Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences

Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences

by Clifford E. Trafzer

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Like the figures in the ancient oral literature of Native Americans, children who lived through the American Indian boarding school experience became heroes, bravely facing a monster not of their own making. Sometimes the monster swallowed them up. More often, though, the children fought the monster and grew stronger. This volume draws on the full breadth of this


Like the figures in the ancient oral literature of Native Americans, children who lived through the American Indian boarding school experience became heroes, bravely facing a monster not of their own making. Sometimes the monster swallowed them up. More often, though, the children fought the monster and grew stronger. This volume draws on the full breadth of this experience in showing how American Indian boarding schools provided both positive and negative influences for Native American children. The boarding schools became an integral part of American history, a shared history that resulted in Indians “turning the power” by using their school experiences to grow in wisdom and benefit their people.

The first volume of essays ever to focus on the American Indian boarding school experience, and written by some of the foremost experts and most promising young scholars of the subject, Boarding School Blues ranges widely in scope, addressing issues such as sports, runaways, punishment, physical plants, and Christianity. With comparative studies of the various schools, regions, tribes, and aboriginal peoples of the Americas and Australia, the book reveals both the light and the dark aspects of the boarding school experience and illuminates the vast gray area in between.

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Boarding School Blues

Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences

University of Nebraska Press

Copyright © 2006

University of Nebraska Press

All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8032-9463-8

Chapter One

Beyond Bleakness

The Brighter Side of Indian Boarding Schools, 1870-1940

David Wallace Adams

David Wallace Adams is a distinguished professor of education at Cleveland
State University, where he teaches the history of American Indian education.
Although Adams has published widely, he is best known for his
pathbreaking book Education for Extinction: American Indians and the
Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928
. He states in this essay that federal
policy makers intended boarding schools to assimilate American Indian
children by removing them from their homes, cultures, and languages.
School officials sought to destroy Native American identity and to
replace it with new values that reflected the dominant society. Adams understands
that in spite of the fact that Indian students suffered loneliness,
harsh punishments, isolation, dangerous diseases, and a continual assault
on their traditional cultures, many students found ways to cope with and
to enjoy their boarding school days. Native parents and tribal elders often
implored their children to work hard and learn as much as they could
so that the students could better serve their communities. Many students
felt obligatedto make the best of their schooling, while others openly embraced
their educational experience.

Many students enjoyed making money through the "outing" (work)
programs, and they sent money home and bought things they had long
wanted. Students enjoyed learning a number of trades, including harness
making, carpentry, masonry, and sewing. They often enjoyed participating
in the school band, choir, or drama clubs. Some students traveled to
other communities, including big cities, to share their talents. They had an
opportunity to see new and exciting places. Athletes at the Indian schools
also enjoyed traveling to new places and felt privileged to have the opportunity
of representing their schools in football, baseball, and track. Indian
students sometimes fell in love at the boarding schools, and many children
came home with rich stories that families still share.

The picture that historians have painted of Indian boarding schools has generally
been a bleak one. The scenario goes something like this. Late-nineteenth-century
policy makers, convinced that the alternatives facing Indians
were racial extinction or forced assimilation, were determined to effect
the latter. The mechanism for accomplishing this objective was education.
On- and (especially) off-reservation boarding schools were deemed the ideal
instruments for lifting Indian children out of the depths of "savagism" and
setting them on the path to progress, that is, "civilization." Boarding schools
would carry out this process by removing Indian children from their native
environment, stripping away all outward vestiges of traditional identity, and
then exposing them to an instructional program equally divided between
academic and industrial training, supplemented by routinized chore work.
All this took place in a military-like institutional setting characterized by
drill and marching, constant monitoring, and harsh discipline, where the
very acts of eating, sleeping, and hygiene were regulated by bugles and bells
driven by the precise measurements of the white man's clock. Conceived as
assimilationist hothouses, boarding schools were designed to individualize,
republicanize, and Christianize the next generation of Indian youth, qualifying
them as fit candidates for American citizenship. Students, meanwhile,
endured heartbreaking loneliness, substandard diets, humiliating punishments,
life-threatening diseases, and an unrelenting assault on their cultural
and psychological selves. Not an uplifting story.

But there is another, less dismal, side of the boarding school story, and it
is this other side that is the focus of this essay. This essay asks: In what ways
and for what reasons did Indian youth sometimes come to look upon their
years at boarding school as a rewarding and even joyful experience? Before
addressing this question, a few disclaimers are in order. First, the following
discussion is not a revisionist attempt to argue that boarding schools
were a necessary or desirable development in the evolution of federal Indian
policy or that most Indian youth looked upon their school years as an
overall pleasant or positive experience. Nor does this essay claim that past
treatments of Indian schooling have dwelled exclusively upon the negative
features of the boarding school story. In fact, most scholars who have studied
the subject, however critical in their perspective, acknowledge that Indian
communities and students alike saw redeeming value in the boarding
school experience. This essay, rather, attempts to pull together the various
strands of this somewhat muted theme and to make sense of it as an important
element in the boarding school story. Third, it is important to remember
that the Indian student's response to boarding school was not an
either/or matter. Over the course of several years, a single year, or even a single
day, a given student might experience a range of emotions and respond
in a range of ways, running the gamut from active accommodation, to bewilderment,
to ambivalence, to overt resistance. Finally, this study is offered
with the frank admission that scholars are on very shaky ground when
they attempt to make hard generalizations on the question of student responses.
This is partly so because efforts to examine the subject are frequently
and necessarily based on material collected long after the experience
itself. While memoirs and oral historical accounts are invaluable, it
is nonetheless true that experiencing an event is often quite different from
having experienced it. As Sally McBeth has pointed out, because the boarding
school experience is such an important element of what it has meant to
be Indian in America-that is, Indian identity-it is imbued with shifting
symbolic meanings that are often paradoxical and contradictory. Meanwhile,
given the paucity of sources for uncovering the attitudes, feelings,
and actions of Indian children at the time of their attendance, historians
are forced to rely on these accounts recorded years later. This essay does not
resolve this dilemma; it merely acknowledges it.

It is important to remember that although Indian agents often resorted
to force to fill school enrollment quotas, some Indian children came to
boarding school willingly. Consider the behavior of an adolescent Hopi girl
in 1906 when she spotted a covered wagon full of Hopis coming down the
road from Second Mesa. Polingaysi Qoyawayma had heard rumors that a
group of children from Keams Canyon Boarding School were to be taken
to Sherman Institute, the distant school in southern California, and she
thought the approaching wagon must surely be this group. When the wagon
stopped at the trading post to camp for the night, her suspicion was con-
firmed by one of wagon's occupants, who announced: "We're going to the
land of oranges faraway in California." Polingaysi, who had already defied
her parents by attending the day school at Oraibi, was determined to do so
again if it meant going to the school in the "land of oranges." Unable to convince
her parents to sign the required permission form, the next morning
she crept into the wagon in the predawn hours hoping the driver wouldn't
spot her. But the plan went awry and she was ordered out of the wagon. The
stubborn Hopi girl refused to budge, however, pronouncing: "I will not get
out of the wagon. I am going along." Finally, it was decided to fetch the girl's
parents, who would either force their daughter from the wagon or give in to
her burning desire. In the end her father relented, saying: "I think we should
allow her to go.... She will be well taken care of. She will learn more of the
writing marks that are in books. I think we should sign the paper." And so
they did, a gesture for which Polingaysi would be ever grateful.

The fact that Qoyawayma eagerly wanted to go off to boarding school
surely accounts for something in explaining her overall favorable attitude
toward the whole experience. Also, it should not be forgotten that many
students went off to school with strong support from tribal elders, an endorsement
of the white man's school that presumably carried considerable
weight with children embarking upon this new adventure. As the father of
Francis La Flesche explained to his son:

Early I sought the society of those who knew the teaching of the chiefs.
From them I learned that kindness and hospitality win the love of a people.
I culled from their teachings their noblest thoughts, and treasured
them, and they have been my guide. You came into existence, and have
reached the age when you should seek for knowledge. That you might
profit by the teachings of your own people and that of the white race, and
that you might avoid the misery which accompanies ignorance, I placed
you in the House of the Teaching of the White-Chests, who are said to be
wise and to have in their books the utterances of great and learned men. I
had treasured the hope that you would seek to know the good deeds done
by men of your own race, and by men of the white race, that you would
follow their example and take pleasure in doing the things that are noble
and helpful to those around you. Am I to be disappointed?

Likewise, Thomas Wildcat Alford relates that before he and another
Shawnee boy, both designated as future chiefs, were sent off to Hampton
Institute, tribal chiefs "told us of their desire that we should learn the white
man's wisdom. How to read in books, how to understand all that was written
and spoken to about our people and the government."

But even in those instances where children were forced into school, they
too, over the span of month and years, might come to appreciate aspects
of their experience. In the end there were at least six reasons why students
might find the boarding school experience satisfying-or at least partially
so. First, some found boarding school a welcome escape from the desperate
economic and social conditions in their home communities. Here we
confront one of the most unpleasant realities of turn-of-the-century reservation
life: in the struggle for existence, many families were only surviving
by the skin of their teeth. For Frank Mitchell, a Navajo who attended
the reservation boarding school at Fort Defiance, the motivation to attend
the white man's school derived largely from economic factors. As he recalls
in his autobiography: "The school accepted just any children, regardless
of what conditions they were in. Some of those children were brought to
school very badly clothed; there was just nothing clean or whole on them."
He continues:

When I entered school there was plenty to eat there, more food than I
used to get at home. We had different foods at Fort Defiance, like rice
and beans. And we had some dried fruit that we ate, like apples. Besides
that we had meat, beef, which was bought for us at school. So I was happy
about that; I was willing to go to school if they were going to feed me
like that. The clothing that I got there too gave me joy. I was proud to look
at the clothes and the shoes, and to walk around in them.

In spite of these material benefits, Mitchell dropped out for three years
after spending one year at Fort Defiance, largely because of his mother's
opposition to white education. But by then all of his school clothes were
worn to a frazzle. "So I was running around with white calico pants again,"
he relates, "and even my shoes were worn out. When I realized what condition
I was in again, I got to thinking about going back to school." And so
he did.

Sometimes the motivation to escape reservation communities sprang
more social conditions. In communities ravaged by alcoholism, where the
unraveling of village and kinship ties forced children into chaotic and violent
environments, boarding schools held out a measure of physical and psychological
security. The extent of this appeal is revealed in the comments
of seventh-grade Haskell students in essays written on the topic "Alcohol
and My Future." One student wrote: "Why is it that I am against the liquor
traffic? Because whisky caused my father's death. He was an officer and the
drunkards were all against him and killed him." Another wrote: "We once
had a nice home but after alcohol entered it kept on going down and down
until we had no home. Papa drank up everything. He caused mother to sell
her land and now mother has no home at all. She works. If I had the power,
I would crush every saloon to pieces." More than one student confessed to
having succumbed to self-destructing drinking.

I am sorry to say that I don't know when I took my first drink, maybe it
was before I could walk, as my father and mother were both drunkards,
although my mother punished me when I took some without her permission....
Today I am living without parents. This liquor is the cause
of that and they [Indians] try hard to get us in this trap. My father was
found under the snow by a farmer who happened to drive to town after
the snow storm. What was the cause of this? Alcohol. Alcohol is the cause
of nearly all crime. Let us brace up and fight against our common enemy
who is killing out parents.

In such troubled environments it is understandable that some Indian
youth looked upon boarding school as a welcome relief, a safe space from
the oftentimes depressing and destructive conditions of reservation life.

Sometimes it was parents who turned to boarding schools because personal
and economic circumstances made it impossible for them to care for
their children. One Kiowa woman recalled: "I wanted to go home and be
with mama, but she said, 'Well, if you come home, we'll only be eating one
meal a day, and so I think you should go.'" In Boarding School Seasons, Brenda
Child cites several instances of parents requesting that superintendents
enroll their children in boarding school. In 1924 a recently widowed Ojibwa
father wrote the school at Flandreau, South Dakota: "I have lost my wife
and left me with six children.... I would like to ask you to send these little
folks over to you two or three years so I can get along. It is hard for me [to]
stay here alone home because children not used home alone when mother
gone. When I am going working out it hard for them ... and this all I ask
you if you have a place for them." That same year, another widowed father
made this appeal: "I am writing you to see if you can do me a favor by taking
my daughter in your school it would be a big favor to me as my wife died
Feb. 4th and have no way to taking care of the girl we cant stay at home as
it is very lonesome for her.... Therefore I am asking you this favor, to turn
my daughter over in your care."


Excerpted from Boarding School Blues

Copyright © 2006 by University of Nebraska Press .
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Clifford E. Trafzer is a professor of American Indian history, director of public history, and director of graduate studies at the University of California, Riverside. His many books include As Long as the Grass Shall Grow and Rivers Flow: A History of Native Americans. Jean A. Keller is an adjunct professor of American Indian studies at Palomar College in San Marcos, California, and a private cultural resources consultant. She is the author of Empty Beds: Indian Student Health at Sherman Institute, 1902–1922. Lorene Sisquoc is the curator of the Sherman Indian Museum in Riverside, California. She teaches Native American traditions to high school students and instructs extension classes in Native American studies.

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