When it comes to the contemporary history of indigenous Americans, the issue of boarding schools for native children during the late 19th and early 20th centuries continues to be an open wound for many individuals that went through that life altering occurrence. I have seen video documentaries of people sharing their experiences in these institutions, and the memory of their ordeal brings many of them to tears as they try to explain how they felt when their hair was cut or were punished corporally for speaking their language. As I read David W. Adams’s book with those images in mind, the bigger picture came into focus and it helped me understand the emotional reaction the interviewees displayed during the course of their recollections.
In this book, Adams takes a childhood curiosity of his and spends many years of careful research to present us with this fine historical text that attempts to explain the development, reaction, and outcome of this government experiment. The experiment consisted of waging a different kind of war against the Indians, one that did not lead to open hostilities and physical violence; rather, a war against the very essence of what it meant to be indigenous. As Adams explains, the late 19th century Euro-American struggle against “savagism” and land acquisition had been won by the superior forces of Western ideological progress, such as technology, private property, and Christian morality. In order to demonstrate this, Adams breaks up the book into four useful parts—Civilization, Education, Response, and Causatum.
Adams begins by discussing Euro-American attitudes on civilization, its evolution, and how it was widely believed that culture went through a series of successive stages, beginning with “lower savagery” and ending with “civilization’ (14). Unsurprisingly, in this vein of thought, civilization was exemplified by the progress of Western Christian society, while savagism was undoubtedly reflected in the “stone age” culture of Indians. Quoting Roy Harvey, Adams further adds that “the history of American civilization was…a three dimensional affair, ‘progressing from past to present, from east to west, from lower to higher’ (13). The message to indigenous Americans could not be any more clear, either they assimilated into civilized society or suffer the fate of complete elimination.
Philanthropic activists viewed assimilation through the lens of education, and by 1877 there were 150 schools in operation consisting of both boarding schools and day schools. From the onset, controversy surrounded these schools in one way or another. Parents were reluctant to send their children away to boarding schools for long periods because they feared for their safety and well being. Only reassurances from officials that the students would be taken care of helped assuage their concerns, but parents still preferred the day schools located at or near the reservation. Educators and Indian advocates approached the matter from a paternalistic and racist point, claiming that they only had the children’s best interest at heart, and insisted that the only way to eradicate savagism was to immerse the pupils in white society and as far away from their tribal lands. The children, for the most part, found ways to adapt and cope with the culture clash they were encountering.
The students at these schools learned elementary education, proper Victorian etiquette, and tracked into gender specific trades—agriculture and shop for boys, and sewing and housewifery for girls. The expectation was that the students would return home and become examples for their communities by reformers and government officials, and businessmen were eager to “help” the students make use of their learned skills by employing them as cheap wage labor. Needless to say, many students were perpetually homesick and depressed, and great many died of disease, failure to acclimate to their new environments, or malnutrition that resulted from the constant food shortages as a result of underfunded schools. Students were aware of their dire conditions and the invasions on their “personal being” and found ways to resist their horrid conditions (223).
One form of resistance was simply to runaway, especially during tribal events and ceremonies. Another form of resistance was to set the school on fire just so that they did not have to return to school and have a “prolonged vacation” (229). Among the girls, they would pluck their eyebrows and braid their hair, both things that were strictly prohibited by the dress code of the school. Still another way was to give Indian names to their schools or people they did not like, this way reversing the action taken by the officials when the students themselves were stripped of their indigenous names. All of these methods of resistance served as an outlet for indigenous students, but in the end, the schools left a deep psychological imprint on their lives—evinced from the recollections depicted in the Indian schools documentary.
Drawing from an array of sources, from peer reviewed journal articles and archives to government reports and personal letters from officials, Adams offers us a detailed view into the evolution of the “Indian schools,” their cultural and emotional impact, and how that period of Native American history fits into the larger view of American history. He succeeds in presenting this as a war that was waged psychologically through education, and how Euro-Americans firmly believed they could “kill the Indian, and save the man” by introducing him, and her, to the advanced ways of modern society. The end result was a coalescence of Western progressive ideals with a heightened sense of indigenous cultural identity still very much alive and well today.