In Other Words

by John R. Gram, Univer­sity of Wash­ing­ton Press, 242 pages

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Ed­u­ca­tion at the Edge of Em­pire by John R. Gram

First opened in 1890, the Santa Fe In­dian School re­mains in op­er­a­tion to­day as a high school for In­dian stu­dents, run by the All In­dian Pue­blo Coun­cil. To fully ap­pre­ci­ate the school’s un­likely sur­vival into a third cen­tury — now as an In­dian-run in­sti­tu­tion — it helps to un­der­stand its 19th-cen­tury ori­gins as a fed­er­ally run board­ing school de­signed to as­sim­i­late young In­dian stu­dents by forc­ing them to cast off their Na­tive lan­guage and aban­don their tra­di­tional com­mu­nity obli­ga­tions in fa­vor of adopt­ing An­glo-Amer­i­can cul­tural norms. “Kill the In­dian, save the man” was an ac­tual ed­u­ca­tional slo­gan and Or­wellian mantra that guided In­dian board­ing schools at the height of their dom­i­nance in the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies. At these in­sti­tu­tions, Na­tive chil­dren lived sep­a­rated from their fam­i­lies, of­ten for years at a time, and were sub­jected to mil­i­tary-style ed­u­ca­tion, stripped of their given fam­ily names, and barred from speak­ing tribal lan­guages. They were trained in vo­ca­tional skills, but the larger goal of the schools was to carry out a fed­eral pol­icy of as­sim­i­la­tion.

From the no­to­ri­ous Carlisle In­dian School in Penn­syl­va­nia to Ari­zona’s high-en­roll­ment Phoenix In­dian School, most board­ing schools even­tu­ally failed at their mis­sions to de­stroy In­di­an­ness and may ac­tu­ally have been in­stru­men­tal in fos­ter­ing the first ma­jor wave of pan-In­dian iden­tity by mix­ing stu­dents from tribes across the coun­try. That’s the emerg­ing con­clu­sion of his­to­ri­ans, in­clud­ing John R. Gram, who have stud­ied the long-term legacy of In­dian board­ing schools. And nowhere in the coun­try did these schools strug­gle more to as­sim­i­late Na­tive Amer­i­can youth than in Santa Fe and Al­bu­querque. In his new book, Gram con­tends that the pres­ence of lo­cal pue­blo com­mu­ni­ties and an en­trenched Catholic school bu­reau­cracy forced the largely An­glo and Protes­tant ad­min­is­tra­tors at these two New Mex­ico schools to adapt to the needs of lo­cal Na­tive Amer­i­can fam­i­lies and com­pete with lo­cal Catholic churches for stu­dents.

For starters, un­like most other board­ing school stu­dents, Pue­blo chil­dren whose fam­i­lies could af­ford it were able to re­turn home for sum­mers or to heal from ill­ness. Pue­blo stu­dents also avoided the trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence of hav­ing to lose their birth name and adopt an An­glo first and last name, a re­quire­ment that was com­mon at other board­ing schools. In­stead, Pue­blo stu­dents came from fam­i­lies with a cen­turies­long tra­di­tion of hav­ing an ex­ter­nal Span­ish name and an in­ter­nal In­dian name known only to mem­bers of their com­mu­nity. Some of the adult mem­bers of the pue­blo ac­tu­ally worked at the school as engi­neers, kitchen staff, and se­cu­rity. Some at­tended classes part time as a job perk.

School ad­min­is­tra­tors, many of whom were fed­eral em­ploy­ees raised in the East, were in­fu­ri­ated by the in­tereth­nic mix of New Mex­ico’s pop­u­la­tion. Cen­turies of in­ter­mar­ry­ing among His­panos and Na­tive Amer­i­cans left many peo­ple with un­cer­tain eth­nic and tribal af­fil­i­a­tions, by both blood­line and phys­i­cal ap­pear­ance. Thus at In­dian schools in Al­bu­querque and Santa Fe, ad­min­is­tra­tors found them­selves deal­ing with His­pano par­ents who sought to en­roll their kids as In­dian stu­dents based on fam­ily his­tory records, whether ac­tual or fab­ri­cated. It’s one of many com­plex in­ter­cul­tural power re­la­tion­ships that are at the fo­cus of this study of the two fed­eral schools whose stu­dents came pri­mar­ily from pue­b­los. At the height of its en­roll­ment in the early 20th cen­tury, the Santa Fe In­dian School in­structed 600 stu­dents each year. Stu­dents grew their own food, sewed their own cloth­ing, and even con­trib­uted to the con­struc­tion of school build­ings. Un­der the aus­pices of the school’s “out­ing pro­gram,” stu­dent vol­un­teers were es­sen­tially loaned out to An­glo farm­ers and ranch­ers dur­ing the sum­mer to work as maids and la­bor­ers.

Doubt­ful of the ed­u­ca­tional value of these schools, Gram, like other schol­ars re­vis­it­ing the board­ing school ex­pe­ri­ence, looks at that of­ten trau­matic ex­pe­ri­ence from the van­tage of Pue­blo stu­dents and par­ents, who sought to use this fed­eral re­source to ben­e­fit their fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties. “Some­times this meant op­pos­ing the board­ing schools,” writes Gram. “But it could also mean us­ing them for their own pur­poses.” Pue­b­los, he notes, drew on ex­ten­sive ex­pe­ri­ence of con­fronting Span­ish colo­nial pres­sures to as­sim­i­late.

By no means is Gram min­i­miz­ing the dis­as­trous ef­fects of board­ing schools on lo­cal In­dian com­mu­ni­ties. “The Al­bu­querque and Santa Fe In­dian Schools de­prived many house­holds of the com­fort and as­sis­tance of chil­dren for long pe­ri­ods of time,” Gram writes. “Imag­ine the heartache these fam­i­lies must have felt when their chil­dren re­turned, es­tranged from their tra­di­tions.” But his tight fo­cus in this book is how pue­b­los even­tu­ally turned this dis­ad­van­tage into a re­source. Even­tu­ally, he writes, “Pue­b­los were largely able to co-opt these in­sti­tu­tions in such a way that they gen­er­ally had a pos­i­tive ef­fect on their chil­dren.” — Casey Sanchez

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