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Trail Dust: Indian schools' history militaristic, checkered
Marc Simmons | For The New Mexican
Posted: Friday, August 21, 2009
In the early 1880s, the federal government vigorously moved into the creating of off-reservation industrial boarding schools for Indian students around the country.
With the Indian wars over, forced assimilation of the tribes into American society became the official national policy. Its implement came to be centered upon education. Carlisle Indian School, established 1874 in Pennsylvania, served as the model for "civilizing" the First Americans. Its program called for removal of students from their families and cultures and indoctrinating them over a period of years.
Originally, formal Indian education had been the province of missionary groups who used private funding to support both on- and off-reservation schools. So when the government got in the act, it tended at the start to hire churchmen as administrators of its schools.
That did not mean that the missionary crowd was any less dedicated to attacking basic Indian values. A Protestant minister from New England, for example, was heard to say loudly that: "Education should seek the disintegration of the tribes. They should be educated not as Indians, but as Americans. That is, assimilate them."
In 1884, the U.S. Indian Training School (commonly known as the Albuquerque Indian School) opened its doors on a permanent campus one mile north of the Old Town plaza. A year later, the smaller Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road accepted its first class of mainly Pueblo students.
Under government direction, discipline was strict. In fact, most of the Industrial Schools maintained a military regimen.
A Santa Clara Pueblo woman remembered long afterward that "we were drilled marching to breakfast and again drilled going back to the dormitory. And we were drilled in the school yard."
It was reported that "During Sunday Dress Parade at the Albuquerque Indian School, each student carried a dummy rifle and was dressed up as in the regular army."
At the beginning, academic subjects were scarce in the curriculum. Instead, "industrial" instruction predominated, the girls being taught cooking, sewing and simple nursing. The boys learned general carpentry, furniture making, house painting and stone cutting, things that had little relevance for people living in an Indian pueblo.
Since funding was always short, the students were put to work, in effect, as domestics in the laundry and kitchen. Boys also labored at farming in a 40-acre field adjacent to the campus.
That was particularly hard on a handful of Apache boys who came from a nonagricultural society, in which that kind of work was regarded as disgraceful.
The Albuquerque Indian School's first superintendent was the fairly moderate R.W. Bryan. But not so the second one, William B. Creager, described by one journalist as "a sadistic monster," who conducted a reign of terror during his six-year term.
The case of a parent, Juan Rey Abeita of Isleta Pueblo, was not atypical. At the school's opening he had enrolled his three sons there. But after Creager came to power, he was not allowed to see them, nor were the boys permitted to come home on visits.
Going to Albuquerque to check on them and verify that they were still alive, he was set upon and beaten by hired thugs. Abeita was not alone in his distress.
A total of 36 Isleta children were being held against their will and the wishes of their parents. Resident in the pueblo at the time was writer Charles F. Lummis, who was collecting Indian folk tales.
Outraged, he engaged a lawyer, composed blistering newspaper columns, and drummed up public support. In court on a writ of habeas corpus, the Isleta students were ordered released.
In triumph, Lummis led an Isleta delegation to the Indian School, where the "captive" children were set free. They were brought home in tears to the waiting arms of their families.
As a result of this incident, Congress in 1893 passed a bill ending the government practice of removing Indian youngsters from the reservation and holding them without parental consent. The following year, Superintendent Creager, amid allegations of physical abuse of students, was forced to resign.
Although the Albuquerque Indian School's reputation had been sullied, it slowly regained its good name, as positive changes occurred in the 20th century. The military character of its program, though, was not abandoned until the 1930s.
The Albuquerque Indian School closed in 1982 and some of the remaining students were transferred to the Santa Fe Indian School, now operated by the All-Indian Pueblo Council.
The recent controversial demolition of 15 of its historic buildings on the Santa Fe campus has brought to the fore painful memories of a checkered history.
Historian Marc Simmons is author of numerous books on New Mexico and the Southwest. His column appears Saturdays.
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