Canku Ota - A Newsletter Celebrating Native America
October 21, 2000 - Issue 21

Paean to Sherman High
by Pat Murkland The Press-Enterprise
photo of Robert Levi and Ester by Susie Ming Hwa Chu
The Press-Enterprise

Once nearly lost, the American Indian school's song has been brought back by an alumnus of more than 50 years ago.

Sherman Indian High School's song, first sung in 1906, once moved people to tears: "Oh Sherman, dear Sherman, we shall never forget . . . "

But some did forget and lost the words to the school song.

Robert Levi didn't. More than 50 years after he attended the boarding school for American Indians in Riverside, Levi, now 82, recently taught the song to the school's new generations: "Beneath Sierra's mountain high, with crested peaks of snow . . . "

For Levi and other longtime alumni, Sherman was more than a school. It was a place of the heart, where Indian people from across the nation met and became lifelong friends -- and more. Levi met his wife of 50 years, Esther, when both worked at Sherman.

About 100 or so alumni, mostly from the classes of the 1930s and '40s, are planning to travel again this year to a reunion and school open house in Riverside. They hold another reunion in Northern California every May.

"It means a lot," alumni President Gilbert Mojado, 75, explained. "It's just like going to meet your family."

" . . . Here waves the purple and the gold, at the foot of Rubidoux, whose cross on high against the sky our talisman shall be . . . "

When the school opened nearly 100 years ago, the federal government brought Indian children away from their families, languages and cultures. The military-style school on Magnolia Avenue, then called Sherman Institute, aimed to remake the Indians into the image of white American farmers.

Now, the high school celebrates Native American traditions. The transition began after World War II, when young military veterans returned to Sherman to finish schooling interrupted by war. " . . . In hours of strife all through our lives, will bring sweet thoughts of thee . . ."

Then the school began holding different tribal dances, Levi remembers. Now there are several school dance and drum clubs. At the Oct. 14 open house, Levi is planning to sing ancient Cahuilla songs that his father taught him, keeping rhythm with his father's gourd rattle.

To honor Indian identities, Sherman Indian Museum is compiling an archive of the names, hometowns and tribes of all Sherman students. Museum curator Lorene Sisquoc said she hopes the older alumni will help tell the school's history.

" . . . Oh Sherman, Dear Sherman, we shall never forget the golden haze of student days, which clings about us yet . . . "

Sherman was a trade school in the 1930s when Levi was a Cahuilla teen from the Torres-Martinez reservation near the Salton Sea.

"You name it, we had it here," Levi remembered: "Printing, photography, welding, carpentry, making cabinets, cooking, baking, farming, home living, nursing . . . Sherman was self-sustained. We had our own gardens, orange groves, dairy, poultry."

He remembers milking cows in the early mornings. Chores finished, he'd sit with a glass of milk, munching bread still warm from the bakery where other students had been pounding and rolling out dough long before dawn.

Levi also marched with the band every morning to raise the U. S. flag and play the national anthem. The band was one of his greatest joys. He played horns -- "Whatever they needed, I played."

The students grew close to the teachers, staff members and other Indian teens away from home. Gwen Mojado had never left her reservation in Utah before coming to Sherman in the 1940s.

"I'd never seen a palm tree, never seen a cactus before," she remembered. But, "We'd go home every summer for the Sun Dance and the Bear Dance."

Among the World War II returnees was Gilbert Mojado, a classmate she talked with during the school's "social hours." When she graduated and left for Utah, he followed her there.

"I was kind of bashful," he remembered. They married, had five children and now live on the Pala reservation in northern San Diego County.

Levi had returned from Sherman to the desert to become the first Indian boy to graduate from Palm Springs High School in 1939. But after fighting in the war, he returned to Sherman in 1948 for a refresher on electricity. He began working in the school maintenance department.

That's when he met his wife-to-be of 50 years. Esther Levi, now 79, worked at Sherman at varied tasks, including helping translate Navajo, while she studied at then-Riverside City College. The Levis raised two sons and worked at Sherman until Robert Levi retired in 1976 and his wife retired in 1982.

"These happy days will soon be o'er, but through each future year, the thoughts of you, so good, so true, will fill our hearts with cheer."

Sherman Institute

Postcards from the Edge of a Country-Cards sent to Sherman Institute



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