SPUR 2022: Signs of Power and Dominance: The Role of Mathematics Curricula in U.S. Assimilationist Policies and Practices in Indian Boarding Schools, 1879-1932


American Indian boarding schools (IBS) have been in the national spotlight as the U.S. continues to reckon with its history of racism, including forced assimilation through education. The U.S. established and operated dozens of off-reservation boarding schools from the late 1800s through the 20th century. According to Capt. Richard H. Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, the goal of these institutions was simple: “kill the Indian, and save the man.”

Previous research has documented how IBS were designed to assimilate children into white American society. Some of the methods used to achieve this goal include separating children from their families and communities, replacing Indigenous languages, religious conversion, and gendered labor/training (Lomawaima, 2004). Previous studies have focused on the boarding school experience and curriculum, policies, and practices that promoted assimilationist goals. Additionally, recent scholarship is exploring the intergenerational impact of IBS on Indigenous communities today.

However, no research has examined the mathematics curriculum in Indian boarding schools and how it was used to enforce U.S. citizenship and values. The main research question guiding this project is: How did the mathematics curriculum in Indian boarding schools during 1879-1932 promote federal assimilationist goals? This period is significant because it covers the beginning of the boarding school program and the Land Allotment and Assimilation era in United States history.

Lomawaima, T. (2004). Educating Native Americans. In J. Banks & C. A. Banks (Eds.), Handbook of research on multicultural education (pp. 441–461).

Student Role

Our research team has built an archive consisting of hundreds of historical documents and photographs related to the curriculum, policies, and practices in Indian boarding schools during our period of study. The student’s role will consist of two main activities. First, the student will conduct a literature review of research articles from mathematics education, Indigenous studies, and educational history and write memos summarizing and connecting key findings to our project. The student will be guided to produce analytic memos, short write-ups about what they are learning from the literature, with a close eye on how concepts can be applied to our data analysis. Analytic memos play a vital role in our qualitative study of mathematics policy and practices in IBS; they serve as the basis of our analysis, and their content can be edited and used for published reports.

Second, the student will read and analyze primary documents related to the math instruction in IBS and contribute to the development of a project coding manual. Critical discourse analysis and coding of historical documents require an iterative process of close reading, reflection, and evaluation. Ultimately, reading the literature, writing memos, and analyzing data are enormously time-consuming activities that will take most of the student’s time over the summer.

Time permitting, we also hope to organize and co-host a workshop (or webinar). This workshop will be co-hosted with local tribal leaders for community members and local math educators. We will cater our presentations to our specific audience to present the main findings, share ideas, and create a dialogue about improving mathematics education for Native American students in Utah.

Student Learning Outcomes & Benefits

Overall, the student will be supported in articulating a line of inquiry that aligns with the goals of the project, identifying relevant questions from the literature, and developing the methods (e.g., a code/subcodes with definitions and examples that one could apply to the data corpus) to pursue their questions. The student will receive training on conducting qualitative analyses of archival materials and Indigenous research methods, including anticolonial frameworks, awareness of Indigenous epistemologies, and critical visual analysis of all materials collected. Given the project’s interdisciplinary nature, the student will participate in a broad range of research methods and approaches, with attention paid to training the student on specific techniques and how to apply them to mathematical settings.

José Gutiérrez
Assistant Professor

Education, Culture & Society
College of Education

Mentoring Resources and Philosophy:
Dr. Gutiérrez is the PI for the project and will oversee all aspects of research and mentoring. Dr. Gutiérrez has vast experience working with undergraduate mentees, starting from his early days in academia as a PhD student participating in UC Berkeley’s Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program. The student will also have regular access to the three other co-PIs with different areas of expertise and mentoring experience. Drs. Cynthia Benally and Kēhaulani Vaughn are faculty in the Department of Education, Culture & Society, and Dr. Charles Sepulveda is faculty in the Department of Ethnic Studies. As a team, we share a profound commitment to student mentoring and a vision of community-based approaches to research and teaching; thus, we’ll work tirelessly to provide as much support as possible to our undergraduate student researcher.

Specific mentoring activities:
The student will attend weekly one-to-one meetings with professor José Gutiérrez to set weekly goals and go over specific qualitative research techniques such as memo writing, cataloging and reducing data, and coding. Additionally, the student will attend regular group meetings with other members of the research team to collaboratively analyze data, refine codes/categories, discuss and build theory, and write manuscripts for publication. The four faculty members working on this project have broad areas of expertise and will attend team meetings to assist with the mentoring and analysis of the materials.