Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


June 30, 2001 - Issue 39



Living and Relearning at School: An Indian Tale


 by Larry Fisk Philadelphia Inquirer Staff Writer - June 14, 2001

Boarding School PhotoPHOENIX - Like thousands of elementary-school-age Indian girls and boys before and after her, Maxine K. Rogers was more than a little frightened when she arrived at what would be her new home for all of her school years, the Sequoyah School in Tahlequah, Okla., in the 1920s.

Far from home, at least she had company - her sister, also elementary-school age, was with her. Together, they became part of what many older Indians say was the formative experience for members of nearly every tribe of the late 19th and 20th centuries: the Indian boarding school.

At all of the schools, incoming pupils were given haircuts, especially repugnant to boys with braids; received "white" clothing in the form of uniforms; frequently got new Anglo-sounding names; and were forbidden to practice tribal customs or speak native languages.

"They were really strict," said Rogers, now 85, who is part Cherokee and part Delaware, or Lenape. "I had a sister who went there, and I minded the rules better than she did. She ran away two or three times," only to be brought back each time.

Sequoyah, named after the great leader of the Cherokee, was just one of scores of Indian boarding schools, run by the government or churches, that with a racist-tinged paternalism sought to "Americanize" American Indians by eradicating their culture.

Now the boarding-school experience is being remembered and analyzed through a museum exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, which specializes in Indian and Southwestern art. Curator Margaret Archuleta said she discovered that the schools' impact "is crucial to understanding Native America today."

The exhibit, which has drawn a steady stream of American Indians to the museum since opening late last year, shows "the intervention of the federal government into Indian peoples' lives, and how devastating that was for the culture," Archuleta said.

The first Indian school was established in Carlisle, Pa., in 1879, by an Indian-fighting Army officer named Richard Henry Pratt.

Pratt set the tone for the schools to come by vowing to "kill the Indian and save the man."

Pratt at the time was regarded as a reformer, who believed that segregating Indians on reservations kept them from entering fully into white American civilization. He patterned Carlisle, in Cumberland County, after Hampton Institute in Virginia, set up after the Civil War for African Americans.

All public schools were highly regimented at the time, and Carlisle also bore the military imprint of Pratt's background. The central idea was to remove Indians entirely from their surroundings - the first arrivals at Carlisle were Lakota Sioux from the Great Plains - and try to immerse them in the dominant white culture.

In many instances, children were forcibly taken from their parents to be sent far away to school. In other cases, parents were convinced that attendance was in their child's best interest, and many signed contracts essentially giving the children up for at least five years.

The Heard exhibit, titled "Remembering Our Indian School Days," tries to capture some of the dislocation students felt. At its wide entrance is a giant photo mural of the red-rock mesa country of the Southwest, narrowing dramatically into a more claustrophobic display of what might be anybody's high school memorabilia.

At the center of the funnel-like entry is an old-fashioned barber's chair, surrounded by rich black hair and shorn braids.

"We'd lost our hair and we'd lost our clothes; with the two we'd lost our identity as Indians," a Chiricahua Apache student said in 1886.

At most schools, students lived in barracks-style rooms - "it was kind of like a ward, with 10 or 20 students in a room," Rogers remembers of Sequoyah - where they got instruction in the three R's and received training as cobblers or printers or domestics.

Pratt also pioneered the practice of "outing," sending students to live with white, Christian families during summer breaks, to further loosen tribal bonds.

At least for the first several decades of the schools' existence, they learned American history from the dominant perspective, and nothing about their own histories. The exhibit includes a photo of Indians dressed as Pilgrims.

They also were likely to receive training in art and music - the European kind.

"In the early 1900s, the federal government sponsored a project to capture traditional Indian music on wax cylinders," Archuleta said. "At the same time, government boarding schools were busy trying to erase that culture from Indian memory."

Living in close quarters, often with others from distant locales, also bred disease. Tuberculosis was a constant threat at all schools; the exhibit includes a photo of military-style tombstones at Carlisle's cemetery.

Some government schools developed ties with local churches. In other cases, the churches themselves ran the schools. The churches, eager for converts, would compete to attract students.

"This one woman talked about ending up Catholic, because they had the best cookies," Archuleta said. Another former student confessed to having been baptized five times by different denominations.

The Heard exhibit is mostly based on more than 50 hours of oral history. To gather them, Archuleta spent several years attending high school reunions.

"They were great," she said, "just like any others."

And that is part of what she is trying to put across in the exhibit, she said. Despite the often harsh regimen and the attack on culture, Indian boarding-school graduates are likely to feel about their school days just about like anyone else.

"In the interviews, they might tell me a little story about something negative," Archuleta said. "And then they would say, 'But you know, I made lifelong friends there' or 'I met my wife or husband there.' "

Rogers, for one, remembers Sequoyah fondly.

"The reason I'm so glad I went to Sequoyah Boarding School was because they were so strict with us," she said. "It kept us out of some of the trouble that teenagers can get into. I'm thankful."

Other memories are mixed. There's a message board near the end of the exhibit where dozens of graduates have posted comments.

"This exhibit was too emotional as a graduate of Phoenix Indian High School," read one. "The life of boarding school days brings to heart the sadness, loneliness and happiness."

It is signed "PI grad, '71."

The artifacts are mostly familiar to anyone who ever went to a school - lettermen's jackets, yearbooks, china from the cafeteria. Archuleta retrieved a lot of items from refuse bins, because nobody else wanted them.

Over the years, the schools changed, gradually permitting tribal identities more expression.

The schools even promoted a pan-Indianism. Before, separate tribes rarely mingled, but the school system sometimes threw Alaskan natives together with Hopi in sweltering Phoenix.

Today, just a handful of schools remain (Carlisle closed in 1918), and those that do, in South Dakota and Oklahoma, are now strongholds of American Indian pride and culture.

Though the schools tried to strip culture away from the children, Archuleta said, "the kids made the schools Indian."

Map - Tahlequah, OK

Maps by Travel


Sequoyah Alumni Foundation
alumni of the Sequoyah Indian School, which the Cherokee Nation started for Cherokee orphans of the Civil War in 1872.




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