U.S. School Clothes: Public Elementary (Primary) Schools--Native American Schools

Figure 1.--This photograph looks to have been taken about 1920. It looks to be at a school with many native Americans. It would presumably be located in the southwest. Note the various styles of clothes the boys are wearing.

Native Americans have attended various schools in American. The most common were schools established on reservations. I don't know a great deal about these schools. Some were establised by missionaries. Others were established by the Federal Government. They were run for years by the Federal Governments Bureau of Indian Affairs. Boarding schools were also established which took Indian children from their parents and attempted to educate them to accept the the cultural values of main-stram America. The great Jim Thorpe attended one of these schools. Native American children also attended regular public schools when they lived off the reservation. I believe there may have been some segregated Native Amercan schools, but have few detils at this time.

Reservation Schools

Most of the major U.S. Indian reservations are located in the southeastern United States in state like Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona. I'm not sure when these schools were first established. Presumbably it was after the Civil War, perhaps in the 1870s. The schools contuinue to oprerate today, but with more local comtrol. There were no uniforms at the reservation schools. Boys wore similar clothes to those worn by boys at other rural schools. These fashions of course varied over time. Younger boys commonly came to school in kneepants, often barefoot. Older boys migh wear bib-front overalls as well as kneepants and long stockings. After the 1930s overalls or other kinds of long pants became more common.

Federal Boarding Schools

Boarding schools were also established in various Western states. I believe the schools were also adminstered by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, but have little information at this time. Authorities took Native American children from their parents and attempted to educate them to accept the the cultural values of main-stream America. Often both the children and parents objected. The children were thus common taken by force and often brutally treated if they did not quickly conform to the school regime. The schools were commonly located far from where the children lived to make it impossible for the children to return home. They were forced to cut their hair and speak only English. They were punished if found speaking their own language. The great Jim Thorpe attended one of these schools. This goal of the schools amounted to destroying Native American culture. Colorado University professor Ward Churchill has done some useful research on conditions at these schools. Unfortunately he is such an activist and has serious ethical lapses undermining his academic credentials. Thus while his research on this subject is detailed, one has to view it with some caution. it is It was thought at the time to be in the children's best interests. The history of these schools is, however, now seen as an embarassing chapter in the history of American education. The experiences of the children have been described by several authors. It was a wrenching experience. And authors have described the poor conditions at the school. Quite a number of children died at these schools or in efforts to return home. The one question I have not seen addressed is a comparison of how these children who went to these schools did in comarison to hildren who stayed home on the reservations.

Public Schools

Native American children also attended regular public schools when they lived off the reservation. We note a number of school photographs from the early 20th century that seem to show Native American children at public schools off the reservation. It is a little difficut to assess these photographs as it is often difficult to destinguish between Mexican-American and Native American children. We believe there may have been some segregated Native Amercan schools in states like Oklahoma or California, but have few detils at this time.

Figure 2.--Many of the boys at this school wear overalls. Notice the one boy wearing coveralls with a Russian blouse square collar. Another boy is barefoot with kneepants and a wide white collar.


HBC has noted a variety of garments worn by boys at the Native American schools. The styles tend to mirror those worn by boys at many small rural schools.


Boys tended to wear plain shirts, often work shirts.

Work clothes

Boys commnly wore bib-front overalls. Some boys wore children's styles of play suits that were available in the early 20th century. These included both bob-front overalls as well as coveralls. Some had square Russian blouse styled collars.


Kneepants were common in the late 19th century. Younger boys might ber barefoot. Older boys wore long stockings. Knickers were common in the 1920s and 30s, but many boys wore long trousers.


Many boys came to school barefooted. Longstockings were common through thr 1910s, but in the 1920s boys in knicvketrs more commonly wore kneesocks.


Heavy boot-loke shoes were very common.

Individual Schools

We have found images of several Native American schools. Some of the scools are well known, such as the Carlisle Indian School. Other schools we have found no information. There were several different kinds of Native American schools. There were schools on the reservations, some of which were boarding schools. There were the off reservation boarding schools we are discussing on this page. And there were segregated public schoolss for Indians. Most of these schools were located in southern states. There were also regular public schools in which some Native American children may have attended.


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Created: June 3, 2001
Last updated: 5:21 AM 8/1/2006