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