Music Education and Forced Assimilation at United States Indian Boarding Schools

The first off-reservation boarding school in the U.S. for Indigenous students, Carlisle Indian Industrial School, was founded in 1879 by Henry Richard Pratt in Pennsylvania. The founding of the school was overseen by President Rutherford Hayes, under the Indian Civilization Act (ICA), that incentivized the so-called “civilized” education of Indigenous children. Carlisle’s strict, military-style modes of discipline and focus on vocational training that funneled students directly into underpaid manual and domestic labor jobs became a blueprint for several such boarding schools across the country.1

Since the recent archeological discoveries of mass graves at the former sites of these schools across the US and Canada, the legacy of these institutions designed to “kill the Indian, save the man,” in Pratt’s words, is being examined again with a mind towards restorative justice, acknowledging how these modes of “education” and assimilation were not just physically violent, but also mentally and spiritually violent.2

One would not necessarily expect music to play a central part in the violent assimilationist education of these boarding schools, but a 1915 book giving detailed instructions, down to how much time in the school day should be spent on a subject, for boarding school curriculum suggests otherwise. The book features a chapter outlining the music curriculum, which is extremely telling of the strict assimilationist thinking that was the guiding force for these boarding schools. 

The first paragraph seems innocent enough, touting the broader educational benefits of music training, but it quickly takes a turn. The author(s) of this guide state that the first step in a proper musical education is “to permit the pupils to hear only good music.”3 What exactly they mean by “good,” is quickly outlined by a long list of operas such as Aida and William Tell, as well as works from the Western classical canon by composers such as Mozart and Haydn. They also add that “Patriotic songs, as ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’… should, of course, receive special attention.” 4

Repertoire suggestions in 1915 book.

Following these narrow and purposefully Euro-centric repertoire guidelines, the author(s) go on to list aesthetic guidelines for the training of the pupils’ voices. The very first rule stated is “Always insist on a good, smooth, sweet, light, pure tone.”5 Soon after that, it’s also stressed that the pupils “Pronounce all words clearly, so that a listener can understand them.”6 These two guidelines emphasize the enforcement of Euro-centric standards for musical training, as well as complete assimilation to the English language and abandonment of Indigenous aesthetics and language.

With strict guidelines to teach and enforce the European classical canon as the musical ideal, Indigenous children, often as young as four years old, were completely cut off from not only their home and family, but also the musical culture they would have otherwise been surrounded by and raised in. The violence lies not only in hundreds of deaths of children that were torn from their homes, but the systematic way in which they had their culture and traditions torn from them, and the Indigenous music and languages that were lost in the process.

1 Ferris, Jeanne. 2021. “‘LET THOSE Children’s Names BE KNOWN’: THE PARADOX OF INDIAN BOARDING SCHOOLS.” News from Native California 35 (2): 26–32.

2 Ibid.

3 Bureau of Indian Affairs. 1915. Tentative course of study for United States Indian schools. Prepared under the direction of commissioner of Indian affairs. Available through: Adam Matthew, Marlborough, American Indian Histories and Cultures, [Accessed October 26, 2023].

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

Cultural erasure: Western centralsim in Native American boarding schools

The Native American boarding school program, more commonly referred to as American Indian Boarding Schools, was a program meant to erase the native American culture from the land. The program coerced Native American families into sending their children to these boarding schools, which were meant to assimilate the children into white American culture. Some of the older kids there did fight back and then were physically punished by being beaten 1. The younger kids who were brought to the schools were never able to be assimilated into the culture their parents were part of, resulting in their returned being outsiders to their own families.

Rules for the Indian School Service / Office of Indian Affairs

240. Instruction shall be given in music at all schools. Singing shall be a part of the exereises of each school session, and, whenever practicable, instruction in instrumental musie may be given. The formation of school bands should also be encouraged. – Office of Indian Affairs

The important thing to pay attention to in this quote is the erasure of Native American’s own musical traditions. This is very intentional, and we can see it in the quote. Saying “Instructions shall be given in music” and not specifying any particular style of music, therefore implying a Western music style.

Ayer 389 C2 1915-16

There is, too, a vocal department, which includes the classwork and singing exercises, where all are taught the rudiments of music. – Carlisle Indian Industrial School

We can also see this pattern of assuming Western music is the only form of music which is worth teaching in another school’s records. Showing that the Native American children need to be tough music and identify their traditional music as worthless. This careful framing of the education allows the colonizers to morally push away any doubt they had because they see the people they are “educating” as primitive and none of their wisdom as useful.



Carlisle Indian Industrial School. 1913. Catalogue and Synopsis of Courses, United States Indian School, Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle: Carlisle Indian Press.

Office of Indian Affairs. 1898. Rules for the Indian School Service / Office of Indian Affairs. Washington, D.C., United States: Government Printing Office.

1Parker, E. S. (1846). Ely Samuel Parker scrapbooks: Vol 8 (p. 4).

Musical Assimilation in Native American Schools

When finding a text to research and write about in this post, the Tentative Course of Study for United States Indian Schools immediately caught my attention. This text, drafted by the Office of Indian Affairs, states that the Course of Study provided in the text is to be adopted by schools of the Indian school service.1 Children were required to attend these schools as a part of a treaty deal between a tribe and the United States government; both male and female children between the ages of six and sixteen were to endure the process of cultural assimilation and be instructed in the English language.2


Article VI; Treaty with the Navajo Tribe at Fort Sumner3



Within the text, an entire section is dedicated to the importance of, “training the senses,” and develop[ing] all the powers and functions of the human mind.”4 Music is named as the only subject that can synchronize the senses in a way that is “enjoyable to the individual and helpful to the community,” but this is quickly followed by a list of particular criteria that must be followed in the classroom when music is being taught.5 Unsurprisingly, these specifications uphold a legacy of cultural superiority. For example, in order to help students develop a sense of musical appreciation, they are only allowed to hear music deemed as good, which according to the text, seems to be limited to American patriotic songs and classical music composed by well-known European composers, such as Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven.6 Additionally, the text presents individual aspects of music that can be used to further assimilate students into Western culture, like preferring a “good, smooth, sweet, light, pure tone,” over “raggedness” and “huskiness.”7


These schools masqueraded as institutions that concerned themselves with the education and futures of Native American children. However, when considering how these schools use subjects like music to perpetuate cultural supremacy, the deeply problematic intention of these school to assimilate Native American children becomes blatantly obvious.



1 Tentative course of study for United States Indian Schools. Govt. Print. Off., 1915.

2 “Page 10 – Navaho Tribe at Fort Sumner – Article VI – June 1st 1868.” Fold3. Accessed October 19, 2023.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.