De-Assimilation: Cultural Programs at a Native American Boarding School

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De-Assimilation: Cultural Programs at a Native American Boarding School

Ciera DeSouza

Submitted to Faculty in the Sociology and Anthropology Department

University of La Verne

In partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of

Bachelor of Science in Anthropology

Advisor: Kimberly Martin, Ph.D.

May, 2014


Native American assimilation schools are a shameful piece of America’s past that were used to strip children from their families, their culture, their language and their heritage. Some were closed down, however some have endured into the present, transforming from institutions of oppression to vehicles for supporting Native American identity and enhancing the involvement of Native American students in their indigenous heritage. This paper presents ethnographic research done at a former Native American boarding school in the southwestern United States that now enrolls students from all over the country in Native American-designed programs. Classroom and fieldtrip experiences, as well as weekend cultural events are described, along with the ways in which students engage in these experiences and relate to their Native American teachers and mentors.

Native American History:

Native Americans have been through a lot of turmoil over the last four hundred years. First they had their lands stolen and whole villages wiped out because of disease. Then the American government had them moved across the country to specific reservations and finally they were put into boarding schools that were designed to assimilate them into the American culture and prepare them for the workforce. Boarding schools were devastating to the tribes in the late 1800s and early 1900s because the government took children forcefully away from their parents and stripped the language and customs from all the children. Some of the children never came back to their tribes because they were forced to stay with white families even after their schooling was completed in order to make sure they did not regress back into native customs and traditions. The devastation of being torn from their land and forced to go to white schools can still be heard by the elders and is always present in the tribes. In today’s native culture on the reservations, drinking, child abuse and drug use are the effect of the turmoil of their historical oppression. There is a large negative psychological and social impact that has affected both individuals and groups. Native Americans have the shortest life expectancy of any ethnic group in the country because of substance abuse and depression. Today there are many programs that are trying to help the natives recover from the loss of their past by incorporating community programs, which help with depression and excess drinking. These problems have been passed down through many generations and have become rooted in the people. The issues on the reservations are not solely due to boarding schools, but there is a lot of evidence that the schools made significant contributions to the social and psychological problems in native communities.

In 1492 Columbus left the ports of Spain in hopes of reaching India to gather more goods for trade. Instead of reaching India he came across a new land, today called North America. It took about one hundred years for the Europeans to begin colonizing the Americas and expanding their points of views and culture (Reich et al 2012). In the early 1600s the French and English made their way to the new land in order to escape the ever changing religious and political tyranny of the government (Poupart 2003).This New World brought great hope to the ever expanding Western European nations because it was a place where no one country yet ruled and the possibilities of a new life and religious freedoms seemed unlimited.

At first, the Europeans saw the natives as welcoming people who were willing to trade and were open to European colonization. When the colonizers found farmable land, they began fencing off the area they claimed was theirs (Poupart 2003). Though they built their homes and plowed their farms within the fenced barriers, they let their livestock roam free to graze on the local plant life. The livestock caused great ecological devastation on the surrounding environments and bred very rapidly. The natives saw this destruction of land not only as an environmental problem, but also as a way of destroying their spirit; owning land was not in some of the tribes’ vocabulary or understanding (Reich et al 2012). To the native people, the Earth and all of the creatures in it were gods and deserved respected. They believed they all had a role in ensuring balance and not wasting any of its resources. When the natives realized that the Europeans were permanently setting and claiming ownership of land, they reacted by steadily push back against the invaders.

Disease was the biggest killer of the native populations. The Native American population was estimated to be about two million before the European invasion. In the 1800s the native population decreased by ninety percent, as a result of viruses and other kinds of disease (Reich et al 2012). American natives did not have immune response through prolonged exposure to the common cold or smallpox like the European did. Small pox would decimate whole native

villages in weeks. The Europeans attempted to enslave the natives, but found they were too susceptible to disease. When the Spanish realized that their diseases would cause so much death and destruction to the villages, they saw it as an efficient way to conquer with the least resistance. One aspect as to why the diseases spread so quickly was because of the animals and plants that were brought over by the European ships (Poupart 2003). Rats were a major means by which infection spread. The rats were larger and multiplied rapidly into large populations that would swarm into villages and infect hundreds without warning. Diseases like smallpox, whooping cough and measles affected children between the ages of a few months to about five years old, the most in the tribal communities.

Ownership of the land and surrounding wild life was very offensive to the natives, which caused a great resistance towards the settlers. As a result, the natives first started fighting back violently. Europeans had firearms caused large numbers of casualties within the native populations (Reich et al 2012). Raiding during the night when the colonists were asleep became a popular form of defense, but this type of retaliation was used by both sides. Once a formal government structure was put in place by the colonies, some of the tribe leaders voiced their concerns and took steps to acquire treaties to end the violence.

The Iroquois tribes were very interested on agreeing to a peace treaty with the Americans. They began studying English and the legal practices in order to understand the “white way” and find a way to stop the invasion of their land. The fact that natives fought on the side of the British during the American Revolution further alienated the settlers from the native position. In 1792, the natives petitioned George Washington in order to get their land returned to them (Lehman, 1990). The natives were greeted by cannons and escorted through town when they were making their way to the capital. The chiefs knew this ceremony was a mockery because no action was going to be taken. Many treaties were made to save land for certain tribes, but nothing was effectively enforced. When settlers moved on the native lands, they would use firearms to warn the natives to stay back or be killed. This type of government instability was not comforting to the natives and they knew their dwindling numbers and un-unified tribes would soon come to an end.

The Europeans were very upset about the loss of cheap labor. The missionaries were upset when natives would die before they could baptize and convert them (Stannard 1992). Though they realized that they were the ones causing the deaths in the tribes they still focused on the trade opportunities with Europe (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2005). When natives failed to provide the labor necessary to turn a profit because of death and sickness, the Europeans then turned to African Enslavement.

Military force was the main way the Europeans dealt with the natives. There were recorded accounts that they used attack dogs to kill whole tribes. The idea of Manifest Destiny is what drove the conquering of America from the early 1600s to the 1900s. With the idea that it was in God’s plan that the United States came to being, then the idea that whoever was in the way of that coming true must be killed or removed (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2005). The colonists soon saw the natives as people who were trying to kill and destroy their destiny. Raids would take place at night against the natives when they were sleeping. The colonists would trap them in their villages and set fire to all houses and people present; the destruction of whole villages took place in this type of destruction. Natives who would try to go against the British and kill their colonialists would meet firearms that were no match for their spears and arrows. With dwindling numbers and inadequate ways of defending themselves, natives soon became outnumbered and easy targets for the Europeans. The idea that natives could be killed and skinned like animals shows how dehumanized they were in the eyes of the colonists and their military.

In 1830 Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which moved all natives who lived on the east of the Mississippi to the west of the Mississippi (Castaneda 2008). The natives were permitted to stay if they assimilated to the European customs and culture; most did not want to give up their traditions, and so they were forced to move west. Though it was technically voluntary to move west, there was a lot of tension on the tribes to sign the treaties. Jefferson’s plan was to make the natives more agriculturally based so they would trade with the colonists and give up land that they did not previously relinquish (Blackburn 2012). The main tribes on which the Indian Removal Act focused were the Five Civilized Tribes who refused to give up their lands to the English colonists. The southern states were in favor of this the most because they wanted to acquire cheap land for their crops.

Today this removal act is known as The Trail of Tears. Approximately 4000 native people died on their way west. The primary causes of death rate were dehydration, whooping cough and other illnesses. In 1838, eight years after the treaty was signed, about 13,000 Cherokee began their nine month walk to the West of the Mississippi (Blackburn 2012). They would stop periodically at unsanitary military camps where they would rest and bury their dead. After these camps, they were sent to reservations. In 1851 the Congress passed the Indian Appropriation act that gave the natives certain lands where they could live. The expansion west by the Europeans was causing the natives to have to be repeatedly relocated, but since they could not be moved further west, they were given certain areas where they could live without being moved by the government again. Many tribes resisted the new change of land and the military had to force them onto their designated reservations. Once the tribes settled, they were open to using both natives and non-natives to grow their local economy and business.

Boarding School Era:

Boarding schools were the next step in assimilating the Native Americans to European culture. In 1819, the Civilization Fund act was adopted in order to pay for education for natives with the intension of making them more like Euro-Americans. Boarding schools were built far distances from any reservation so the students were not be able to visit their families during free time or on the weekends (Dawson 2012). The government wanted to keep the children separated from their parents so they would not take part in the customs of the tribes or even speak their native languages. The goal of the schools were to make the natives productive people in American society. They were taught Christian values and forced to reject their own religious views and they were taught to read and write in exclusively English.

The first boarding school for Native American was built in 1879. The first school’s name was Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. Founder and longtime superintendent Captain Richard Henry Pratt, who was the leading man on how to educate the natives, pushed that assimilation can be achieved in a single generation when most were saying it would take many generations in order for natives to be at the same level at whites intellectually (Dawson 2012). He was quoted saying "kill the Indian and save the man." This was the model school for many boarding schools. This was the reconstruction period after the Civil War, and the reformers turned their focus to the natives and recognized their potential as future patriots and citizens. Many considered this a social experiment to see if they were to be able to successfully assimilate a race by use of education and exposure to European culture. Many other schools opened across the country using different techniques like building the schools on reservations or using different teaching methods, but Pratt was seen as having a successful school and agreeable theory on assimilation practices.

The people who ran the schools from the 1880s to the 1920s were from different religious branches of Catholicism. Different religious groups were assigned by the U.S. government to go to different areas to get the children and bring them to the schools, preaching it as the good news of God. All of the teachers and instructors were white males and females (Dawson 2012). The schools would bring in professionals from different fields like carpentry and sewing, to teach the students different trades so they could get a job in modern society.

Most tribal children between the ages of five and twenty were sent to boarding schools because their reservations or tribes did not have an education system that was approved by the government as an appropriate form of education. In the early days of boarding schools, many of the children were forcefully taken from their parents and tribes. The parents did not want their children to attend the schools, not only because they would lose their traditions, but also because when the students would be returned after their four or five years at the school they would be very sick and often die (Dawson 2012). The parents saw that sending their children to the boarding schools was literally killing them. With the parents not willingly giving their children to the missionaries, the native children were being forcefully taken. Most parents were not notified where their children were being taken, or when their children would come back. There were children from many different tribes around the country, which made it more difficult to unite and stay with your tribe in the schools. In order to get to the schools the students either walked or were taken by trains across the country.

Old World traditions and life styles were being pushed onto the New World people. Many Europeans believed that since the natives could only speak their native tongue and were illiterate, they were very low class citizens (Dawson 2012). This mindset is what brought the boarding schools into existence. No tribe was safe from assimilation, not even the Five Civilized Tribes that had been looked to for guidance when it came to agriculture and hunting the land.

The purpose of the schools was to have education assimilate the natives into American culture so they would be prepared for U.S.citizenship and understand the responsibilities that come along with it (Dejong 2006). The government believed that this was the only way that the natives and colonists could coexist. There were strict, forceful tactics intended to stop the spread of any native culture. If the natives spoke their native language they were brutally punished, if they wore their original clothing or practiced any native traditions they would again, be punished. This forceful and military-like environment was what the children lived in constantly. The need for military structure was instituted because of the high levels of aggression that the students displayed because of hunger and overcrowding. Administration believed that order and structure was the only way they could stop the natives from becoming violent and rebellious. Each day was highly scheduled and bells rang when it was time to change tasks. The students had to march to each activity and at some schools, the students even had to parade in front of the headmasters in marching formations. Marching to different activities throughout the day was common and instilled the military manners into the students. (Szasz 1977)

Health Issues In Boarding Schools:

Though the purpose was to provide an assimilation environment, it was an unhealthy environment for the students. Diseases like measles and whooping cough were still major issues for the tribes and school. In some schools, “one of every eleven students died at school and one of every five died shortly after returning home.” (Dejong 2006) These rates were double, or in some places triple the national rate of deaths from sickness. The rapid number of deaths from the natives was becoming a large problem in the government’s social experiment of assimilation because so many of the subjects were dying that they were unable to get people through the program to see whether they could become productive citizens. Since the students lived on campus the whole time, they were unable to get the kind of health care that they needed. The diet was also frequently poor and malnutrition was very prevalent in the dormitories. Malnutrition also depleted immune responses, and added to the disease rate. The environment for the students was very brutal and little consideration was taken for their health because it cost the school a lot of money to get real doctors to come on campus.

After twenty years of boarding schools being in operation, deaths and health issues were the next large focus within the schools. The schools harsh environment of hard labor and a high volume of students was contributing to the increase of illnesses. Native children had to complete grueling chores everyday and had little or no free time to relax. These harsh conditions and number of deaths brought attention to the schools from the Interior Department Indian Inspector William J. McConnell who investigated health needs for five years. McConnell did not like that schools were hitting their student quota but without taking into consideration the spread of disease. With the government pointing out the flaws within the schools, action was taken by 1900 to hire more doctors and nurses in the Department of Indian Services, but this did not address the causes of poor health which were brutal working conditions, poor diets, overcrowding and other aspects that go along with brutal military style schooling. (Dejong 2006) McConnell also reported that once students were infected they were kept at the schools until a few days until they were near death so the school would be able to keep its student attendance numbers up. He also reported that one school nailed the windows shut so the students could not escape but with closed windows, the students were not getting adequate air.

Because of all the bad publicity about Indian Services allowing native children to be put into infected schools that were overcrowded, Indian Commissioner William Jones took action and demanded that schools were only to be filled with students who were in complete health, and dormitories could not be overcrowded. If the only available students were infected ones, then the schools had to stop enrollment. He wanted the goal for natives to be educated and not killed (Dejong 2006) In 1903 Jones required the schools to emphasize hygiene and sanitation but many saw his expectations to be unattainable because of the deaths on and off campus. As a result he created the first comprehensive health survey of Indian schools in 1903. Physicians documented and made statistical reports on the health of native and non-natives in the area. The results were shocking to him when they reported that natives were infected more than the non-natives. Because of these findings he sent a letter to all the boarding schools telling them that the physicians were to check all incoming students for any illnesses and if they showed any signs they were not able to enroll. Random checks of illness also were to be conducted throughout the schools, but they were not always provided. The letter also stated that the superintendent was responsible for cleaning and providing fresh air to the dorms since environmental conditions like that reduced from the spread of diseases.

In 1908 there was another mandatory check of one of the largest off reservation school in the United States. There they still found overcrowding, unsanitary conditions and large numbers of students infected with tuberculoses. With the harsh conditions of one of the best boarding schools, many wondered what the conditions were in smaller and less popular schools; there a political campaign began that enforced cleaner dormitories, stopping overcrowding and better ventilation. The President heard about the horrible conditions and read the statistical reports of the health conditions of the natives in the schools. In 1914 Congress granted him $200,000 to help the boarding schools to become more health conscious and to provide proper medical attention to the native population. (Dejong 2006)

When the United States entered WWI, there were a lot of financial cut backs and the boarding schools were among the first government institutions to be closed. Once the war ended, the major political party was the Republicans and soon they cut funding for the schools even more. Soon disease and sickness began to spread rapidly and the native communities had six times the number of cases of Tuberculosis as the non-native communities. In the 1920’s The Red Cross did an evaluation of the health conditions of the schools and overcrowding was still a major aspect of boarding school life and the spread of disease. There was no action from the government concerning the health of the native population until the 1930s when President Roosevelt brought in many qualified medical experts to look at the health crisis. By this time it was clear that the goal of assimilating Native Americans to American culture was not materializing (Dejong 2006)

In the 1930s, health stopped being the main focus in the boarding schools and diet became the number one concern. Roosevelt wanted the schools to meet at least the minimum requirements for health. When the Great Depression hit the United States, boarding schools provided nutritious meals for the students. Since native parents were losing crops and their jobs to the Great depression, boarding schools became more favorable in the native’s eyes because in boarding schools, regardless of negative aspects, their children would at least have enough food to eat. (Szasz 1977) Indian Services also hired doctors and nurses for the schools in order to teach hygiene as well as “preventative medicines and emergency care.”

The Merriam Report, which analyzed the native conditions in schools and on reservations, witnessed the harsh conditions of the schools and started a campaign to close down the schools. When the United States got involved in WWII, budget restraints also affected the school closures as well. The Merriam Report stated that in 1928 there were 77 boarding schools and in 1941 there were only 49 (Szasz 1977). Some schools closed altogether and sent their students to either public schools or Indian Bureau schools. Other schools became day schools without live-in residents, and other had the status of indefinite closure. The schools that stayed open through the depression in the 1930s were changing their structure of teaching because they realized the students would go back to the reservations and not live in white communities. Starting in the late 1930s the schools started teaching the students of rural life and how to survive off the land and animals.

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