"Nativist" Sentiments and the Beginnings of Progressivism

United States History II (1890s to the present): 19th century
Name/School: Gretchen Hovan, St. Peter’s Preparatory School, Jersey City NJ
Grade Level: 12th
Topic: Nativist Sentiments and the beginnings of the Progressivism                   
Lesson: “Civilizing” the Native American

Overview: In U.S. history classes, Native Americans are sometimes only discussed in early American history. Since students have some knowledge of American Indian culture and U.S. government policy towards American Indians, this is a good place to begin talking about “Nativist” sentiments at the turn of the 20th century and some of the cultural assumptions behind the Progressive-era reforms. This lesson is meant to build on understanding and themes begun in the previous lesson on Native American baskets. In this lesson, students will work with three primary source-based documents to learn about the ideas of how to solve “the Indian question” and how the Native Americans experienced them. This lesson will help the students to develop a better understanding of some of the sentiments behind Progressivism and to learn how to think critically about the concept of reform.

The readings were chosen to show a variety of perspectives. Zitkala-Sa was a Native American born in South Dakota, who wrote about her experience, as an 8-year-old, of leaving home to attend an Indian school in Indiana. The Indian’s Friend was a publication of women’s clubs who were supporting missions and mission schools for Native Americans, primarily in the West. Although their articles are often appalling by today’s standards, it is important to keep the context of their chosen title (The Indian’s Friend) to truly understand their purpose and sentiments. Elaine Goodale was a New England woman who chose to teach first at the Hampton Institute (which included a boarding school for Native Americans) and then, in 1886, at a reservation school in South Dakota. In 1891, Goodale married Dr. Charles Alexander Eastman and, with him, worked to further understanding of the Native American people and to improve legislation to benefit them.

Time:  60 minutes


  • Reading from Zitkala-Sa (posted online: Zitkala-Sa. “Impressions of an Indian Childhood.” Atlantic Monthly 85 (1900): 37-47 (web version) and Zitkala-Sa. “The School Days of an Indian Girl.” Atlantic Monthly 85 (1900) 185-94 (web version)
  • Articles by Elaine Goodale Eastman from the Elaine Goodale Eastman papers at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA
  • Readings from The Indian’s Friend (a periodical in the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA)


  • Content: Students will be able to identify “Nativist” understandings and critique the movement to educate American Indian children.
  • Skills: Students will be able to interpret rhetoric and identify the motivation behind reform ideas.



  • Students will be asked to read the Zitkala-Sa excerpts the night before (or several nights before, depending on the students' reading ability—the reading may seem lengthy, but it is very easily read and is an engaging story of Zitkala-Sa’s experience). The teacher may choose to ask the students to pay attention to particular themes (reactions of white people or to white people, feelings about changes in the school, differences of custom).

Class work:

  • Students will begin class with a quick write about what values they think their school is teaching and whether or not schools SHOULD teach values.
  • After a brief discussion, students will be divided into two groups to read the two articles.  After reading, each student may work with a partner to answers the questions (partners can be self-selecting or assigned by the teacher).
  • As the students work, the teacher will be circulating among the groups and asking divergent questions to help the students to probe the sources more deeply and to connect the information to what they already have learned about the period.
  • As a group, the class will create a chart detailing the sentiments of white people and of Native Americans about the education of children.  Students should be reminded that Zitkala-Sa is not the only Native American voice represented (can infer from comments in articles).
  • If there are gaps in the analysis, the teacher should ask questions, at the end of the presentations, to help the students consider the angles they have overlooked.  This should be done especially to help students see information cannot be inferred. 


  • Students will write a brief summary of the arguments for U.S. government-run American Indian schools and against them. Students will also be asked to connect these arguments to what they have already studied about the Progressive movement (see lesson on Basket). Students will also be asked to reflect on the theme for the year: Reform and reaction, with a special concentration on “How does society effect the individual?” and “How does the individual effect society?” They should especially look at the example of Zitkala-Sa.

Extension Possibilities/Interdisciplinary Connections:

  • Depending on the news of the day, there should be ample opportunities for students to examine how culture is being suppressed or fostered in their own community.  Students may also reflect on how one remains an “individual” within the constraints of school, career and family requirements.
  • Zitkala-Sa writes as a memoirist—this may provide an easy connection for English or creative writing classes.

Tips and reflections from the author:
Some people in our group reflections felt that the initial reading was too long. This reading, though, is why I changed my focus for my Sophia Smith Collection Lesson plan. It is well written and moving. Zitkala-Sa conveys a wealth of emotion and meaning in a relatively small space. I encourage you to leave the reading as it is.

History/Social Science Curriculum Frameworks Learning Standards addressed:

NCSS Standards:

1.  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of culture and cultural diversity.
5.  Individuals, Groups and Institutions:  Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions

New Jersey Standards:

6.3  All students will acquire historical understanding of political and diplomatic ideas, forces, and institutions throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.
6.4  All students will acquire historical understanding of societal ideas and forces throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.
6.5  All students will acquire historical understanding of varying cultures throughout the history of New Jersey, the United States, and the world.