Education for 'civilization': Denominational consensus and missionary education on the Rosebud Reservation, 1870--1920 (South Dakota)

Sarah Bennison
Dept. of History, New York University
July, 2006


This dissertation tells the story of Protestant Episcopalian and Roman Catholic missionary education on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Using two schools as case studies, the Episcopal St. Mary's School and the Catholic St. Francis School, I investigate how a long history of conflict shaping Protestant/Catholic relations in the East translated to consensus on western missions. This study explores how contested religious, cultural, and political ideologies translated westward. More specifically, because schools were the institutional site of this contestation, this story focuses on the significant role that Protestant and Catholic women, charged with educating the young, played on western missions.
The history of missionary education on Rosebud is simultaneously local, national, and global giving us insight into national and transnational debates about the role of religion in the creation of national identity. As this study makes clear, Protestants and Catholics were not only fighting for their brand of Christianity but, perhaps more importantly, for political and cultural dominance in a country newly emerging from civil war and expanding westward. Ultimately, this examination of one Indian reservation in the nineteenth-century American West allows us to see the role that Protestant and Catholic missionaries played in promoting national unity as they came to consensus about their goals to 'civilize' and 'Americanize' Native Americans.
This study illustrates the extent to which consensus, rather than conflict, shaped the daily interactions of Protestant and Catholic missionaries in the West despite physical and ideological conflict between these groups in the East. The story of missionary education on Rosebud challenges dominant conflict narratives characterizing religious history, western history, women's history, and educational history. On western reservations like Rosebud, European Catholic immigrants, characterized as 'savage' in the East, worked with Protestants to 'civilize' and 'Americanize' native pupils. Joined by their racial and gender identity against indigenous 'others,' Protestants and Catholics redefined eastern conceptions of 'whiteness' and 'civility' to include Catholic immigrants. Ultimately, consensus among missionaries in the West led to new, inter-denominational definitions of American identity.