Two historical books, two differing views, so which one is the right view?
WHAT WERE BOARDING SCHOOLS LIKE FOR INDIAN YOUTH?
There are many books in academia dealing with the boarding school experience, two in my own collection deal with the question what were they like for Indian youth, but in differing manners. One portrays Indians gladly giving their children over to the missionaries that ran the majority of the schools willingly while the other tells of the hardships encountered by the whole experience. Brenda Childs, the author of The Boarding School Experience, wrote the book painting a glowing picture of parents during the 30’s and 40’s handing over their children willingly so they might get an education away from the reservations. While the other book in my library, Education For Extinction by David Wallace Adams shows a differing view. Which one is right? Let us look at the time that Brenda Childs writes.
The thirties and forties were a tumultuous period of hunger and famine throughout this nation. The depression started in the twenties and hit most reservations hard. Food, always scarce, was almost impossible to obtain. Jobs even scarcer for Indians became a futile quest of fulfillment. You had a nation where unemployment reached an unheard of 20% and higher in some areas. Farming, usually a mainstay was at a standstill because a one hundred year drought and winds blew topsoil from Oklahoma clear to Oregon. During the ‘taming’ of the west, land never put to plow and with very little nutrients to begin with, was further depleted by agricultural practices that fought nature instead of working with nature.
Fields plowed in straight rows rather then following the contours of the land made the wind’s work much easier. Dammed rivers flowed slowly instead of swiftly with dykes to keep it from flood also kept the soil from replenishment. All these things drove many farmers into bankruptcy and the loss of their farms. Without farms, Indians used to being farmhands, lost a valuable resource of employment. Government handouts of surplus food dwindled and many reservation Indians were as hungry as their neighbors were. Is there a wonder why parents chose to send their children away from home and into schools with a promise of clean clothing and food?
Brenda Childs used letters written by parents and children back and forth from the schools. However, what school is going to keep correspondence from disgruntled families? Families where their children were forced from them and how many of those children were orphans in a land of orphans? By using examples from both books, I hope to give maybe a clearer story of the experience.
David Wallace Adams’ book tells of the boarding school experience from the 1875 to 1928, and Brenda Childs from the 1930’s to the 1940’s. Without any lap-over, they both portray the experiences of students trying to cope with a situation not of their making. Whereas Education for Extinction shows how first federal troops and later, native police roughly removed children from their parents, Brenda Childs shows the reader of a more orderly round up. However, look at the dates between the two books, Brenda Childs is writing about a period where the parents probably had memories of their own education. The parents likely were the people that David Wallace Adams wrote in his book. Thirty years has past since the first children were forced from their homes, most of the children knew that when they attained a certain age, they could expect to go to boarding schools; also education in the boarding schools changed in the forties. The discipline found in the earlier days of schooling lessened in the latter years, especially in the 1940’s. The schools themselves changed, there was an actual curriculum was still substandard however, with the country in the grips of a worldwide depression, the children did receive food and clothing and a roof over their heads.
“Outing” was popular during the period before Brenda Childs book, it was a practice of almost indentured servitude for Indian children. The students apprenticed to serve a household or to learn a trade. Although paid for work, the rate of pay was lower then in the working public so a great, the demand for the students to work in the outing program. Girls especially worked in homes in and around the schools. Being a servant was as high a station in life that an Indian could attain. Few became secretaries, and a very few became teachers. College was almost unheard of for Indian children, because the education level at these boarding schools ended with the equivalency of an eighth grade education. Training the children for assimilation not for higher education became the goal of the administrators.
Although both books dealt with disease and the death of students, while attending these schools, Childs’ book neglects to mention children sent home when diagnosed with TB so the death of that child would not be reflected in the school rolls. Both books talk about the graveyards full of tiny headstones. Both books focus on the crowding of students in the dormitories. Crowded conditions are the perfect medium for the spread of disease. Small pox, chicken pox, diphtheria, tuberculosis, and the common cold killed many of these children and crowding helped spread the diseases to the rest. Some of these children came to the schools underweight and sickly. Some of the schools sent these children home to die while others buried them in graveyards on the grounds of the school to prevent the performance of sacred ceremonies. Some of these children died not from disease however but because of homesickness or some when they ran away from the schools. Some died while attempting to run away from the schools, and some simply disappeared. One part of both books that struck this reader as horrible was the way they brought these children back to the schools. Men hired to find them and bring them back reminded me of the bounty hunters that brought back runaway slaves in the 1800’s. These men received a bounty for each child found.
Brenda Childs tell us of parents writing and begging certain schools to admit their children. These parents wanted their sons and daughters to learn a trade. I am sure in the heart of the depression when food was scarce on the reservations this was the case for many parents. Not unlike mothers of the same period urged to give their children up for adoption to “give the child a better life,” some parents sent their children willingly. However, how many of the other parents did the BIA coerce into sending their children? Remembering this is the period that the BIA had all the power to cut off commodities and money from people who did not cooperate.
This reader has heard stories from the lips of some who were in these schools during the time that Brenda Childs wrote. The stories are full of bitterness and hatred with few of the children actually finishing school. Most but not all, returned to their reservations, some married out of their tribes and moved to new reservations and some moved to the urban area and a whole new set of problems.
In conclusion, the boarding school experience was a black eye for the nation as a whole. The do-gooders felt they knew the best way to educate the Indians was to remove them from familial influences so they would soon cease to exist as a people and assimilate into society. They also felt that Christianity was the only religion with which to attain salvation so to believe in any other religion was paganism. To better get the Indian to assimilate, they needed to persuade the children the old religion of their forefathers and mothers was pagan and wrong. That their names were part of that religion, thus by giving of an Anglo-European name, the child was on their way to assimilation. Long hair, another tribal tradition and only cut when in mourning, became a significant practice, it was cutting the old and giving the child the new.
All these practices should compare to brainwashing, brainwashing in the most brutal sense of the word, for it leaves a child wondering about his or her traditions, and missing the parents and the parental figures that so far shaped his or her life. Without this support, the child has no choice but to give in to the teachings. Those that remained strong remained strong throughout their schooling and often times did not graduate but usually went back to their reservations to live. Those who bought into the assimilation theory, lost their identity and became the urban Indian and often depressed and alcoholic.
When started out this essay, we asked questions, I don’t know which questions are answered here, I am not sure the questions can be answered. However, it is this writer’s belief that the answers are somewhere in the middle. The schools were a horrible part of childhood for most, but for some, they saved their lives and provided them with sustenance and training for the future.