Quantitative Mental Health & Oppression, Part Two: The Case of the ‘American Indian’


In my last post, I described how attempts of Western social science to quantify human internal experience became oppressive. It was the quantification of feeblemindedness by early applied psychologists that solidified the field as a profitable profession. You may have thought of this effort as ‘the measurement of intelligence,’ but the goal was always to isolate and keep people presumed to be inferior from reproducing.

I’ll describe the ‘case of the American Indian’ as an example of how this effort played out.

The international eugenics movement founded by Sir Francis Galton, who also created the field of psychometrics, has been widely discussed as a debunked, pseudoscientific era of the past. Click here for Dr. Barry Mehler’s excellent resource on academic racism in relation to eugenics, mental health, and other topics.

I contend that, like problems within the families we study, contemporary mental health systems intergenerationally transmit racist ideologies and practices from the ‘mental hygiene’ component of the historical eugenics movement. This has been most evident to me while working in Indian Country. Indigenous Americans haven’t had so-called ‘mental health services’ for very long (since the mid-1960s through Indian Health Service clinics and grants), yet oppressive forces from the ‘mental hygiene movement’ began impinging upon their life-world, and particularly that of their children, about 120 years ago.

Considering the discomfort that might be out there over the term ‘American Indian’ versus ‘Native American,’ I should explain myself. I rarely use the latter term since being sternly corrected by an elder shortly after I first arrived to work at Yakama Nation. A former member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), she told me, “Don’t call me that. I’m Indian-Indian. I’m from among a misidentified, politically-marginalized group of people. I don’t go by Native American. That’s a whitewash. I’m either Yakama or I’m Indian. That’s it.” I have respected her wishes ever since then.

Once upon a time, people in the 566-plus federally-recognized American Indian and Alaska Native tribal communities (and the 100 or so ‘non-recognized) didn’t identify themselves as ‘Native’ or ‘Indian’ or ‘First Nations,’ any more than slaves called themselves ‘Negro’ or ‘African.’ White people created these categories. If we try to eliminate from our minds the biological fiction of racial and ethnic categories, what remains is the ongoing political and social oppression of many fellow human beings.

Scores of subcategories pertaining to ‘American Indian’, ‘African-American’, ‘Asian’, ‘Hispanic’, and even ‘Caucasian’ were endorsed as acceptable terminology by 19th and 20th century white academics intent on ordering a vast assortment of human beings from primitive to civilized through an ideology called cultural evolutionism. 

For example, Samuel Morton (1799-1851), a Philadelphia physician, was an influential member of the Academy of Sciences whose eulogy attested to his “cabinet of 867 human crania from many widely separated regions of the earth.”1 Where’d he get all those skulls? Let’s not go there. His book Crania Americana (1840) categorized humans into “five races divided into twenty-two families” and proclaimed that “the benevolent mind may regret the inaptitude of the Indian for civilization . . .”2

Of course, cultural evolutionists placed white people on top of the ‘civilized’ ladder. Dedicated to ‘better breeding of humans,’ eugenics evolved out this cultural evolutionist thought and developed its own heyday from about 1875 until world recognition of the Jewish Holocaust.

Thus, the grand majority of people to be eliminated by the eugenics movement were ‘non-white’ and many psychologists signed on with a new means of demonstrating their inferiority – by establishing their lack of intelligence through tests. Early applied psychologists desperately wanted to be viewed in the same light as researchers in zoology, botany, and biology. They wanted out of the philosophy wing. This was their ticket.

Applied psychology took off at the turn of the 20th century by revising intelligence into a quantified concept that served eugenics aims. Intelligence tests (which yield IQ or other similar scores) were psychology’s very first profit-making business (psychologists didn’t do psychotherapy in the U.S. until after WWII).

Intelligence tests were initially broadly-applied by people like Henry Herbert Goddard and his staff working for the U.S. Public Health Service at major immigration points like Ellis Island. Turning away people at U.S. borders with an ‘F’ with a circle on their back (signifying ‘feebleminded’) helped raise the status of psychology by publicly demonstrating its ability to keep undesirables from threatening the white American gene pool during a period a rabid xenophobia.

The contemporary conviction that intelligence is partly- or mostly-biological (i.e. the nature versus nurture debate) developed during this period. The normal or bell-shaped curve of intelligence test ‘findings’, mathematically-articulated by Sir Francis Galton’s protégé and biographer Karl Pearson (originator of the Pearson r correlation coefficient), helped shore up the validity of this belief by illustrating how non-whites ended up at the low end of the curve (just as cultural evolutionists had ordered these groups at being beneath ‘civilized’ status).

Take a look at this illustration from Paul Popenoe’s 1918 book, Applied Eugenics:

Aren’t the stacked little kiddies cute? Too bad Paul Popenoe ended up an esteemed consultant to Nazi Germany’s ‘Hereditary Health Courts’ and facilitated passage of California’s sterilization laws (in effect until 1976) which formed the starting architecture for the Jewish Holocaust.

Only 40 years ago, social workers, community health resource workers (CHRs), and other employees of the Indian Health Service (IHS) openly discouraged American Indian mothers from having too many children.3  Women were frequently threatened with loss of treaty-guaranteed health and social benefits if they didn’t get sterilized. Many did so under this coercion.

Such events are still within the memory and experience of living people. I’ve worked as an ally to American Indian women suffering from the grief of having been sterilized back then. I’ve also worked with teenage American Indian women who received free provision of birth control patches such as Ortho Evra at Indian Health Service clinics after the Food & Drug warned in 2005 that they can cause fatal blood clots. Time marches on.

That my profession has been directly complicit in the history of American Indian genocide is irrefutable. Intelligence testing by a psychologist was required in numerous states where sterilization was enforced by court order. Involuntary sterilization of more than 60,000 individuals had occurred in the U.S. by the beginning of World War II, including Abenaki tribal members and many men and women from other American Indian communities.4

American Indians were also exploited through two other eugenics ‘cleansing’ trajectories: first, when approximately 124 native men volunteered to fight for the U.S. Army in World War I (despite not yet enjoying the status of being viewed as U.S. citizens), and second, through the forced removal (often kidnapping) of up to 70 percent of Indian children into federally- and mission-run boarding schools across five generations lasting from 1890 to 1970.

I’ve worked with elders raped as children in American Indian boarding schools. I’ve worked with American Indian men and women whose last sight of their weeping grandparent came while lying roped and tied in the back of a missionary wagon. It’s been a difficult realization to encounter my own profession’s complicity in this history, but I try to respond by bearing witness.

American Indian WWI soldiers, many of who were Choctaw, were tested during Army Alpha-Beta research by a team of early psychologists including Robert Yerkes, Henry Herbert Goddard, Lewis Terman, Henry Otis, Carl Brigham and several others. This brief and highly-biased test determined who merited officer training and who belonged in front-line combat.

Consider the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB), a descendent of the Army Alpha-Beta, and ponder how American Indian Vietnam veterans had a much higher rate of exposure to heavy combat (57 to 70% compared to 20% across all Vietnam vets). Did the heroism of Hopi single mother Lori Piestewa lie in her willingness to leave her kids in order to use the military option to obtain her education or in becoming the first female Native American killed in combat? And what test said she should be trained as a truck driver? The ASVAB.

Carl Brigham used the Army Alpha-Beta tests as a model for the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), but he formally protested the creation of the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and the use of the SAT in college entry decision-making. He was ignored. American Indians today remain the most poorly represented group on college campuses.

When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2002, I had been studying this history for a while. Imagine my disquiet in noticing young students at the tribal school where I consult could take the ASVAB for free (pamphlets were on the counter next to the school entry door) while a reduced-fee SAT prep course cost twenty dollars (mentioned on the small poster on the bulletin board down the hall). I remember an American Indian teen at that time excelling on the ASVAB whose family thereby opted to apply their highly-limited college funds to a cousin, forcing this young person to unwillingly join the military to go to school.

By the way, in 1921, here’s how psychiatrist Pearce Bailey described those ‘American Indian’ volunteers in World War I using that Army Alpha Beta research:

In other conditions—namely, neurologic, psychoses, psychoneuroses, endocrine and constitutional psychopathic states—he is far below the United States average. His high mental-deficiency percentage leaves little room for anything else.5

In boarding schools, researchers like the prolific Thomas Russell Garth worked hard to show the feeblemindedness of captive American Indian children by having them take highly-biased paper-pencil tests – like the Otis Test of Intelligence. A conscientious man, Garth refuted his entire twenty-year body of work just prior to his premature death in 1938. Ineffectively, unfortunately, because by then, he’d published comparative charts like this one for his 1931 book, Race Psychology: A Study of Racial Mental Differences:

Findings from such paper-pencil tests confirmed to the white administrators and staff members (and occasional abusers) the need to structure the curricula of these children toward domestic servitude and manual labor.

I remember my deceased brother-friend Long Standing Bear Chief (Pikaani Blackfoot) telling me about a high school counselor who said he’d be better off at vocational school than becoming one of the first American Indian graduates of the University of Montana. I also remember an American Indian client arguing with me that my white skin meant I was born more intelligent than she was and this was why she’d never earn her master’s degree despite my encouragement. We worked that through, eventually.

Although old Dr. Pearce Bailey claimed American Indians were too inferior to develop ‘mental health disorders,’ the Indian Health Service has operated mental and behavioral health (more p.c.) departments since the 1960s. So let’s wonder about this generational rising tide of ‘emotional disturbance’ as we read psychiatrist Robert Leon’s analysis from 1958:

There are a number of frankly psychotic children . . . There are quite a number of severely neurotic children . . . After a girl has run away from the boarding school and been brought back, she was almost immediately taken to the health service for a pelvic examination . . . Many of the physicians, and to their credit, rebelled at making these examinations . . .6

And as to the current youth suicide epidemic in American Indian communities, this has been a long term problem. Developmental theorist and U.S. Office of Education researcher Robert Havighurst concluded back in the early 1970s:

Some writers about Indian education have . . . claimed that attendance at federal boarding schools has a bad influence on the mental health of children and youth, and they have implied that the suicide rate is related somehow to boarding-school attendance . . . This claim appears to have no basis in fact . . .7

Today’s more enlightened recognition of ‘historical trauma’ and ‘internalized oppression’ as psychological concepts explaining what contributes to the suffering of American Indians may, unfortunately, obscure the significant contributing legacy of the mental health movement itself. In other words, mental health practitioners in Indian Country ‘treat’ what their professional ancestors inflicted.

In a future post, I’ll describe what I’ve learned about the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians, closed in 1933 with the astonishing realization that most of the people housed therein could be considered ‘sane.’

Sir Francis Galton, inspiration to generations of psychologists, who’s eugenics misdeeds are still never, ever openly described in introductory psychology textbooks, never actually met an American Indian but still felt compelled to state that:

The nature of American Indians appears to contain the minimum affectionate and social qualities compatible with the continuance of their race. . . It becomes a question of great interest how far moral monstrosities admit of being bred.8

At least he calls them by the assigned ethnic category. That doesn’t happen in the current manual for the Wechsler intelligence test9, still popular throughout the U.S. in learning disability determination and used in public schools across Yakima Valley.  The normative section of the Wechsler manual still places American Indians under the category of ‘Other.’10

* * * * *


1. Meigs, C. (January 17, 1852). Eulogy read at the memorial for Dr. Samuel Morton. New York Times.

2. Gould, S. J. (1996). The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.

3. Torpy, S. (2000). Native American Women and Coerced Sterilization: On the Trail of Tears in the 1970s. American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 24:2, 1-22.

4. Savage, B. (1998, June). Large numbers of Natives were sterilized, Alberta Native News.

5. Barry, E. (1999, Aug. 15). Eugenics Victims are Heard at Last: Outrage Voiced Over State Sterilization, Boston Globe, B01.

6. Robert Leon, MD, Mental health considerations in the Indian Boarding School Program, 1958

7. Robert Havighurst, The Extent and Significance of Suicide Among American Indians, March, 1970

8. Galton, F. (1865). Hereditary Talent and Character, Macmillan’s magazine, 12, 318-327

9. Marketed by Pearson after merging with Harcourt, which bought eugenics-founded Psych Corp in 1970

10. For additional citation information regarding this blog, please contact me through my website


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


  1. While writing a research paper on stigma in mental illness coinciding with certain political and historical events, I read somewhere that the diagnosis of feeblemindedness was also motivated by the fear of interracial relationships becoming prevalent. It was already assumed that black people were less intelligent, and the diagnosis of feeble along with the popularization of eugenic theories was meant to discourage this along with profiting from the new diagnosis.

  2. I am from West Virginia, which was the last state to take the eugenics based laws off the books, although it was states such as Virginia and California that greatly engaged in forced sterilizations. Also Virginia was the last state to take the anti-miscegenation laws off its books. I think what David is driving at here is that psychology/psychiatry and such educational programs as the gifted owe much to eugenics. My son is a senior in high school. His history books mention Social Darwinism, but nothing on Eugenics. It hasn’t been that long ago that the Bell Curve was released and community activists disrupted and shut down the conference on the violence gene at the University of Maryland. This sort of twisted thinking has infected and continues to infect our public discourse. We ignore this history at our peril.

    • Just stumbled on the article and wanted to add my 2 cents.. albeit a few years later, however, the facts and arguments have not changed.
      I argue that the issue is not the tests but what preparing for the test entails – significant resource and time investment. To get a strong ASVAB score – you must be naturally in an environment that facilitates studying and education, which the Native Americans do not have access to, though they are just as a capable candidate as any other. We grew up to study, we were trained since grade 1 to study, so no wonder we do well. And for our peers that don’t, they have math tutors and educated parents to help with $$$ to spend.
      But perhaps the time is changing, technology is the great equalizer, and the internet is no less. Just did a quick google on the internet for ASVAB Online Help, and I already found a few good online help resources, such as https://www.studypug.com/asvab-test-prep that are cheap, and seems effective.
      Over time – these tools should allow even those of us who aren’t financially equipped and well-heeled to have the support necessary to be better in these test preps, ASVAB included.

  3. You know, we came to this country fleeing persecution and oppression, and discovering that freedom was an actual option, we embraced oppressing and persecuting like a national pastime. It’s curious and disturbing the way that it has become a way of uniting the majority in the hatred of someone else… A few years ago, it was the LGBT community until they proved themselves determined, outspoken, and legally involved. Race wars used to be big, but we now hide that under different terms. Women are a random choice… but mental illness…. There’s nothing like a scapegoat that can’t defend itself and due to society’s view of the mentally ill as disposable, no one is going to take up the fight for us. There’s not threat of revolution, and the general public is not likely to defend us. After all, we are violent, we are selfish, we are dangerous… As long as they perpetuate the myth, the majority will be happy to see us locked up and forgotten because these terms… unreasonable, dangerous, criminal, selfish,… these terms have slowly defined us as something other than “human” in the way that they understand humanity. The same thing happened to the Indians. Savage, ignorant, violent.. we used these words and in our minds it vindicated us from the horrific acts we perpetrated against them. It didn’t matter than we were more savage, more violent, and moI re ignorant. The Indians even studied law in an attempt to fight us by our own rules… we just changed the rules. I may never understand why this need to oppress and divide is part of our nature.