In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native American and Aboriginal Canadian Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies and Literature
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Children’s Literature and Children in Literature
  • Health

Childhood Studies Native American and Aboriginal Canadian Childhood
Robert Bensen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0097


Childhood in Native America and Aboriginal Canada exists in a different legal, cultural, and relational environment than for any other American or Canadian child. For untold generations, traditional child rearing prepared Native and Aboriginal children to take spiritual, economic, and cultural responsibility within their community and the natural world. However, Native American and Aboriginal Canadian childhood has been the site of conflict with European and American powers since 1492, when Christopher Columbus depicted as children the adults he encountered on Guanahaní. He said they were “naked as their mothers bore them” and possessed no language or religion or property. He speculated they would make good Christians and good servants. The colonial project of assimilation grew from such observations. The stereotype of Indigenous peoples as children was enshrined in US federal Indian law in 1831, when Chief Justice John Marshall held Indians to be “in a state of pupilage” and subject to the United States as “a ward to his guardian.” Canada assumed a similarly custodial relation to their “children of the forest.” Among the human rights denied or infringed upon by US and Canadian federal authority were the rights to bear, care for, and educate children. Assimilative education, and Native resistance and adaptation to it, began in the 1540s in Spanish America and in 1619 in England’s Virginia Colony. The colonial period and first century of the United States and Canada saw many efforts to educate Native children, some employing Native schoolmasters, but always in service to an assimilationist agenda. In 1879 the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened and was joined within twenty years by twenty-four more boarding schools. A similar movement began in Canada in 1879, the first schools opening in 1884. After a half-century of abusive practices, many such schools in both countries were closed, and some were restructured to provide culturally responsive education. That movement gained traction after the 1960s Indian resurgence led to the Indian Education Act of 1972, the Indian Self-Determination and Educational Assistance Act of 1975, and the Native American Languages Act of 1990/1992. Culturally responsive education in the 2000s was increasingly challenged by high-stakes standardized testing, common core curriculum, and other trends in national and state education that appeared as new forms of assimilative education. After World War II, social services replaced education as the primary agent of assimilation in both the United States and Canada. Extremely high rates of Indian child adoption and foster placements in non-Indian settings led to the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) of 1978 in the United States and new efforts among Aboriginal Canadian bands to restructure social services.

General Overviews

Native American and Aboriginal Canadian children’s studies are approached through the fields of literature, health, education, and social welfare services. The field is not well defined, in part because American Indians and Aboriginal Canadians are seldom treated together because of the diversity of many hundreds of Native nations and because “childhood” is constructed differently in Native and in Euro-American/Euro-Canadian cultures. Also, Native children have been the subject of political policies and practices that reflect the larger antagonism between colonial governance and oppression and Native claims to sovereignty. Assimilation, extermination, termination, and other colonial policies have ever been countered by Native assertions of sovereignty and struggle for survival. Against the political background of persistent assimilationist, English-only education, Reyhner and Eder 2004 finds a long history of resistance, maintenance of tribal languages and cultures, and conflicting explanations for lack of student success. This source, Lomawaima and McCarty 2006 (cited under Education), and others find the current culture of assessment and standardized testing pose the greatest danger to Indian education and individual accomplishment. They treat American Indian education with parallels in Canadian history. For other discussions of the intricacies of assimilationist education, see Szasz 1999 and Lomawaima and McCarty 2006 (cited under Education). Following the Indian resurgence of the 1960s, increased acknowledgement of Native rights led to policy changes in education to Native-run schools and culturally responsive curriculum and in social services to the passage of the US ICWA of 1978. For equitable treatments of the US crisis in social services that led to the passage of the ICWA of 1978 and of the comparable “Sixties Scoop” in Canada, see Bensen 2001 (cited under Anthologies and Literature) and Stevenson 2013 (cited under Canadian Child Welfare and Social Services). The starting point for study of Canadian–Aboriginal relations, both in education and in child and family services, is the comprehensive Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples 1996. For aspects of Canadian colonial policies and practices, see Strong-Boag 2006 for contrasts with Aboriginal practice, and see McKenzie and Hudson 1985, Shewell 2005, and Stevenson 2013 (cited under Canadian Child Welfare and Social Services). Morse 1984 describes the place of Indian and Metís peoples in Canadian society and history, their cultural diversity in child rearing as it impacts social services, and the complicated jurisdiction of federal/provincial/tribal authorities over child welfare.

  • Morse, Bradford. “Native Indian and Metis Children in Canada and Victims of the Child Welfare System.” In Race Relations and Cultural Differences: Educational and Interpersonal Differences. Edited by Gajendra K. Verma and Christopher Bagley, 259–277. London: Croon Helm, 1984.

    Succinct but comprehensive exposition of the diversity of Indian and Metís peoples in Canadian society and history, child-rearing practices as they impact social services, and the complicated jurisdiction of federal/provincial authorities over child welfare.

  • Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples. 5 vols. Ottawa: Canada Communication Group, 1996.

    Broad study of Canadian–First Nations history and relations, critique of boarding school program and child welfare system. Considers early-childhood needs for foundational development, as well as culture-based curricula, including language instruction. Child welfare services emphasize the centrality of family and band, the sacred gift of the child, the prevention of troubles, and rehabilitation for troubled parents. Archived highlights are available online.

  • Reyhner, Jon, and Jeanne Eder. American Indian Education: A History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

    History of US Indian education, including parallels in Aboriginal Canadian experience. Covers periods related to colonial missionaries, treaties and removal, reservations, allotment, mission and boarding schools, a new deal, termination, self-determination, and new directions.

  • Strong-Boag, Veronica. Finding Families, Finding Ourselves: English Canada Encounters Adoption from the Nineteenth Century to the 1990s. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2006.

    In a long-term study of Canadian adoption practice, the author situates the adoption of First Nations children by European-Canadians in the belief that prevailed in the 1960s that a child’s individual past and racial identity could be forgotten in an adoptive home. Such belief evolved from the assimilationist ideology of the failed boarding school movement. Interracial adoption departed from First Nations’ customary adoption within extended family and community.

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