shouted that Indians are just like everybody else. Why should they get special treatment?

Saddest of all is that many of these people still believe these assumptions. They honestly do not know that Indians were excluded from the Constitution by name, and that the treaty has been the basis for the relationship between the United States government and the tribes throughout history. They have assumed that Indians have the same legal status as everyone else. It must be true, or they would have learned differently in school. But as we now know, the schools do not have historical or contemporary information about American Indians—the Indians had vanished.

How, then, can we make them reappear?


The challenge to educators is twofold. As America speaks more of multiculturalism, some Indians are already becoming visible, but not necessarily in very positive ways. In one Wisconsin city, for instance, a newspaper reported that the average grade-point average of its Indian students in grades 9 through 12 was below two points. Educators must acknowledge that parity has not yet been achieved. Many Indian students continue to need support.

An added dimension, as educators' attention is drawn to academic deficits, is that many Indian families (at least in Wisconsin) are adamant that their children be raised and educated as Indian children. That involves the preservation of culture, language, and traditions. For some Indian families, the desired outcomes of the education process involve a different set of expectations. Educators will need to be aware of these values as they undertake their planning.

black and white photo of three native american men in street clothes, with two of them looking at the camera

John C. Phillips

For Native Americans and for all Americans, educators "must acknowledge the diversity of this country's heritage in open, nonjudgmental ways."

The other challenge is the need to accurately portray the interrelationships between Indians and other Americans. The significance of this effort was perhaps best illustrated by the late Felix Cohen, a noted authority on federal Indian law, who proclaimed in 1953 that Indians have a unique mission in America:

It is a pity that so many Americans today think of the Indian as a romantic or comic figure in American history without contemporary significance. In fact, the Indian plays much the same role in our American society that the Jews played in Germany. Like the miner's canary, the Indian marks the shifts from fresh air to poison gas in our political atmosphere; and our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith.

To bring accuracy and honor to their profession, educators must acknowledge the diversity of this country's heritage in open, nonjudgmental ways; they must have the courage and determination to open the curriculum and invite the wisdom, knowledge, culture, and traditions of all Americans. This may involve a supreme effort to cultivate and draw upon the resources available in the school and state communities. Admittedly, this is no small task, but there are undercurrents and developments which may aid the process.


Wisconsin’s struggles over treaty issues have been much reported in the national press. Ugly scenes and racist placards have gathered much attention. What has been less covered is the passage of Indian education provisions that will require the instruction of Indian history, culture, and tribal sovereignty in all of its public schools. The same information is required of all state college education students as part of their human relations requirement.

Wisconsin schools will soon know how our state came to be the way it is today. Many conscientious districts are moving ahead in information-gathering and development; other less-supportive districts will await state-developed resources and meet the minimum expectations. The important thing is that the information will be developed, it will be available, and the content that should have been shared with American children for the last 200 years will finally be taught.

For those beyond Wisconsin who might be prepared to pick up the challenge of setting the curriculum right, I offer these closing thoughts.

Although Indians never really vanished, they have not been very visible. In some areas they have not yet graduated from the "other" (as in "white, black, or other") category, but they, visible or otherwise, will continue their lives as a unique subset of the American experience. Having lived on the Oneida Reservation for nearly 20 years, I have seen the development of a tribally controlled elementary school where the Oneida language and culture are taught. I have seen the growth of pride in a community that had nothing and now employs over 900 people. I have experienced some of the positive aspects that "Indianness" can offer.

With tribal successes, however, I have also seen challenges to treaty rights. Some protestors and legislators are calling for the abrogation of treaties; some call it "modernizing" the treaties. Indians know better.

Oneida traditions remind us that decisions are to be made based upon concern for the seven generations of our ancestors. Through trial after trial, Indian traditions and languages have survived up to now. This generation can do no less than to ensure that the next has the opportunity to pass on its common heritage. Indians will meet the new trials. And all students should know of their efforts