Established in 1884 and operative for nearly a century, the Chiloco Indian School in Oklahoma was one of a series of off-reservation boarding schools intended to assimilate American Indian children into mainstream American life. Critics have characterized the schools as destroyers of Indian communities and cultures, but the reality that K. Tsianina Lomawaima discloses was much more complex. “An institution founded to transform Indian youth was paradoxically given life by the very people whose tribal identities it was committed to erase.” (from the book jacket)
Excerpt from the preface to Lomawaima’s revealing book:
The government established boarding schools according to a nineteenth-century version of ethnicity theory, which ranked races along an evolutionary staircase ascending to a Christian heaven attainable by hard labor and acceptance of one’s lot on earth. Federal educators assumed they could erase tribal identity by separating Indian children from Indian adults. It seemed logical that this would be more easily accomplished with younger children than with older. Chilocco students turned this assumption on its head, as the youngest boys formed gangs along tribal lines, whereas older students often downplayed intertribal boundaries in their peer groups. Even, or perhaps especially, the most vulnerable groups within the boarding school–the youngest, the most estranged from tribal background–were brought together and protected in the folds of tribal identity. For many students, a pan-tribal “Indian” identity also evolved in opposition to school authority. Through strict regimentation, non-Indian authority mobilized and strengthened Indian resistance, expressed as loyalty to fellow students as well as by covert and overt rule breaking.
Mission schools and the government schools that followed them were often situated close to the communities they served. Many educators viewed this proximity as a disadvantage. Attempts to teach children English, Christianity, and the moral superiority of a clean life of honest labor were constantly undermined by the so-called bad influences of family and tribe. It seemed a natural solution to separate children from such negative influences in order to insure their eventual success as citizens of the American nation. The solution took the form of the off-reservation boarding school. General Richard H. Pratt, a staunch nineteenth-century assimilationist, vigorously campaigned for off-reservation boarding schools.
Pratt’s personal philosophy of assimilation sprang from his Civil War command experience with Negro troops:
In Pratt’s mind the Negro furnished the example. Slavery transplanted him from his native habitat and tribal affiliation into a new cultural environment, where he had to adapt to a new language, new dress, and new customs. As a result in a span of several generations he had been shorn of his primitivism and elevated to American citizenship. Pratt believed profoundly that as the Negro had been civilized, so could the Indian be civiized (Utley 1964, xiv).
Pratt insisted that the best way to civilize the Indian was to “immerse him in civilization and keep him there until well soaked” (Utley 1964, xxi).