On this dayMar 03, 1819

Congress Creates Fund to “Civilize” Native American People

Oklahoma Historical Society

On March 3, 1819, the U.S. Congress enacted the Civilization Fund Act, authorizing the president, “in every case where he shall judge improvement in the habits and condition of such Indians practicable” to “employ capable persons of good moral character” to introduce to any tribe adjoining a frontier settlement the “arts of civilization.”

The fund paid white missionaries and church leaders to partner with the federal government to establish schools in "Indian territories" to teach Native children to replace tribal practices with Christian practices. In 1824, the federal government established the Bureau of Indian Affairs to oversee the fund and implement programs to “civilize” the Native people.

In the following years, as the U.S. systematically removed tribes from their homelands to land west of the Mississippi River, the U.S. turned to policies purportedly aimed at achieving “the great work of regenerating the Indian race.”

According to Indian Commissioner Luke Lea, it was “indispensably necessary that they be placed in positions where they can be controlled, and finally compelled by stern necessity...until such time as their general improvement and good conduct may supersede the necessity of such restrictions.” Over the ensuing decades, the U.S. government's orientation towards Native American people fueled a paternalistic campaign to destroy Indigenous culture.

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