The federal role in American Indian education has its basis in the treaty and commerce clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In the early years of the republic it was recognized that, in the interest of protecting the borders of the Western frontier, the cost of war with the Indians was much higher than the cost of education. Until 1871, in accordance with international law, the United States treated with Indian tribes as separate nations. Commissioners appointed by the President frequently negotiated treaties with specific provisions for education, whose Christianizing and civilizing functions were perceived to be instrumental in obtaining amicable relations. Through the quid pro quo of the treaty process, the United States and Indian tribes established their peculiar relationship. This required that tribes surrender their external powers of sovereignty to the United States. Generally, this meant that they would not engage in treaties with competitive foreign powers such as Great Britain, France, or Spain. Treaties also acknowledged a federal title to their lands, subject to their rights of occupancy. When tribes ceded certain tracts of land that they already occupied, they were permitted to retain their internal powers of sovereignty and to receive financial consideration through specific treaty provisions and through a more generalized duty of care and protection from the United States. As a result, specific and general treaty provisions on education promised to educate American Indians. Appropriation acts pursuant to specific treaty provisions and for the Civilization Fund confirmed the basis and became the policy of the United States in its early federal role in American Indian education.

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