American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Indian Civilization Fund Act

The Indian Civilization Fund Act authorized the federal government to allocate money to instruct Native Americans in agriculture, reading, writing, and arithmetic. The Act went into effect on March 3, 1819, and it provided $10,000 per year to promote cultural assimilation among the nation's Indians.

Prior to the establishment of the Indian Civilization Fund, religious missionaries had long sought to teach Native Americans about Christianity and other elements of what they called "civilized" society. After the formation of the United States, and largely beginning with the Jefferson administration, the federal government took an active role in promoting the secular transformation of Natives. What became known as the Indian factory system began in 1795 to set standard rates and to control the behavior of traders and hunters. Indian agents, like Benjamin Hawkins, and other employees of the federal factory system, used their presence among the Indians to teach them to herd cattle, grow cotton, use written laws, adopt Western gender norms, and otherwise embrace elements of American "civilization." When Indian agents did not perform these functions, religious missionaries often did. A lack of steady funding for these efforts, however, frustrated many Americans who believed in the desirability of assimilating Native Americans.

In 1817, Thomas L. McKenney, the Superintendent of Indian Trade for the United States, began to lobby Congress to coordinate and fund a large-scale campaign to promote cultural change. He believed that such a program could be beneficial to both Indians and the United States. By expanding the federal factory system, McKenney believed that he could teach Indians to stop hunting and start practicing agriculture. He encouraged Indian agents to cooperate with religious missionaries, he provided agents with agricultural equipment and livestock to give to cooperating Indians, and he otherwise pursued policies that he believed would lead to acculturated Indians. These actions, McKenney hoped, would allow Indians to become citizens and at the same time bring Native lands under the control of the United States.

With the cooperation of Henry Southard, chairman of the House Committee on Indian Affairs, McKenney brought his plan for widespread schooling for Indians to Congress in 1818. After much internal haggling over who should be in charge of the education, whether profits from the factory system could fund the program, and, if not, how the program would be funded, Congress passed the Indian Civilization Fund Act. It provided a $10,000 annual allocation, far short of McKenney's $100,000 request. In addition, it authorized the president to use his discretion on how to spend the money. Rather than expand the factory system, President James Monroe chose to fund groups who were already engaged in educating Indians to do the work.

Most of the groups who received money from the Indian Civilization Fund were religious missionaries from Protestant sects, primarily Methodists and Baptists. With this new funding, they were able to expand their presence in Indian Country and to create new schools to teach Indians how to become part of American culture. Other allocations went directly to Indian nations, who could choose for themselves which schools to support.

Even with this additional funding, missionary schools did not become a prominent presence in Indian Country. Still, the money allowed the schools to expand and it made the education of Native Americans a central component of U.S. Indian policy. In 1824, the Indian Civilization Fund subsidized thirty-two schools and contributed to the ostensible education of more than 900 Indians. Funds allocated from various Indian treaties helped augment the program, and, by 1830, the Indian Civilization Fund helped support fifty-two schools with 1,512 enrolled students.

The Choctaw Academy was the most well-known institution that received money from the fund. Created in 1825, the academy also received federal funds as a result of several treaties and land sales by the Choctaws. The school was built in Scott County, Kentucky, outside of the Choctaw nation, and it was run by the Baptist General Convention. Students studied basic subjects like English and mathematics while also learning the mechanical arts. Most of the students were Choctaws, but students from other Indian nations attended as well. In 1835, the all-male academy had 188 students.

Andrew K. Frank


Further Reading
Murphy, Justin D. 1991. "Wheelock Female Seminary 1842–1861: The Acculturation and Christianization of Young Choctaw Women." Chronicles of Oklahoma 69, no. 1: 48–61.; Prucha, Francis Paul. 1984. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
 

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