The Students of Sherman Indian School: Education and Native Identity since 1892

The Students of Sherman Indian School: Education and Native Identity since 1892

by Diana Meyers Bahr

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Sherman Indian High School, as it is known today, began in 1892 as Perris Indian School on eighty acres south of Riverside, California, with nine students. Its mission, like that of other off-reservation Indian boarding schools, was to "civilize" Indian children, which meant stripping them of their Native culture and giving them vocational training. Today, the

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Sherman Indian High School, as it is known today, began in 1892 as Perris Indian School on eighty acres south of Riverside, California, with nine students. Its mission, like that of other off-reservation Indian boarding schools, was to "civilize" Indian children, which meant stripping them of their Native culture and giving them vocational training. Today, the school on Magnolia Avenue in Riverside serves 350 students from 68 tribes, and its curricula are designed to both preserve Native languages and traditions and prepare students for life and work in mainstream American society. This book offers the first full history of Sherman Indian School’s 100-plus years, a history that reflects federal Indian education policy since the late nineteenth century.

Sherman Institute's historical trajectory features the abuse and exploitation familiar from other accounts of life at Indian boarding schools—children punished and humiliated for maintaining Native ways and put to work as manual laborers. But this book also brings to light the ways Native children managed to maintain their dignity, benefited from interacting with students from other tribes, and often even expressed appreciation for the experiences at Sherman. Alternating periods of assimilation and self-determination form a critical part of the story Diana Meyers Bahr tells, but her interpretation of the students’ complex experiences is more subtle than that. From the accounts of students, educators, and administrators over the years, Bahr draws a picture of Sherman students successfully navigating a complicated middle course between total assimilation and total rejection of white education.

The ambivalence of such a middle way has meant confronting painful moral choices—and ultimately it has deepened students’ appreciation for the diverse cultures of Indian America and heightened their awareness of their own tribal identity. The ramifications can be seen in today's Sherman Indian High School, a repository of the living history so deftly and thoroughly chronicled here.

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University of Oklahoma Press
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The Students of Sherman Indian School

Education and Native Identity since 1892

By Diana Meyers Bahr


Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-4513-6


Assimilation Imposed, Self-Determination Promised


THE INTERIORS OF THE NINE BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS of Spanish Mission architectural style were bare. There was no furniture, and dry goods boxes were being used for desks and for seats in the dining room. There were not enough boxes for all the students, and many had to stand during meals. The opening of Sherman Institute on September 1, 1902, was thus described by Silvas Lubo, a Cahuilla Indian, one of five children of the Lubo family enrolled as students. He described further adversity: "It was found that the money had been used up for the year and almost every employee had to be furloughed.... This was in March and the question came up as to what we were to do. Some of the loyal and faithful students came to the rescue. They were installed as teachers, matrons, seamstresses. The boys became heads of shops, which by the way were mostly in tents."

Despite this inauspicious beginning, Sherman Institute, the last off-reservation boarding school built by the federal government, has continued to educate Indian youths for more than 120 years. The school began in 1892 as the Perris Indian School on eighty acres situated twenty-five miles south of Riverside, with an enrollment of 176 students. Entrepreneur Frank Miller effectively lobbied the California state government to move the school to land he owned: forty acres on Magnolia Avenue in Riverside. Tourism was a motivating factor for Miller. He accurately presumed that Indian students would be a cheap source of labor and entertainment for his newly constructed Mission Inn, a luxurious resort.

Despite the outrage of the Perris community, Miller and Harwood Hall, superintendent of the Perris School, argued convincingly that an insufficient water supply made the Perris environment unhealthy for students, whereas Riverside had abundant water and a healthy, "civilizing" atmosphere—there had not been a "liquor saloon" in the city for many years. Their successful campaign resulted in congressional approval on May 31, 1901, of $75,000 for the construction of Sherman Institute. Hall was superintendent of Perris Indian School (which remained open for some students until 1904) from 1897 to 1904, of both schools from 1902 to 1904, and of Sherman Institute from 1902 to 1909. Hall had previously been superintendent of the Phoenix Indian School (a nonreservation school) and schools on the Quapaw (Oklahoma) and Pine Ridge (South Dakota) reservations.

The cornerstone of the first building of Sherman Institute was laid on July 18, 1901, by A. C. Tanner, assistant commissioner of Indian Affairs. An autographed photo of James Schoolcraft Sherman, for whom the school was named, was included among the cornerstone artifacts. Sherman, U.S. congressman from 1886 to 1909, served as chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee and became vice president under William Howard Taft.

The first student to register at Sherman Institute, on July 11, 1902, was Romaldo La Chusa, who was joined a few days later by eighteen other students from his Gila River Indian community in Sacaton, Arizona. He also was in the first graduating class in 1904. Speaking to a group of alumni in 1909, he said, "I am proud that I am an Indian, but I am prouder yet that you and I can become educated Indians. Education is all we need to make us strong and happy people. Sherman is our new mother. Let us always be glad that we came to Sherman. It has done much for us, and it will do more and more for our people."

Even though financial support remained such a problem that when the first class graduated there were no funds for diplomas, La Chusa articulated his admiration for Harwood Hall's ambition that Sherman Institute be the epitome of successful federal Indian boarding schools. Silvas Lubo remembered, "In the early days it was necessary to advertise so people would know there was a Sherman Institute." Hall and his successor, Frank M. Conser, superintendent from 1909 to 1931, cultivated a strong relationship between the school and the Riverside community. Competitive sports were a surefire means of attracting public attention to Sherman Institute.

Hall and H. W. Mitchell, manager of the football team, arranged games with local high schools, out-of-state Indian schools, and colleges, including Stanford, the University of California at Berkeley, Occidental, Pomona, the University of Washington, and the University of Southern California. Sherman played USC from 1902 to 1906, winning every game. Hall successfully recruited Indian boys, using the competition with colleges as a selling point. To build on an already successful program, he also contracted with renowned coaches, including Cornell's football coach William J. Warner, brother of the celebrated "Pop" Warner, who coached at Carlisle Indian School during his illustrious career.

Hall wrote on February 16, 1904, to Warner: "Your terms, $1200 and expenses, including transportation from Buffalo, for coaching football at this school for the four months ending January 1, 1905, are satisfactory and we will consider the matter as arranged.... I will place a fine lot of Indian material in your hands, for football, and we must beat Berkeley and Stanford this year if possible." The amount of $1,200 for coaching four months, equal to about $30,000 in today's currency, was generous considering the funding problems of federal Indian boarding schools. Hall evidently was relying on Sherman's share of gate receipts. In a letter dated February 18, 1904, to Ezra Decoto, manager of the USC football team, Hall suggested that the representatives of both teams "jointly manage the entire affairs [sic] so that no third party gets the lion's share of the receipts, as has been the custom in the past."

A letter written on August 25, 1904, to Silvas Lubo is typical of Hall's recruiting: "Our coach, Mr. Warner, will be here within a day or so. Games have been arranged with Berkeley and Stanford.... Also have games arranged with Occidental, U.S.C. and Pomona. I hope you will be able to come September 1st and play with us this season. With a good team and a first class coach we ought to be the champions this year.... Of course, that depends on our showing. We can't get along without you, Faustino and Alex, and any other players you know of." The letter is signed, "Your Friend, Harwood Hall."

The recruiting of Indian boys for football at the boarding schools had begun as early as 1899, when Richard Pratt wrote to the Sac and Fox agent, "If you by chance have a sturdy young man anxious for an education who is swift of foot or qualified for athletics, send him and help Carlisle to compete with the great universities." At the beginning of the twentieth century, the development of modern, overcrowded, socially unstable cities gave rise to the idea of sports as a wholesome activity that could condition and stabilize a diverse nation. Playgrounds and baseball fields were built in the middle of asphalt neighborhoods. The Progressive movement claimed that a healthy body was the manifestation of a healthy man, and "Muscular Christianity" became an axiom of the era.

Football captured the American imagination; the annual Yale-Princeton game at the polo grounds in New York City drew crowds of 40,000 to 50,000. The excessive number of deaths and injuries caused by the game, however, resulted in a long and heated public debate. In 1904, twenty-one players were killed and more than two hundred injured. President Theodore Roosevelt, an ardent football fan, summoned representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to the White House on October 9, 1905, and commanded them to fix football.

Following the national trend, as enthusiasm for football increased at Sherman, so did the risk for injury. Although most of the injuries from football were minor, some were fatal. Football rule changes were made on the national level, most of them suggested by Pop Warner, and the game gradually became safer for the players. It is a reasonable assumption that Jack Warner was aware of the changes in football suggested by his brother that were instituted to reduce the number of injuries.

During Conser's administration, the football program expanded, and football players were heroes. In addition to allowing Indian boys to show their prowess, the sport enabled them to travel to distant cities, to have special treatment in the dining hall, and to be awarded the powerfully symbolic team sweaters and coveted trophies that are still on exhibit in the Sherman Indian Museum. There is no documentation that Sherman demonstrated the extreme favoritism toward football players as did Carlisle when Pop Warner was coaching celebrated athletes, including Jim Thorpe. In 1907, an article in the Chicago Sunday Tribune accused Warner of ignoring athletes' drinking, cutting classes, and staying out after curfew. A much milder criticism was voiced by a Kiowa student who attended Sherman in the 1920s who reported, "Even though I was academically way ahead of [football players,] they were looked up to."

Other competitive sports, including baseball and long-distance running for boys and basketball for girls, also expanded, with Sherman students proving consistently victorious over their competitors. Hopis regularly excelled in the running competitions. In December 1922, more than a thousand spectators watched the prize-winning Hopi boys in a cross-country race route throughout Riverside.

As the public became more aware of Sherman Institute, the relationship between the Riverside community and the school grew stronger. Conser wrote in 1912, "The school is located in the midst of people of the highest culture and refinement, and the student of Sherman Institute is fortunate in his fight for character and education to be surrounded by such influences." His remarks reflect the fundamental function of the school: the education and assimilation of Indian youths. Some historical documents claim that in the early years the school enrolled only so-called California Mission Indians, those who had been colonized by Spanish missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even though they had distinct indigenous names and cultures, the Indian Office used the term "Mission Indians" to refer to all Southern California Indians. Students at the Perris School were all identified as Mission Indians from specific missions, but Sherman Institute in 1903 had enrolled students from the Gila River Reservation and a band of Akimel O'odham (Pima Indians), both from Arizona. In addition, Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert in his study of Hopi Indians at Sherman Institute found one Hopi student enrolled in 1902 and another in 1903.

In 1906, seventy Hopi students were sent from their reservation in Orayvi (Oraibi), Arizona, to Sherman in a unique program. Unlike the first Hopis who entered Sherman, these students were not alone in coping with educational and cultural challenges. They were accompanied by their kikmongwi (chief), Tawaquaptewa, along with his wife, Nasumgoens, and daughter Mina, as well as other Hopi leaders. In Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902–1929, Gilbert has admirably chronicled the history of this distinctive group. His work is the only study of a particular group of Indians at Sherman Institute; these Hopis exemplify the challenges facing Sherman Institute students in the first two decades of the school's history. Enrolled in classes designed for adults, the "elders in residence" learned very quickly. Tawaquaptewa learned English in less than five months and motivated his young followers to excel in all of their educational challenges. Despite a newspaper report that they were one of the most primitive tribes in the United States, these Hopi students outperformed other students in language acquisition and academic courses.

By 1908, thirty-four buildings of the new campus had been completed and 550 students had been admitted. In 1909, forty-three tribes were represented, with students from California, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the plains. Sherman educated students in grades one to eight from 1902 to 1916. Although most students considered the eighth grade the completion of their education, grades nine and ten were added in 1916 for students who wished to continue. The eighth grade was the final grade for vocational instruction. During the early years at Sherman, the eight years of instruction were equivalent to six years in non-Indian schools. Thomas Jefferson Morgan had explained the disparity by noting that federal Indian schools had the additional responsibilities of teaching English, introducing students to industrial training, and considerable attention to moral training. By 1926, however, Sherman was offering complete elementary and high school curricula. Although in 1930–31 Sherman experienced its peak enrollment with 1,277 students, enrollment declined significantly from 1932 to 1945, during the Depression years.

Following the models established by Morgan and Richard Henry Pratt, federal Indian boarding schools endeavored to "civilize" Indian children, an educational process that required the removal of the students from their Native languages and cultures. The curriculum of Sherman Institute was based on the ethnocentric belief in the superiority of white culture. As with all federal Indian boarding schools, a critical component of Sherman's education program was the insistence on the use of English only. If students were to be "civilized" and assimilated, the first task of educators was to teach them to read, write, and speak English. Indian students struggled with a language completely alien to the structures of their Native languages. When compelled to recite endless repetitions because of mistakes unknown to them, they trembled, cowed and humiliated.

The insistence on English only was an assault on Indian children's identity. Learning English was not merely acquiring a new language; it meant that Indian children were thrust into new ways of thinking and of perceiving humanity and nature. Some Indian students resisted the eradication of their Native language and were successful. The Kiowas at Rainy Mountain Boarding School in Oklahoma, for example, mastered English and became bilingual, not relinquishing their Native language. Supervisors Hall and Conser at Sherman Institute limited students' visits to their homes, convinced that these visits would cause students to revert to their Native languages and ways of life. Nevertheless, some Hopi children at Sherman returned home to the mesas no longer speaking Hopi, but being with their families allowed them to regain their Native language.

Others strove to retain their Native language and failed. Viola Martinez, for one, was determined to speak her language at Sherman Institute: "I made up my mind I was not going to forget my language. I knew if I did, I would not be able to talk to my Aunt Mary Ann [who had raised her]. I remember they had tall palm trees at Sherman.... My cousin and I would climb up where we couldn't be seen or heard.... We wanted to talk Paiute so badly we would climb up in those trees." She was caught and punished repeatedly. She recalled, "I had to scrub the bathroom. This huge bathroom[:] ... showers and bowls and toilet seats. Our matrons made us clean every inch." Eventually Viola did lose her language, a loss she grieved for the remainder of her life.

In addition to English, reading, arithmetic, and U.S. history were taught in grades one through four. Because of the time required to master English, Indian students in a particular grade would be several years older than non-Indian students in the same grade. In the fifth grade, geography was added to the courses already being taught. In autobiographical accounts, edited by Michael C. Coleman, students expressed being astounded by geography. On being shown a globe of the earth, one reported being disoriented at the thought that his ancestors had roamed and hunted for untold ages on terrain that whirled around the sun. Another student claimed that geography had caused him to doubt his tribal learning, and he encountered adamant opposition when he attempted to educate his uncle regarding the Copernican theory. However, there were students who found geography fascinating when shown for the first time in their lives maps of Arizona. They located rivers and mountains they knew by their tribal names and some for which they knew the Spanish names. They took the geography book to the dormitory and almost "wore it out."

Students had academic classes for half a day, with the remaining half devoted to vocational education. Not only did the history courses present the ethnocentric perspective of the superiority of white culture, but the textbooks portrayed Indians as barbarian obstacles to manifest destiny. Well into the twentieth century, the American education system was unreservedly slow in presenting the Indian experience with westward expansion, the displacement of Indian populations, and the exploitation of Indian resources. Instruction by both textbooks and teachers emphasized the superiority of white society.


Excerpted from The Students of Sherman Indian School by Diana Meyers Bahr. Copyright © 2014 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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.

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Meet the Author

Diana Meyers Bahr is the author of From Mission to Metropolis: Cupeño Indian Women in Los Angeles; Viola Martinez, California Paiute: Living in Two Worlds; and The Unquiet Nisei: An Oral History of the Life of Sue Kunitomi Embrey.

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