Literacy Among American Indians: Levels and Trends from 1900 to 1930 and Across Birth Cohorts from 1830 to 1920

a SSAI Working Paper

Arland Thornton and Linda Young-DeMarco. “Literacy Among American Indians: Levels and Trends from 1900 to 1930 and Across Birth Cohorts from 1830 to 1920.” SSAI Working Paper 2021-04. April 2021.

We investigate levels and trends in literacy–being able to read and write–among American Indians in the United States. Using 1900-1930 decennial census data, we document levels and trends in reading and writing for the 1900 through 1930 period and for birth cohorts from 1830 through 1920. We thus provide for American Indians a large-scale picture of the history of literacy. We document the pace and extent of American Indian literacy from very low for the birth cohorts of the early 1800s to fairly universal for the cohorts of the early 1900s. We also demonstrate that the increases in Native literacy were closely related to birth cohort, with successive new birth cohorts having higher levels of literacy. We found little evidence that increases in reading and writing from 1900 to 1930 happened because adults increased their literacy after the school years and as they matured across the adult life course. We also document important gender differences in American Indian literacy, with the proportion literate being lower for women than for men, but with the gender gap decreasing in later birth cohorts. There were also substantial literacy inequalities across geographical regions of the country—ranging from 19 to 74 percent literate across regions in 1900. The trajectories of literacy attainment also varied across regions in interesting ways. We also document that American Indian literacy was higher among those living in urban areas, those more integrated into the Euro-American community, and those with Euro-American ancestry.

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