Our First Neighbors: A Historical Look at Native American Higher Education and the Role of Christian Colleges

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Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, the first Native American graduate of Harvard College. Graduated in 1665.

American higher education today is a unique and powerful system. Beginning with the establishment of Harvard College in 1636, the great American experiment in higher education has undergone extensive growth and change since the colonial era. For Christian higher education, history provides a context for understanding where the Christian college is now. A unique, perhaps less discussed, area of Christian higher education is its relationship with Native American students and colleges. In the colonial period, three foundational institutions included in their charters the mission to evangelize Native Americans through higher education. With colonial higher education’s inclusion of Native American students, a precedent was set for the continual relationship and often tension between Christian higher education and Native Americans. This paper will investigate the progression of Native American higher education through the colonial era to the present day, how Christian higher education has been a part of this development, and how Christian colleges may serve Native American college students today.

Colonial Colleges

Harvard, William and Mary, and Dartmouth, three of the nine first colonial colleges included in their charters the mission to provide education for Native Americans. Providing this type of education was believed to be a way to “Christianize” and “civilize” these peoples (Cohen & Kisker, 2010 & Saggio, 2004). Even before Harvard was established in 1636, the colony of Jamestown had developed plans for creating an institution solely for the higher learning of Native American students. However, the plans for the institution were halted by a tribal uprising in 1622. Had the college been established, “it not only would have been the future nation’s first Indian college, it would have been [the] first college overall. Usurping Harvard’s claim to that honor by fourteen or so years” (Carney, 1999, p. 22). Though never realized, Jamestown colonists’ hope to provide higher learning for Native Americans illustrates the deep belief that through education Native American peoples could be indoctrinated into white Christianity and culture.

Although Jamestown failed to establish the “Indian college,” Harvard College expanded its charter in 1650 to include the mission of educating not only English men but Native American men as well. The new charter expressed the goal to pursue “the education of the English and Indian youth of this country, in knowledge and godliness” (Harvard University, 1650). Carney (1999) points out that this change in the charter conveniently occurred shortly after the creation of grants from the “Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England” and the “Boyle Fund.” Harvard received a substantial amount of funds each year from these organizations for its work in Native American higher education and missions. In fact, Carney argues, “Virtually every instance of professed devotion to Indian higher education…during the colonial period was actually an exercise in fund raising or in access to funds requiring an Indian mission” (p. 3).

Considering the extremely limited finances for colleges during this time, it is not surprising that they would seek funds from these types of grants (Cohen & Kisker, 2010). Despite questionable motivation, Harvard constructed a building with the capacity to house twenty Native American students in 1656. However, Native American interest in the Eurocentric education offered at Harvard was practically nonexistent, and in the forty years before the building was destroyed, only four Native American students were housed there.

The college of William and Mary opened after being given a royal charter in 1693, and included in its mission the goal of civilizing and converting the Native Americans to Christianity. William and Mary, like Harvard, benefited from the Boyle Fund and other grants from England for its mission to the Native Americans. However, it was not until thirty years after the founding of the institution that the building, “Brafferton,” was constructed to house the “Indian college” of William and Mary. The building housed both an institution of higher learning and a grammar school for younger Native American students. Only 16 Native American students attended William and Mary during the colonial period, none of which received a bachelor’s degree (Carney, 1999).

During the time of Brafferton College, many criticized the schools apparent ineffectiveness. A former faculty member, Hugh Jones, espoused his deep disappointment with the school; describing his Native American students, when finished with their education, going back to their “own savage customs upon returning the their people; or continuing to live in Williamsburg but seldom raising themselves to a higher level, choosing an idle life or jobs as servants” (Layman as cited in Carney, 1999, p. 28).

The small student numbers and Native Americans’ little interest or ability to take advantage of the offerings of a higher education from colonial Harvard College and the College of William and Mary seemed to deter other institutions from creating colleges for Native Americans. It was not until 1769 with the creation of Dartmouth College that a charter was once again written including the goal of ministering and educating Native American students. The stated purpose for Dartmouth was:

…for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian tribes in this Land in reading, writing and all parts of Learning which shall appear necessary and expedient for civilizing and christianizing Children of Pagans as well as in all liberal Arts and Sciences; and also of English Youth and any others. (Dartmouth College, 1769)

The founder of Dartmouth, Eleazar Wheelock, was very interested in creating a liberal arts college solely for the education of Native Americans; however, gaining little financial support from the colonists, he became disillusioned and decided to establish a college for both whites and Native Americans.

Wheelock had been influenced by the “Great Awakening” a religious revival beginning in 1733. The Great Awakening was time marked by “mass revivalism….through every colony and every denomination,” and motivated the establishment of six new colleges including Dartmouth (Ringenberg, 2006, p. 39). Though there were small Native American enrollments, Dartmouth reported better attendance than the “Indian colleges” of William and Mary or Harvard. Before 1800, twenty-five Native American students attended Dartmouth, three of which graduated.

With the Revolutionary War came the end of the Boyle Fund and other grants from England which had encouraged colleges to provide education for the Native Americans. Due to this removal of financial support, lack of Native American interest in the colleges, and changing white views of the place of Native Americans in the new United States, the Americans lost interest in providing liberal arts higher education opportunities for Native Americans.

While there are many factors that influenced the state of colonial higher education intended for Native Americans, perhaps the most central to the problem was the Native American people’s inability to access white society with or without a college degree. According to Carney (1999), “The white society seemed to have a notably limited view of the value of education for the Indian beyond the issue of religious conversion” (p. 41). The few Native Americans who actually graduated from colonial colleges remained in great poverty, unaccepted by white and tribal society alike. There is evidence that two Native American students enrolled in Harvard College were murdered by members of their tribe, conceivably because of the negative reaction to their attending the white school (Carney, 1999). With these social and physical consequences in mind, it is easy to see how there would be very little Native American interest in the Eurocentric, elitist education offered during this time.

Additionally, the wish to evangelize the Native Americans, while presumably well intentioned, produced a considerable amount of harm. Saggio (2004) explains the situation well:

Though their desire to evangelize and disciple Native Americans was laudable, the manner in which evangelism, discipleship, and intellectual indoctrination took place amounted to ‘cultural genocide’” (p. 332).

During this era and continuing into the federal era of Native American higher education, to become a Christian became equivalent with adopting and assimilating into white culture. There is little evidence that Native Americans were encouraged to accept the Christian faith and remain an active part of their own communities.

With no acknowledgement of a value in Native American culture, and no invitation for the Native American students to enter the white world, the opportunities of higher learning offered to them during the colonial period created more harm than good. The Eurocentric mindedness of the times created misunderstandings and missed opportunities for the newly founded American country to build healthy relationships with the indigenous people of the Americas. Reyhner and Edner (2004) define the times of colonial Native American higher education as ones of “ambitious rhetoric…not matched by deeds” (p. 290). Additionally, Carney dishearteningly observes, “As unimpressive as the colonial period was…it would prove to be a high point for interest in and effort toward Native American higher education, not to be equaled until the 1960s” (p. 3). With the birth of a new country, less optimistic attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Americas were formed.

The Federal Period

The end of the revolution and the beginning of America’s independence from England marked a great change in Native American policy. Gone were the attempts to “civilize” the native peoples through liberal arts higher education and focus was shifted to providing Native Americans with vocational skills (Carney, 1999 & Saggio, 2004). What has become known as the “federal period” in the history of Native American higher education, Cohen and Kisker (2010) define as the “Emergent Nation Era” and “University Transformation Era” in their broad history of American higher education, a time period that spans from 1790 to 1944. For American higher education, these eras are marked by rapid growth, optimism, and the excitement of the seemingly endless possibilities for the new nation. In contrast, this time for the higher learning for Native Americans had very little growth and appears to be forgotten by the many working tirelessly for the growth of higher education.

Support for the removal of Native Americans further west grew after the Revolutionary War, and with the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828, removal of the Native Americans was set in motion. The Indian Removal Act of 1829 was passed and Native American removal, perhaps better known as the Trail of Tears, to the west of the Mississippi River began. The removals took place over eleven years and were completed in 1840. Through the uprooting of Native Americans, the few educational systems they had developed collapsed, and tribes, such as the Cherokee and Choctaw, who had developed especially strong educational systems, did not have the economic resources to rebuild them after their removal to the West (Carney, 1999). Paradoxically, the federal government removed almost all educational funding for Native Americans during this time while still promoting the belief that education in order to assimilate Native Americans was the duty of the whites (Carney, 1999). This espoused dedication to assimilation may have only been a maneuver to keep those who would have opposed the Indian Removal Act quiet. The government assured citizens that, for the good of the Native Americans and their assimilation into the United States, they needed to be moved to the western regions of the country (Carney, 1999).

Because of the lack of funds from the federal government after the Indian Removal Act, much of the education that took place during the federal era was funded by Christian missions. While most of these missions established lower-education academies, some of the larger academies offered “classical higher education curriculum” (Carney, 1999, p. 58). The pre-Civil War institutions resembled the colonial colleges very closely in curriculum, and their close tie to an evangelistic mission remained (Ringenberg, 2006).

Using higher education as a tool to evangelize Native Americans made sense to missionaries during this time. The Choctaw Academy was one such institution and one of the most influential American Indian academies in the 20th Century. It was funded by the Baptist Board of Foreign Missions and was well received by the Native American community (Carney, 1999). Another example of this type of academy was The Foreign Mission School in Connecticut. Opening in 1817 and closing in 1827, the school contained a mixed curriculum of classical components, as well as Christian theology, “agricultural-vocational, and academic training” (Carney, 1999, p. 60).

During these eras, colleges were developed for minority students across the nation, and institutions were slowly opening to those that had been traditionally kept out including women and black Americans. The post-Civil War university transformation era is especially marked by “crusades” of abolitionists to free and gain equal rights for black Americans; however, Cohen and Kisker (2010) note, “Curiously, the moral crusade hardly extended to indigenous Americans: ‘The plight of the red man…left abolitionists cold, though they were willing to pull down the whole fabric of America, if need be to free the black man’” (Adams as cited in Cohen & Kisker, p. 108). In contrast, for the Native American, this time period is marked by removal and the continual push farther west into increased poverty and the federal government showing little interest in their education.

Due to the lack of federal funding, Christian mission organizations continued be the primary parties concerned with the education of Native Americans. Through the 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a few colleges established by both tribes and Christian missions. Bacone College in Oklahoma is one of these institutions and is still in existence today. Bacone College was established in 1880 with the mission to equip Native American teachers and preachers for Christian work among the Native American tribes (Reyhner & Eder, 2004). Bacone was unique for this era in that its board of trustees was not made up of white, European men but of chiefs from the Creek Nation and the Delaware (Reyher & Eder, 2004). With governing power in the hands of Native Americans, the first years of the institution were marked by remarkable success. Bacone gave out its first bachelor’s degree in 1883 and grew to enroll 703 students by 1885 (Carney, 1999). In addition to large enrollments for an institution of its time, Bacone’s graduates went on to do especially well, entering the professions of “medicine, law, journalism, and business” (Reyher & Eder, 2004, p. 294). Bacone served as a prototype for the development of other tribally governed institutions, and with its strong focus in the liberal arts and Native American heritage, it is one of the only institutions of its kind (Carney, 1999).  The oldest college in Oklahoma today, Bacone College remains an active, faith based university serving students from many ethnic backgrounds, predominately Native Americans.

While Bacone College is a fascinating Christian institution in a time when there was little opportunity for Native Americans to pursue higher learning, it does seem surprising that Native Americans did not benefit from more higher education institutions at a time when colleges were being created at such mind boggling rates. At the beginning of this era, in 1790, eleven American higher education institutions existed and by the close of the Second World War, in 1945, the number had grown to 1,768 (Cohen & Kisker 2010).

Carney (1999) identifies three main reasons why colleges failed to reach out to Native Americans. The deep racism of the country during this time cannot be ignored. In addition, the lack of a critical mass of Native Americans contributed to the difficulty of forming a college for them, and finally, problems of the federal government retaining power over much of American Indian education but having little interest in initiating programs, kept the development of Native American colleges to a minimum. Due to these three main factors, it was not until President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives in the 1930’s that any significant changes were made to increase Native Americans’ access to higher education (Saggio, 2004).

Included in FDR’s New Deal program was the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 marking a turning point for Native American access to higher learning. The act renewed the federal government’s recognition of tribal governments and their sovereignty. This act allowed for federal support for Native American higher education. However, even after the federal government provided these financial promises, enrollment of Native American students remained very low. According to a survey done by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, in 1932 only 385 Native American students were enrolled in college nationwide. Carney (1999) reflects, “With little being done to make higher education more attractive or relevant as perceived by Native Americans, the federal support changes alone were not sufficient to cause a sudden surge in Native American college enrollment…” (p. 103). However, the situation of Native American higher learning was beginning to change as more government initiatives, including the G.I. Bill for World War II veterans, made it possible for Native American students to attend college.

Self-Determination Period

The self-determination period of Native American higher education begins in the 1960’s and continues to the current day (Carney, 1999). In the 1960’s for the first time in the history of the United States, Native Americans began enrolling in colleges in very large numbers (Carney, 1999). The shift occurred in large part due to the change of policy in the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Robert Bennett became commissioner, the first Native American BIA commissioner in over 100 years, and began work to change the bureau’s approach to Native American education. The changes emphasized the importance of Native American tribes taking control of the education of their people, and in the late 1960’s tribal colleges emerged (Saggio, 2004). Bacone College can be viewed as a prototype for the new tribally governed colleges from the 1960’s to today. Today 34 tribally controlled institutions are in existence, most offering associates degrees with a few also offering bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Tribal institutions vary greatly from one another but all serve the purpose to “promote the tribal cultures, histories, and language development” of the Native Americans (Carney, 1999, p. 110). A purpose that is very different from the Native American educational programs of the colonial and federal eras. These institutions have worked remarkably well in reaching students who were not being reached or well served in other areas of American higher education.

In the realms of Christian higher education, Bacone College remains influential in its strong Native American tradition. Carney theorizes that the success of Bacone even into the present day is likely due to its strong emphasis on including Native American culture into the curriculum. Alongside of Bacone College in the Christian higher learning realm is American Indian College (AIC) in Pheonix, Arizona. Established in 1957, in order to equip Native Americans for church ministry, AIC today serves primarily Native American students as a Christian college. Both these institutions, though small, provide a strong model for other institutions seeking to serve Native American students well.

Issues within Native Americans Higher Education

Carney (1999), in reflecting on the history of Native American higher education, suggests that “one is struck by a sense of what might have been” (p. 137). This question becomes even more potent when considered under the category of Christian higher education. The approach of the colonial period to Native American higher learning set a precedent that truly did not begin to fall away until the 1960’s: higher education in order to assimilate. In both the colonial and federal periods of Native American higher education, colonists and the federal government attempted to create colleges for Native Americans without their consultation. College was meant to assimilate, and, for many during these eras, assimilation included the acceptance of white Christianity. Native Americans were expected, and sometimes coerced, into giving up their language, traditions, and values for those of the European whites, and often, professing Christian missionaries were at the forefront of these movements.

However, there were missionaries and churches who successfully worked with Native Americans to create institutions of higher learning. Bacone College is a fascinating institution that has had much success. Today, higher education is much more accessible for Native Americans because of federal funding, and tribal colleges are equipped to reach students that would not have enrolled in higher education previously. Native American governed higher education is still very new, and it will be intriguing to see how these institutions grow and change in the coming years.

So what is a Christian college’s role in the Native American higher learning world? Certainly many Christian colleges, especially those in the eastern United States may serve a few Native American students, but the numbers are likely slim. In a study done of populations at evangelical Christian colleges and universities in the years 2000-2001, only Bacone College and American Indian College contained a large percentage of Native American students. Baylor University, Liberty University, and Azusa Pacific University follow these institutions serving between 30-56 Native American students in their institutions, less than one percent of their total student populations (Saggio, 2004).

For those Christian colleges who serve or could serve a larger number of Native American students, especially those in close proximity to Native American reservations, should an effort be made to reach out to the tribal population? Understanding the history of Native Americans and Christian colleges is important as we begin to wrestle with this question. It is essential to understand the unhealed wounds that past Christian colleges have inflicted on Native American communities and also the successes Christian colleges have had in order to form a plan for moving forward.

Reyhner and Eder (2004) assert that as higher education for Native Americans progresses the central question will be focused on “whether the education supplied will be for the purpose of assimilation in a non-Indian world or for a purpose that is more in line with Indian cultures” (p. 306). These are important things to consider when approaching the question of how to serve Native American students well. Ringenberg (2006) presents the ideal Christian college as a place for truth seeking under a worldview revolutionized by the gospel of Jesus Christ. Perhaps it is because of this worldview and this truth seeking that Christian colleges should be leading the way in considering how they may serve Native American students.


Carney, C. M. (1999). Native American higher education in the United States. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Cohen, A. M. & Kisker, C. B. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Dartmouth College. (1769). Charter of Dartmouth College. Retrieved from http://www.dartmouth.edu/~library/rauner/dartmouth/dc-charter.html?mswitch-redir=classic

Harvard University. (1650). The charter of the president and fellows of Harvard College under the seal of the colony of Massachusetts Bay. Harvard University Archives.

Reyhner, J. & Eder, J. (2004). American Indian education: A history. OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Ringenberg, W. C. (2006). The Christian college: A history of protestant higher education in America. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.

Saggio, J. J. (2004). Native American Christian higher education: Challenges and opportunities for the 21st century. Christian Higher Education,3:329-347.

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