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Native Americans and Education

In National Geographic's May edition, the writer Suzette Brewer, member of the Cherokee Nation, wrote an article about "the some 500 federally funded boarding schools for Native children opened in the U.S and Canada in the 1800s."

Catholic or Protestant missionaries, intent on converting the students to Christianity and to white men's culture, oversaw many of these schools, all designed to indoctrinate the students in the missionaries' specific theology.

Brewer calls these schools "places of horror and shame."

The children were separated from their homes, brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents. They were beat if they spoke their native languages. Their hair and braids were cut. They were told to dress in white people's clothes.

They were forced to work for long hours for little, if any, pay, in local homes.

Many of the older ones gave up and ran away, but professional trackers tracked them down and brought them back. Thousands died at the schools over the decades due to disease, poor nutrition, suicide, or under mysterious circumstances.

Eugene Herrod attended Carter Seminary in Oklahoma, and says now that, "Corporal punishment was rampant, but the emotional isolation was the hardest." 

"The familial dysfunction that was occurring in our communities and in our families was a result of this government obliterating a well-conceived and well-built tribal society that had lasted and endured for centuries."

The educational results out of these boarding schools "were abysmal."

At Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, Suzette Brewer declared, "Only a few hundred students of the many thousands who were enrolled during the school's 39-year history received high school diplomas."

Carlisle's founder Richard Pratt stated his school's mission: "Kill the Indian in him and save the man." There is little evidence he achieved either goal for most of his students.

The most famous alumni out of Carlisle was Jim Thorpe, a gifted athlete with talents in football, baseball, and track and field. He attended Carlisle off and on from 1904 until 1913, but it is questionable if he received a diploma.

One Native American boy who avoided the boarding school route was Sherman Alexie, who was born on the Spokane Indian Reservation in 1966, just three years before Lyndon Johnson's administration shut down the boarding school program.

Sherman was smart. He read books. In an essay entitled, "The Joy of Reading and Writing: Superman and Me," he says, "I learned to read with a Superman comic book. A smart Indian is a dangerous person, widely feared and ridiculed.

"We were Indian children who were expected to be stupid. Most lived up to those expectations inside the classroom but subverted them outside. They struggled with basic reading in school but could remember how to sing dozens of powwow songs.

"As Indian children, we were expected to fail in the non-Indian world. I refused to fail. I was smart. I was arrogant. I was lucky. I read books late into the night."

Sherman chose to attend high school off the reservation, and there he succeeded. He became a writer and a poet. Today, he speaks to students in classes on the reservations, and he challenges them to read and to write, to try to succeed with books.

He says that "some students look at me with bright eyes and arrogant wonder. Then there are the sullen and already defeated Indian kids who sit in the back rows and ignore me. The pages of their notebooks are empty. They carry neither pencil nor pen."

The boarding school program joined government to church, with the loftiest and noblest of intentions, but the Indian boys and girls who were shoved through that program suffered incalculable damage: isolation, violence, and crushed spirits.  


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