Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Education has always been part of human life in the Great Plains, a means of passing on necessary skills, values, and history. While today we tend to think of education in formal terms that include institutions and administrative structures, Native peoples had wellestablished means of transferring knowledge between generations long before Europeans arrived. For pioneers, education in the form of schooling was fundamental to the "civilization" they carried with them. Schools were among the first institutions established, and as society matured, so did the levels of education. Within a decade of initial settlement and often much earlier, states and provinces in the Great Plains had institutions of higher education. Throughout the region today, an energetic system of education exists. Virtually all children attend elementary schools, most graduate from high school, and many have attained at least some postsecondary schooling.

This level of education has not been easily secured. The story of education in the Great Plains has been one of reform and resistance over the past two centuries.

The earliest European and American educators in the Plains were missionaries who were motivated to bring Christianity to Native peoples through education. Later reformers determined that schooling would not only be the best way to separate Indians from their traditional cultures, thereby assimilating them, but it would also instruct African Americans and immigrants about their place in society. Reformers also sought ways to improve education: they legislated compulsory education and longer school terms and pushed for vocational training, adult education, and, in rural areas, agricultural education and eventually school consolidation. In an attempt to improve the quality of education, reformers also promoted formal teacher training. Many reforms met resistance from the outset as parents challenged the implementation of schooling as well as attempts to alter it. Sometimes, they simply refused to participate; at other times, they used the courts to contest school practices.

Schooling Indians

The first attempts at formalizing education in the Great Plains involved the long tradition of ministry to Native peoples. Much of the story of "educating the Indians" centered on replacing long-standing customs with indoctrination. Missionaries accompanied the fur trade in Canada's earliest years, and the tie there between religion and Indian education was strong until the 1970s. Similarly, in the United States missionaries were present at the earliest stages of exploration and settlement. When the United States forcibly removed Native Americans from the eastern woodlands to the Southern and Central Great Plains, missionaries followed them. By the 1830s missionaries were present in many parts of the region. In both countries the federal government relied on various religious organizations to help administer Indian policy, particularly education.

Strategies for Indian education have followed a common pattern throughout the Great Plains: initial contact with Native peoples and attempts to bring them to Christianity and European-derived values; day schools on reservations; boarding schools that took children from their families, first on the reservation and then off; integrating Indian children into public schools; and, most recently, admitting tribal influence back into education.

By the mid.nineteenth century, provisions for education had become commonplace in treaties negotiated between Indians and whites. Tribal peoples sought skills to help them deal with a rapidly changing world, and, for different motives, politicians, missionaries, and humanitarians believed education would ease that transition. At first, missionaries established day schools near villages where children could attend and still reside at home. Day schools were strongly preferred by parents, so much so that when negotiations were under way in a series of treaties between Canadian and First Nations leaders in the years following Confederation, local education was a consistent demand. Such schools were also cheap to administer, and missionaries and government officials hoped that the children would take their newfound ideas back to their families and thus accelerate assimilation for everyone. These hopes were not fulfilled; far from assimilating their parents, children often held tenaciously to traditional values. Neither bureaucrats nor missionaries ever understood that Indian parents wanted whatever advantages education might bring but steadfastly rejected the underlying principles of assimilation that went hand in hand with schools.

By the 1870s boarding schools had become a cornerstone of Indian education in both Canada and the United States. At first, educators built boarding schools near the reserves or reservations. When close proximity to tribal and family influences proved too strong, perpetuating old ways, missionaries and government officials decided that total separation was necessary. The thinking was that only by disconnecting children physically as well as culturally from their families would they learn the educational and economic skills necessary for assimilation into society. Although the tactics they used proved execrable, educators' primary concern was how to prepare Indian children for the world they would face as adults, a world that could not rely on the buffalo hunt.

The first and probably best known off- reservation boarding school in the United States was Carlisle Indian Industrial School, located in rural Pennsylvania, far from the homes of Great Plains children who were sent there. Carlisle opened in 1879, and over the next two decades an additional twenty-five off-reservation boarding schools, all located in the West, were established. Almost a third were in the Great Plains: Chilocco, Indian Territory (1884); Genoa, Nebraska (1884); Lawrence, Kansas (1884); and Pierre (1891), Flandreau (1893), Chamberlain (1898), and Rapid City (1898), South Dakota. In 1883 the Canadian Parliament approved funding for three off-reservation schools dedicated to industrial education, all in what was then the Northwest Territory: Battleford and Lebret, Saskatchewan, and Dunbow, Alberta. Other industrial schools were subsequently established at Elkhorn, Manitoba (1888), and at Red Deer (1893) and Regina (1895), Saskatchewan. These schools initially provided agricultural skills to boys; later, girls also attended and were taught mainly domestic skills.

The children found much to dislike about attending boarding schools. Often their hair (their specific identity) was cut, and they were obliged to wear uniforms. They were also forced to abandon their Native languages. They were lonely and found life at the residential schools harsh. Not only was the labor physically hard, but it was also designed to train them in tasks and gender roles that paralleled white society and contradicted their own. Punishments for even minor infractions were severe. Scores of children ran away, and many died, particularly from contagious diseases, which spread rapidly in the crowded conditions.

Indian parents were ambivalent about boarding schools. Over time, many had come to believe that their children needed to learn nontraditional skills to survive in their changing world. Tribal leaders sometimes actively sought schooling with great hopes that it would help preserve tribal autonomy. At the same time, they detested teaching methods that relied on punishment and coercion, and they missed their children during the long absences. Many resisted sending their children to school even though their refusal led to punishments such as having their annuities withheld.

By the late 1890s, however, there was growing concern about residential schools. Humanitarians and policy makers, both outside and inside the government in Canada and in the United States, voiced opinions that policies aimed at educating Native peoples were dismal failures, particularly at boarding schools. Although it would take several years before they were closed, the period between 1900 and 1920 marked a shift in policy away from off- reservation schools.

The first four decades of the twentieth century were turbulent times for Indian education. Growing criticism since the turn of the century, combined with constant financial woes, brought a major reorganization of Indian schooling in Canada in 1910. Industrial education lost its privileged status and after that date received no extra funding. In the United States more and more Indian children attended public schools, for which school districts received per capita payments. Criticism also led to the closing of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in 1918. Continuing financial problems during World War I, the 1920s, and the Great Depression resulted in greatly reduced funding for Indian education. Nevertheless, the proportion of Indian children in school increased during this period. Taken together, Canadian day and boarding schools were, by 1910, providing education to about half (54.4 percent) of the 20,000 school-age Indian children, although in the northern districts attendance was erratic because many Natives there continued to follow a huntingand- gathering lifestyle. In the United States in 1913 about 75 percent of the 65,000 school-age Indian children attended. By 1927 Canadian enrollment proportions equaled those of the United States. Nonetheless, the goal of that education, assimilation, was not achieved.

A number of reports, both private and government-sponsored, concluded that even after several years at school, few Native Americans had achieved the necessary skills to succeed in the larger society. At the same time, throughout the Great Plains, additional criticisms were leveled at federal policies regarding education. One criticism pointed to the unhealthy conditions at the schools, which resulted in much illness and death. Dr. P. H. Bryce, a medical examiner for Canadian Indian Affairs, concluded a study in 1904 of the devastating health conditions in residential schools. None of his recommendations were implemented.

A second and new criticism was directed at the central objective of the education programs: destruction of Indian culture. In the United States this criticism culminated in the report entitled The Problem of Indian Administration (known as the Meriam Report after its chief investigator, Dr. Lewis Meriam), published in 1928, which provided, among other topics, a detailed description of life for Native American children in boarding schools. The Meriam Report also influenced the appointment of John Collier as commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1933, a post he held for the next dozen years. Under his direction, federal Indian policy radically changed, particularly in education. He instituted instruction in Native American languages and required teachers to develop curricula about Indian culture. He also closed boarding schools in favor of day schools.

Between World War II and the emergence of Native American and First Nations activism in the 1960s, both countries tried to find ways to reshape policy regarding education. In the United States a new policy, aptly named "termination," sought to end federal responsibility and jurisdiction over many tribal nations. Families were encouraged to leave reservations and relocate in cities, where, theoretically, they would become part of mainstream society. The results were disastrous. Unwelcome in urban schools, Native Americans came to be the most poorly educated people in the United States by the 1950s.

In Canada too First Nations children academically lagged behind their contemporaries in public schools. The Canadian government, in cooperation with provincial education authorities, radically changed its policy. Indian students would attend provincial elementary and high schools. Mainstreaming the students would take them away from the poorly staffed, inadequately equipped, heavily church-oriented day schools and thereby speed up assimilation. In many ways, the attempt to mainstream these children was quite similar to the rejected boarding schools. They faced long bus rides or, once again, living away from their families. This shift in policy proved no more successful than had previous plans in terms of academic achievement or assimilation. Indian students enrolled in large numbers, but few completed high school, and even fewer matriculated.

The social activism of the 1960s led Indians in both Canada and the United States to demand control of their own education programs. In specific legislation passed in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, especially the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975, and the Education Amendments Act of 1972, Indian parents gained control over the money spent for schools and for the first time in many generations could help determine the education of their children. At the same time, education in Canada became more Indian centered. The Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development adopted a policy on education that shifted much responsibility to local communities and demanded new curricula, instruction in Native languages, and a focus on Native culture.

The same activism that led First Nations peoples to demand control over elementary and secondary education made them seek access to and representation in higher education, both in Canada and the United States. Programs in "Native studies" or "Native American studies" were developed in colleges throughout the Great Plains in the 1970s. Not content with representation in the curriculum, Native Americans also successfully demanded that programs be developed for them as well as about them. At the University of Regina, for example, the Indian Cultural College receives federal funding. In the United States, federal legislation such as Title III of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, the Indian Education Act of 1972, and the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 support institutions for Native students. Thus by the 1980s education for Indian children throughout the Great Plains was more clearly grounded in tribal society than at any time since 1850.

The Development of Public Schools

With European, American, and Canadian settlement of the Great Plains came school systems that replicated seasoned educational models in the East. In copying existing modes of education, Great Plains settlers maintained a link to the places they had left. They also shared the belief that schools would moderate the instability associated with migration to the frontier. Schooling was to provide children with an understanding of reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as a patriotic sense of their country's history. Students were also expected to grasp the virtues of the work ethic and Christian values as a route to success. While settlers in both countries borrowed heavily from existing school practice, there were also differences. In the United States central issues included the philosophy of education and who had access to schooling; in Canada a major concern was the role religion and language played in public education.

By the 1860s, when pioneers began to settle the Great Plains, the United States had established a school system that drew funding from property taxes to provide free education to all children through eight grades. That model would eventually extend through high school. Even access to higher education was relatively inexpensive in the Great Plains. In the belief that an educated public was necessary to uphold democracy, public lands were set aside to support education. Pioneers were quick to set up schools, and western legislatures just as quickly established the framework to guide and fund the schools. In most U.S. territories, public schooling of some sort was available within the first year of settlement. The territory of Nebraska, for example, was opened to settlement in 1854, and the territorial legislature approved a school system the following year. Many school systems, however, existed only on paper because land sales and tax funds often could not support a school. In such cases, private schools, both religious and secular, or subscription schools (schools organized by individual communities) often met the needs of students.

Over the long term, as territories became more densely populated, formal public education spread. Then, with statehood, legislatures once again mimicked eastern structures, establishing departments of public instruction and creating hierarchies to direct education. At the top was the state superintendent of public instruction, followed by county superintendents who were responsible for administering several local schools, which in turn had boards of education. Even with formal structures in place, public education frequently was sketchy, especially for rural children, who seldom had a school close by. Even in 1918 many rural schools on the Northern Great Plains had no wells or indoor plumbing. Such schools were generally one-room shacks, sometimes with a basement that served as poor accommodation for a lonely teacher.

Manitoba had established schools in 1819 along the Red River settlement, and the Church of England and the Hudson's Bay Company established the first school in Saskatchewan in 1840. However, the commitment to public education was not initially as deeply entrenched in the Prairie Provinces as in the United States. Until the 1840s, when Egerton Ryerson, superintendent of education for Canada West, initiated a reform of education in the new province of Ontario, schooling in the Canadian colony copied the British model, which provided schooling based primarily on social class. Ryerson borrowed ideas from European and American educators to design a centralized system of education that used property taxes to provide free schooling. His innovations were not enthusiastically received, but he steadfastly worked to bring various schools under control. Beginning in 1841 with the Common School Act, Ryerson tried to initiate a uniform school system based on the sale of public lands with local or municipal councils serving as boards of education. Subsequent school acts in 1846 and 1850 were aimed at school administration and how to fund education so that all children could attend. Ryerson's structure was embodied in the British North America Act in 1867 and was in place as the territories in the West were first settled and later sought admission to the Dominion.

Language and religion also distinguish the schools set up in Canada from those in the United States. In the Canadian West both Catholics (mainly French speaking) and Protestants (mainly English speaking) have had an active voice in staffing classrooms and determining curriculum; in the United States, by contrast, such decisions had long rested in civil hands. Recognizing the importance of private religious schools that were already in place, the Manitoba Act ensured that minority rights were retained. The implementation of this system was left to the new legislatures, and it took different forms in each of the Prairie Provinces. In 1871 the Manitoba legislature created a provincial board of education to direct schools and oversee funding. At the local level, various denominations managed their respective schools, and appointed officials oversaw the public schools. This dual school system also existed in the Northwest Territory, which in 1905 was split into Saskatchewan and Alberta. These two provinces also inherited already-functioning school systems and, like Manitoba, created centralized departments of education, with a minister at the top and locally elected boards of trustees in the various communities that were responsible for operating the schools. Over time, however, language became a more important issue than religion as new immigrants from central Europe added to the population mix. In Saskatchewan a provincewide dual system persisted, with each system receiving tax support, while Alberta adopted a system based on central administration that permits local options for separate schools.

Educators' strong beliefs in the power of schooling to transform cultural norms and to bring about social change is evident in a series of reforms in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. None of these reforms was initiated in the Great Plains; rather, educators there were influenced by the larger forces for change in that period.

Forming a national identity and inculcating in future citizens the responsibilities that accompany that citizenship have long formed a cornerstone of educational reform. Such beliefs underlay the origins of public schools in the United States, and patriotic themes had been central in the curriculum there since the 1840s. Concerns about patriotism and about national identity were heightened by the massive immigration from eastern and southern Europe after 1900. Canadians also utilized schools to encourage nationalism, but until after World War I, that nation was part of the British Empire. Only in the 1920s did educators develop a curriculum that focused more closely on Canadian history, replacing stories of English patriotism with Canadian examples.

In addition to designing a curriculum that encouraged nationalism, school reformers were determined that students would be in school and for longer periods of time. School superintendents at all levels throughout the Great Plains successfully pushed for laws that required attendance and lengthened the school year. By 1920 all states and provinces in the Great Plains had compulsory education laws, but even then, in many cases, that law required attendance for only three months each year. In towns, where the population was larger and children had fewer work responsibilities, school terms were much longer, often eight or nine months.

Concerned about the quality of education in rural areas, where attendance was erratic and staffing a constant concern, reformers began to push for consolidation based on the argument that the districts could not afford to maintain distant schools with comparable curriculum. Annual reports written by state superintendents of public instruction throughout the Great Plains sung the praises of school consolidation. Such praise fell on the deaf ears of parents and their elected legislators, who ignored or rejected this reform well into the twentieth century. World War II, however, hastened the consolidation of rural schools and the standardization of the length of the school term for all students–roughly nine months long.

High school education also came quickly to the towns and cities of the Great Plains, encouraged by the influx of new settlers in the early twentieth century and by changes in the role of the high school in education. In the mid-nineteenth century high schools were viewed as a course of study only for those students who were college bound, but over time they came to be seen as the logical completion of public schooling instead of simply a prep school for college. As a result, the curriculum changed radically. Rather than courses solely in the liberal arts and sciences, high schools began to offer classes in vocational and business education. Students could graduate ready to enter the workforce. Some historians have argued that this development was closely tied to the needs of industry and that immigrant children in particular were tracked away from college and into vocational, technical, or commercial education. Whether these charges are valid for the Great Plains is difficult to discern.

What is clear is that students and their parents valued a high school education. Since the 1940s the demand for high schools to provide rural students the same multipurpose education that their contemporaries in towns and cities receive has led to regional high schools that enroll students from several rural districts. By the end of World War II most young people in the Great Plains received at least some secondary education. This, of course, often involved long-distance transportation to schools, frequently as far as fifty miles each way every day in sparsely populated areas such as the Nebraska Sandhills or eastern Montana. Many rural children boarded in towns in order to complete the program. This was still the case in 1981 in Jordan, the county seat of Garfield County, eastern Montana, where a dormitory was attached to the only high school serving this vast space.

Teacher preparation was a central aim of the first high schools, especially in the stages of rapid immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. School administrators throughout the region lamented the shortage of trained teachers. High schools seemed to provide an obvious solution. There, as they completed their own public schooling, young people, primarily young women, could also pick up pedagogical skills to enter elementary classrooms. Hundreds of young women in the Great Plains taught during a summer term in a rural school and worked on their own diplomas during the regular term. Many high schools also provided specific courses in teacher training, particularly in Canada, where normal schools as separate institutions were less common than in the United States.

In addition to teacher training, many high schools provided instruction in other vocations. Schools that emphasized business or commercial education prepared graduates for various aspects of office work; others focused on technical skills to train students for industrial work. In 1910, for example, Winnipeg had a composite high school that offered commercial and technical programs in addition to academic courses. The Technical Education Act of 1919 gave federal money to provinces that provided such training.

As important as teacher training, agricultural education was also offered in high schools throughout the region. The Agricultural Instruction Act of 1913 provided federal funding to Canadian provinces to encourage high schools that taught agricultural science and farm mechanics. In 1917 the United States followed suit with the Smith-Hughes Act.

Colleges and Universities

Just as Plains settlers were quick to establish public schools, they also wanted institutions of higher education. Most states provided for state universities in their constitutions; some even planned such institutions during the territorial period. Dreams about higher education were fostered by federal support. Recognizing the importance of higher education, the federal government set aside two townships (sections 16 and 36) as an endowment for a university when a state was admitted to the Union. As with public education, the state could use whatever funds the land generated to support higher education. In some states, like Wyoming, the land set aside was rich in minerals and has provided substantial funds to the state university. Most other states were not so fortunate. The Morrill Act of 1862 provided additional lands (30,000 acres for each representative and senator for each state) to support higher education, specifically in agriculture and mechanical arts. The timing of this legislation was fortuitous for the Great Plains, and states such as Kansas, Colorado, Texas, and Oklahoma developed strong "A&M" programs. In the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming, these two provisions were supplemented by the Land Act of 1881, which held back land from sale during the territorial days so that states would have access to it after statehood. As a result, all Great Plains states were able to develop public systems of higher education.

Like elementary education, funding for higher education was seldom su.cient, and for many years these universities existed only on paper. Nevertheless, as population increased and parents and students came to demand higher education, the necessary public structures were put in place. In addition to these public institutions, dozens of privately endowed colleges and universities dot the American Great Plains. North Dakota, for example, has ten accredited institutions of higher education: one is private, three are church supported, and the remainder are state schools. Of the twenty-three accredited schools in Kansas, two thirds (sixteen) are religious.

One group that benefited from early planning for higher education in the United States was women. Because the legislation establishing land-grant institutions did not prohibit women's matriculation, when these schools did open, women took advantage of the opportunity and enrolled in large numbers. In the first years more women than men attended. While these legal provisions were not unique to the Great Plains, women there were among the first to profit from the broadened access to education.

Ideological differences about who should obtain a college education also influenced higher education in Canada, where matriculation has been more difficult. Nevertheless, all three Prairie Provinces established universities shortly after admission to the Dominion and have received federal funding. Moreover, agricultural education at the university level, while primarily a responsibility of the province rather than the federal government, has been a central component of postsecondary schooling. Agricultural education in Manitoba, for example, is centered at the Manitoba Agricultural College, established in 1906 and since 1924 a part of the University of Manitoba. In Saskatchewan and Alberta agricultural studies have been part of the provincial universities from the beginning. Like American land-grant universities, the University of Saskatchewan was located where land was readily available for farming, animal science, and experimental agriculture and today retains its reputation as an "ag school." As part of the Agricultural Schools Act, Alberta also opened agricultural schools at Vermilion and Olds in 1913.

Proportionally fewer students attended the Prairie Province universities than those on the American Plains until the 1950s, when increasing urbanization, industrialization, and expanded communication demanded a more highly trained workforce. These economic demands, combined with a shift in consciousness that more students should have the opportunity for higher education, resulted in the creation of more colleges and universities in the Prairie Provinces.

Vocational Education

Despite the courses historically offered to high school students to prepare them for the workforce, many were unable to find jobs. Some students dropped out before completing the high school program, but others who did earn their diplomas found that a gap existed between the training they received and the skills required on the job. To meet the needs of both workers and employers, vocational and technical training has been available since the late nineteenth century in Canada and the United States. Initially, this training was a responsibility of the provinces or states. As early as 1911 Saskatchewan passed legislation authorizing a course in manual training. About a decade later, the federal government also became involved. The Technical Education Act (1919) provided shared funding for provinces that established technical schools.

Responsive to the need for an adequately trained workforce, federal governments in Canada and the United States have continued to provide funds to build schools that are strictly vocational, especially during World War II and the postwar years. Canada's Vocational Training Co-ordination Act of 1942 provided a strong impetus to the provinces to establish facilities for postsecondary vocational training. The act offered federal funds to help such programs, and the Prairie Provinces quickly took advantage of it and set up vocational schools in several communities, especially to meet the needs of returning veterans. In 1948, for example, the Manitoba Technical Institute opened at Winnipeg. Other federally funded schools were established in Brandon and The Pas. Continued enrollment, coupled with demands for a broader curriculum, had by the late 1960s modified the original mission of these schools from strictly vocational training to include some liberal arts courses. Saskatchewan also took advantage of the Vocational Training Co-ordination Act and set up vocational training at Moose Jaw, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Regina. Following Manitoba's pattern, the school at Prince Albert added liberal arts courses and evolved into a community college.

Agricultural Extension and Education

In keeping with the spirit of agricultural education, reformers sought the means to transfer academic research to the men and women on farms. Funded by both federal and state or provincial governments, these programs provide a variety of services, including personal contacts as well as demonstrations and lectures. Specialists were trained to address issues of importance to rural families, including diverse topics such as pesticides and hybrid corn as well as sanitary measures for food preservation and better-laying chickens. The Hatch Act of 1887 funded agricultural experiment stations that would demonstrate new techniques and crops in the United States. Since then, government support for agricultural education has generally increased. A formal division of the Department of Agriculture, the Cooperative Extension System, was created in 1914 (the Smith-Lever Act). The same legislation transferred federal money to the states to organize agricultural clubs for girls and boys, which, in the 1920s, became known as 4-h Clubs. Agricultural clubs for Canadian youth started at the same time and in the early 1930s organized nationally as the Canadian Council on Boys' and Girls' Clubs.

Teacher Training and Professionalism

Reformers have always looked to teachers as the main purveyors of educational norms, and for more than a century they have been concerned about how to provide an adequately prepared teaching force. State and provincial legislatures began to demand that teachers receive some sort of formal instruction and pass tests aimed at ensuring a qualified teaching force. In the United States teachers were trained in departments of education at state universities. More important in sta.ng classrooms, however, were the normal schools established throughout the Great Plains in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Massive immigration from border states and provinces and from Europe mandated more teachers, especially for the elementary grades. The first was Kansas State Normal School, which initially enrolled students in 1865, followed by Nebraska State Normal School at Peru in 1867. Other states in the region did not establish schools for another twenty years. One of these, Colorado State Normal School at Greeley, which opened in 1891, became known for its innovative methods and stood out in the first quarter of the twentieth century as one of the leading teachers colleges in the nation. In western Canada, teacher training was often offered as part of the high school curriculum, but there too separate schools prepared teachers to meet increasing standards. Saskatchewan created normal schools when it became a province in 1905.

At the same time that school reformers tried to improve the teaching force, teachers formed professional organizations to further their own interests. They too were interested in curricular change and compulsory education. The Alberta Teachers' Association was particularly active in politics in the 1920s and 1930s. A number of the association's members were elected to positions of power, and they were able to change both the structure of and curriculum in public schools. Perhaps more important, they were able to make clear that the association represented the teachers. Teachers associations were never as politically strong in the United States, but, like their counterparts in Canada, they fought for tenure, retirement, hospitalization, and fair pay.


Not everyone agreed with the developments in education. There have been resistance and challenge from the earliest days, and they continue to the present. A central issue is minority school rights.

The first resistance came from Native peoples who rightly saw the imposed education systems as direct attacks on their ways of life. Immigrants also resisted the forces of assimilation. While settlers willingly migrated into the Great Plains, many insisted on retaining their own cultures, especially their language and religion. Because of the religious pluralism in the United States, religion was rarely the crucial issue for immigrants. Moreover, until recently it has always been clear that English would be the sole language. The main exception is Spanish, which in the Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado Plains is in widespread use. Attempts to preserve bilingualism, which emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, have been hampered by contemporary nativism, which calls for "English only."

In contrast, issues of religion and language in the Prairie Provinces have been contested since settlement. The best-known conflict is the "Manitoba schools question." Reflecting the ethnic mix of the population as well as tradition, the federal legislation that separated Manitoba from the other western territories protected the educational rights of Protestants and Roman Catholics when schools were first established but did not make provisions about language. Respective boards of education administered each set of schools and received tax support, but in 1889 the more populous Anglo-Protestant residents determined to abolish tax support of Roman Catholic and French-language schools. French Catholics naturally objected that their constitutional rights were being abridged. After years of litigation, a compromise in 1897 resolved that Catholic teachers would be hired if there were sufficient students to teach. Moreover, if ten or more students in a school spoke another language, instruction might be in that language. Because of the massive immigration to Manitoba between 1890 and 1910, this compromise led to linguistic disarray. By then instruction was being held not only in English and French but also in German, Ukrainian, Polish, Icelandic, and Scandinavian languages. Several factors encouraged the provincial government in 1916 to repeal the bilingual section of the school law.

Minority school rights in the United States have been most successfully won through the courts. Access to equal education has been a central issue for African Americans since Reconstruction. Jim Crow legislation by 1900 had firmly established the concept of "separate but equal" education in Great Plains states and elsewhere. In Oklahoma segregated schools were written into the first state constitution in 1907. Since the 1930s civil rights organizations, particularly the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), have filed lawsuits under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Many of these cases had their origins in the Great Plains. The first focused on access to postgraduate programs where none existed or where those that did could not offer equal facilities like libraries. In Sweatt v. Painter (1950), the Supreme Court ruled that African Americans must be admitted to the University of Texas law school; in McLaurin v. Oklahoma State Regents (1950) the Court determined that African Americans must be admitted to graduate school. The most far-reaching of the naacp cases was Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954), which overturned the separate but equal concept and concluded that race could not be used to determine which schools students would attend. Equal access has not translated into equal education, however, especially in regard to funding. In many Plains states where a proportion of the financing for public education rests on property taxes, great disparities exist between rich and poor districts.

Contemporary concerns about minority rights focus on the curriculum, both in content (especially evolution versus creation) and pedagogy (whole language versus phonics and spelling skills). Neither issue is new. Concerns about content reach back decades, as do arguments about how students should learn. What is new is the increasing number of families who homeschool their children.


To a large extent, the school systems that emerged in the Great Plains mirrored those in eastern Canada and the United States. But to conclude that education in the Great Plains simply replicated earlier models ignores the unique and sometimes controversial issues that shaped education there. One contentious issue involved schooling for the Aboriginal population. The large Indigenous population, there either by long custom or by removal, could not be ignored. The Great Plains provided a crucible for working through conflicting ideologies about the role and scope of education for Native Americans and First Peoples. Today, after many failures, that education rests once more in the hands of the various tribes.

Other issues that have played out in the Great Plains focus on the rights of minorities to education. In Canada that issue has centered on language and religion; in the United States, on the access of African Americans first to graduate training and later to public schools. Finally, the access of American women to higher education at state-supported institutions, which took place first in the Great Plains, distinguishes the region. Many recent pressures have also been important in shaping education: more ardent demands by minorities for civil rights and, especially on the American Plains, the increasing role of the courts in education. Today education and schools continue to confront the same issues of two centuries ago: what is the purpose of education, and who controls it?

See also AGRICULTURE: Agricultural Extension Service / GENDER: Hooker, Evelyn / HISPANIC AMERICANS: Escuela Tlatelolco / LAW: Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka ; Meyer v. Nebraska ; North Dakota Anti-Garb Law / NATIVE AMERICANS: Assimilation Policy.

Kathleen Underwood University of Texas at Arlington

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Sheehan, Nancy M., J. David Wilson, and David C. Jones, eds. Schools in the West: Essays in Canadian Educational History. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1986.

Titley, E. Brian, and Peter J. Miller, eds. Education in Canada: An Interpretation. Calgary: Detselig Enterprises, 1982.

West, Elliott. Growing up with the Country: Childhood on the Far Western Frontier. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

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