Lessons in Race: Curriculum in Indian Residential Schools, 1900–1966


  • Paula Larsson University of Oxford


The twin goals of “Christianization” and “civilization” for Aboriginal children were propagated in many features of Indian Residential School life. This article examines one of those features: the curriculum selected and taught to the students. The educational program of Indian Residential Schools was at its foundation focused on a Christianizing mandate. The core textbooks of the schools were Christian readers and workbooks, which varied between the different denominations, yet still uniformly sought to teach children the importance of traditional Christian values and beliefs. Layered into the basic coursework were carefully selected social lessons designed to demonstrate the differences between the white majority and Aboriginal minority, the superiority of the white population, and the importance of Anglo-Canadian state citizenship. These messages were reinforced through the lessons in history books, storybooks, and supplementary reading materials provided in the classroom. The words and images of these publications preyed upon the loneliness and isolation of the student, who straddled a divide between what was “Indian” and what was “white” — a divide between past and present, evil and good, and subject and citizen. This article provides a concentrated empirical analysis of school curriculum to illuminate how oppression was constructed and reinforced in the pedagogy of Indian Residential Schools.

Author Biography

Paula Larsson, University of Oxford

Paula Larsson paula.larsson@new.ox.ac.uk is a DPhil Candidate in the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine at the University of Oxford, UK. Her research focuses on the history of public health in Canada, with particular focus on the intersections of ethnicity, health, and policy in the past century. She first became interested in the history of medicine while studying her undergraduate degree at Mount Royal University in Calgary. From there she undertook two Master degrees and one Doctorate, which will be completed in 2019. Her current research investigates the history of vaccination policy in Canada, tracing the application of policy amongst indigenous and immigrant populations throughout the 20th century. Other aspects of her research include the development of insane asylums in Canada, healthcare within Indian Residential Schools, and medical interpretations of the Medicine Wheel teachings.