In class this past week, we focused on life for Native Americans who lived on the reservations as well as the rise of the boarding school system for Native American children. The topic of Native American boarding schools has become increasingly controversial in recent decades due in a large part to the detrimental effects these institutions have had on Native American culture and community. Starting as early as the 1560s, Europeans began attempting to educate and civilize Native American children by either opening local schools or sending them to live with and learn from white families. Naturally, Native American parents resisted this ethnocentric practice, asserting that the whites’ education was “absolutely good for nothing” and even going so far as offering to educate white children instead (Nabokov 214). Nonetheless, government officials and white settlers continued to insist that Native American children receive a “proper” education.
This notion intensified during the nineteenth century as Native Americans were being relocated to appointed reservations and settled into their “new and improved” lifestyles. At this time, government agents and Indian reformers alike insisted that it was necessary to teach Native Americans to live as whites did so that “paganism and savagery, poverty and dependency would eventually die out” (Nabokov 215). As such, religious societies were encouraged to open and manage Indian schools, and thousands of Native American children were shipped across country to live under the instruction of these educators. Consequently, children were often removed from their homes against their parents’ wishes and forced to live and learn at institutions which were usually strict, brutal, and oppressive. One of the most popular methodologies adopted by educators in Native American schools was referred to as “manual” or “industrial” under which students wore uniforms, learned agricultural skills, followed a strict schedule, and were severely disciplined when necessary. A Native American who attended one such institution described some of the harsh discipline practices that he witnessed, including “a strapping with a leather belt” and one instance in which an instructor threw a student across the room so hard that “his collar-bone was broken” (Nabokov 220). Upon arriving at the school, students were forced to cut their hair and abandon their clothes and material belongings, which were sometimes burned in front of them. In addition, students were prohibited from speaking in their native language or from practicing their religion while at school. Author of the book The Sweet Smell of Home, Leonard Chana elaborated on his experience attending Sherman Indian High School during the 1960s. He said that students had to remain at the school “nine months out of the year . . . they didn’t have money to send us home” (Chana 55). He also said that if students found a job in the area, they would remain away from home for the entire year. Chana even admits that he ran away from school for a week which was a fairly common occurrence for these institutions (Chana 57-59). Ultimately, Native American schools separated children from their parents, family, and community during a crucial time in their life.
The development of Native American boarding schools had a negative impact on both the tribes and the individuals who were forced to participate in the system. Children could be sent to boarding school as young as five or six years of age, meaning that they had very little time to learn about their history and culture from their parents and elders. Those who did learn often forgot this knowledge by the time they returned home because of the oppressive nature of the boarding schools. Since the main purpose of the schools was to “civilize” the Native American children, any expression of their native culture was seen as backsliding or savagery and was suppressed by threats of punishment. Additionally, since the children were at boarding school for the majority of the year, they oftentimes missed out on important ceremonies and rites of passage which were seen as essential for remaining a part of the community. Thus, when the children returned from school, they were not always able to fully reintegrate into tribal life. Sun Elk, a Native American resident at Carlisle Indian Industrial School for seven years, described the reaction that he received upon returning home. The morning after his arrival, his village chiefs told his father “your son . . . has lived with the white men. He has gone far away from the Pueblo . . . He is not one of us” (Nabokov 223). As a result, he left his village to seek a life elsewhere. Yet, when Sun Elk attempted to work among the white settlers, he was not accepted and once again returned home to live on the fringes of his native village. The Native American boarding schools created generations of students who did not know their native culture but were not accepted by white society. There seemed to be no place in society for these “lost people” (Nabokov 216).
The topic of Native American boarding schools greatly interests me because I attended boarding school during my junior and senior year of high school. The North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics (NCSSM) is located in Durham, North Carolina, about an hour and 15 minutes from my house if you speed. The purpose of this institution is to offer students the opportunity to focus and enhance their education in the areas of math and science. When school is in session, students are housed in dorm rooms on campus and travel off campus is restricted to ensure the safety of the students. Almost every month, the dorms close for a three day weekend so that the students can visit their families, and transportation is even provided to ensure that this is possible for all students. Given my personal experience at NCSSM, I found the descriptions of the Native American boarding schools particularly upsetting. I cannot imagine what the children experienced when they were forced from their homes for such an extended period of time, especially those who were younger. I know that within my school, some students suffered from home sickness and even left because of it. When you add in the fact that there were no phones, texting, skyping, or even email at the time when these boarding schools began, it becomes increasingly apparent how difficult this experience must have been for Native American children. I would consider myself very adaptable and independent but even I went home almost every other weekend during my first year at NCSSM. This lack of contact with family does not even include the fact that Native American students were not allowed to perform any of their cultural or religious practices while at the boarding schools. As such, I can only imagine a fraction of the loneliness and sadness that these children must have felt when isolated from their family, community, and culture.
For me, one account stuck out from our readings on this issue. In the book Native American Testimony, Lone wolf described what he saw happen when he and other Native American children reached their boarding school. He said “once there our belongings were taken from us, even the little medicine bags our mothers had given us to protect us from harm . . . Next was the long hair, the pride of all the Indians. The boys, one by one, would break down and cry when they saw their braids thrown on the floor” (Nabokov 220). This description encapsulates the devastation and cruelty that the children experienced during their time at boarding school. It is hard to believe that such injustices were allowed to occur, especially by a government which prides itself on freedom and equality for all. After hearing a modern Native American speak to our class, it is apparent that the boarding school system has changed a lot in recent years. There are now schools on the reservations which provide an alternative to attending a boarding school for children. In addition, most Native American schools now teach classes about the native language and culture. Although these changes are vast improvements headed in the right direction, it is important to remember the Indian boarding schools of the past in order to better understand the hardships many faced growing up on the reservation as well as the impact these had on the Native American community as a whole.
Also, for further insight, here is a prominent Native American leader talking about his experiences in the boarding schools:
Chana, Leonard. The Sweet Smell of Home. University of Arizona Press, 2009. 55-59. Print.
Nabokov, Peter. Native American Testimony. New York: Penguin Group, 1999. 215-225. Print.