“We’re not as bad as we look”: Girls’ Education at the Albuquerque Indian School

Today’s post is written by Jennifer Eltringham, an intern at the National Archives at Denver.

The Albuquerque Indian School was founded in in 1881 during a push to assimilate Native Americans into mainstream American culture through education at off-reservation boarding schools. By removing children from their families and culture, educators hoped to “Kill the Indian, save the man,” as per the motto of Col. Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Until 1934, the teaching of Indian history and culture was forbidden in Indian schools.

Part of this mission involved “educating Indian girls in the hope that women trained as good housewives would help their mates assimilate” (Trennert, p. 272). At the Albuquerque Indian School, girls were trained in home economics – housekeeping, cooking, sewing, and other domestic arts. In addition, they practiced weaving and embroidery, creating items that were sold to interested parties or used at the school. By doing chores such as laundry and cleaning, girls spent a good part of their time in service to the school.

Girls at the Albuquerque Indian School Practice Sewing, ca. 1910 (NAID 292877).
Excerpt from “Home Economics in Indian Schools,” a Department of the Interior pamphlet by Edna Groves, Supervisor of Home Economics for Indian Schools (NAID 292863).
Letter from Mary B. Hardin to Reuben Perry, Superintendent, Indian School, requesting to purchase embroidery created by students, Dec. 11, 1931 (NAID 292863).

If assimilation to American culture was the goal, however, these programs were not particularly effective. Girls who returned to their home reservations were often not prepared for the living situations, which were much different than what they had been taught at school. Instead, girls were commonly “outed” after leaving school, or placed with families as domestic servants. According to correspondence from the Albuquerque Indian School papers, girls were paid $3-5 per week to perform domestic chores for local families. The school’s outing contract can be seen below.

The “outing contract” used by the Albuquerque Indian School when girls were sent to work for local families (NAID 292863)

Another indicator of the skills and qualities that were emphasized for girls at the Albuquerque Indian School can be found in graduation reports from vocational programs, including recommendations from various officials at the school. The following excerpt is from 1927 for a student who completed a vocational course in home economics. The comments note what professions the girl would be suited to, such as assistant matron (coordinator of girls’ education), housekeeper in a day school, assistant seamstress, assistant cook or “a good assistant in any domestic subject.” These comments also show what qualities were valued in female students at the time – “a good disposition,” domestic, willing, physically strong, moral. This student is even noted to be headstrong to an extent – she completed her education “despite the wishes of her parents.”

Excerpt from an “Information on Graduates of Senior and Junior Vocational Courses” form, 1927 (NAID 566512).

One early educator believed that Native American girls would be more difficult to educate than their male counterparts due to their “inherited spirit of independence” (Trennert, p. 276). While the structured curriculum and domestic expectations of boarding school education were restrictive, the personality of the students still shines through in the documents of this collection. Most notably in the following photo of female students captioned, “We’re not as bad as we look.”

We’re not as bad as we look. (NAID 292863).

There are many memoirs and accounts of life at residential Indian schools. To learn more of girls’ experiences at residential schools, check out the following:


General Correspondence File of the Albuquerque Indian School, 1881-1936, (NAID 292863). Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793-1999.

General Correspondence, 1911-1935, (NAID 566512). Record Group 75: Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1793-1999.


“Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” Keeping History: Plains Indian Ledger Drawings, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, 2009.

“Boardings Schools: Struggling with Cultural Repression,” Native Words Native Warriors, Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Trennert, R.A. (1982). “Educating Indian Girls at Nonreservation Boarding Schools, 1878-1920.” The Western Historical Quarterly,13(3), 271-290. doi:10.2307/969414


2 thoughts on ““We’re not as bad as we look”: Girls’ Education at the Albuquerque Indian School

  1. Thank you for providing images of documents related to the boarding school experience. Thanks to IMLS and Knight Foundation funding, the Indigenous Digital Archive will help create access to more records. Native-docs.org

  2. I learned from this article. Thanks for sharing these contracts and photos from Albuquerque Indian School, one of the largest and most important in the country. That last photo is a gem and I’ve never seen that before. Wonderful.

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