Injustice and discrimination through assimilationist policies and education against Native American students
: A capability approach

  • Pamela Scott

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Education


The European colonisation of the United States of America and the domination of its Native Nations has led to profound social problems that continue to impact Indigenous communities and which have resulted in lower educational opportunities and outcomes for Indigenous students in comparison to their non-Native peers, which some view as an educational crisis among Indigenous communities. This dissertation demonstrates how education has helped to create divisions between Indigenous communities and mainstream society in the United States by examining historic educational policies imposed on Indigenous peoples for the purpose of assimilating them into American society. I examine the current state of education for Indigenous peoples and how this is reflective of Critical Race Theory, Tribal Critical Theory and may be addressed through Nussbaum’s Capability Approach to allow Indigenous students the opportunity to avail of an educational experience in parity with non-Native peers. This study will examine the factors that have led to the discrimination experienced by Indigenous students within the current US education system; the current state of education for Indigenous peoples; the conceptual frameworks used to understand issues of justice, focussing on how the Capability Approach can be used to evaluate the situation for Indigenous students and the barriers to their education; how Indigenous peoples have regained agency and how the United States government can to redress injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples.

In this conceptual study, I apply Nussbaum’s Capability Approach to examine issues of injustice and discrimination in education experienced by NA students and discuss how these issues are the product of assimilative practices during the colonisation of the US. The Capability Approach is an evaluative framework that assesses individuals’ well-being, exploring what a person can actually do and be when given opportunity freedoms. According to Nussbaum (2011) a just society should ensure every individual is entitled to dignity and respect and should provide individuals with appropriate threshold levels of functioning in ten central human capabilities. It shows that where all members of a group have opportunities to develop their capabilities to meet the basic requirements of social justice, then that group will flourish and consequently represents an appropriate framework for evaluating Indigenous students as, given the systemic disadvantages they have endured, it is more likely that members of that group will experience capability corrosion.

Historically this could be illustrated through their capability for Affiliation, which was diminished as their culture was denigrated and suppressed by assimilationist policies, the legacy of which still blights Native communities. In the contemporary context, within education there remain capability failures in areas such as Sense, imagination and thought, Emotions, Practical reasoning, Play and Control over one’s political and material environment. All may be severely compromised within the present educational system for Indigenous students within the United States. I will argue that The Capability Approach provides an appropriate theoretical lens to address specific issues experienced by Indigenous students and by applying greater precision to a person’s entitlements, exemplified by the case of a ten-year-old Indigenous student, Legend Tell Tobacco, from Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota.

Regarding the Capability Approach, many Indigenous peoples continue to experience capability failure due to the legacy of colonialism and assimilationist policies employed by the United States government, to the extent that the government has been accused of genocide. One of the most damaging policies was that of the Indian Residential Schools, an aggressive approach towards assimilation in the form of government run mandatory boarding schools. Native children were forcibly removed from their families, culture and language and placed into these institutions with the explicit intention of eradicating their Native identity. Many children faced multiple abuses within this system, which have subsequently manifested into numerous intergenerational social problems such as mental health issues, poor physical health, poverty, addiction, educational underachievement, unemployment, domestic violence and high instances of suicide – all of which continue to impact upon the educational experiences of contemporary Indigenous students.
I argue that in order to create an educational experience in parity with that of their non-Native peers and improve the opportunities of Indigenous students, the government must redress past injustices in ways that satisfy the needs of Indigenous peoples including a revision of the current curriculum designed to educate all students on how the United States came to be, to ensure that such crimes will not happen again and the capabilities of Indigenous peoples can be realised and fulfilled.
Date of AwardJul 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorCaitlin Donnelly (Supervisor) & Alison MacKenzie (Supervisor)

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