Revisiting U.S. Indian Schools with the Indian Rights Association
I’m posting this on behalf of Jenna Marrone, intern for the processing of the Indian Rights Association records.
The story of Native Americans in the United States is not an unfamiliar one. Most of us are at least somewhat aware of the complicated and tragic relationship between the U.S. government and Indian tribes throughout the country’s history. For contemporary audiences, well-known phrases like “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” and “Kill the Indian…and save the man” sound like bad dialogue from an old Western film.
Much of what we know about Native American history is shrouded in mythology. Certainly, that’s how I felt as I began to process the Indian Rights Association (IRA) papers with Willhem Echevarria, project archivist at HSP. My first task was to sort through boxes of loose newspaper clippings that spanned from the 1870s to the 1980s. As I organized the clippings, I scanned through them, noting the strange evolution of public opinion on the “Indian situation” over time. Anytime I came across a particularly offensive headline or a quirky handwritten note, I thought hopefully, “Well, maybe they’re just being ironic. Herbert Welsh, such a kidder!”
I suppose the Enlightenment thinkers were right, however, and seeing is believing, because it wasn’t until I found visual evidence from the U.S. Indian Schools files that I began to get a clearer picture of the so-called “Indian situation.”
“Are you serious!” I exclaimed one afternoon as I flipped through a 1918 yearbook from the Carlisle Indian School. Willhem glanced up from his desk with an are-you-working-or-are-you-playing-with-the-documents-expression. “Look!” I said, shoving the yearbook at him. It was open to a picture of students dressed for a theatrical production – dressed, may I add, as conquistadors and explorers, among other famous figures from history.
“Who would make a Native American dress like Cortez?” I asked as we shook our heads over the picture. There are many more images like this one in the collection, scattered throughout the annual reports and yearbooks for schools like the Haskell Institute, the Hampton Industrial and Agricultural School, and the Sherman Institute. The philosophy behind these boarding schools was simple: transform young Native Americans into “good citizens” and productive members of society. To achieve this end, Indian schools focused on teaching industrial trades to boys, while girls learned housekeeping or nursing skills. Some children were forcibly removed from their reservations, and many students were given new Anglo names upon arrival. While I’m sure (or rather, hope) that there were some legitimately good intentions floating around there, underneath the positivist rhetoric remains a constant intention to Anglicize the Native American population.
So, what was the IRA’s role in the Indian school movement? What were their intentions in lobbying for Native American rights? And how might we measure their success? The Indian Rights Association records contain answers to all these questions and more. Among the surprising headlines, the occasionally appalling images, and the revealing notes lies a new story waiting to be told.