Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Our Trickster, the School {part 2}

May 8th, 2014 by
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series "Our Trickster, The School" by Adrea Lawrence| May 2014


The following excerpt is Part 2 of a four-part essay, “Our Trickster, The School,” published throughout May 2014. If this is your first time visiting our site, we encourage you to begin with Part I and continue to Part III and Part IV. Subscribers to our site will also receive a complete version of “Our Trickster, The School” when the entire serial has been published.


The School Bites

 I worked two years in turning a washing machine in a Government school to reduce the running expenses of the institution. It did not take me long to learn how to run the machine and the rest of the two years I nursed a growing hatred for it. Such work is not educative. It begets a hatred for work, especially where there is no pay for such labor. The Indian will work under such conditions because he is under authority, but the moment he becomes free he is going to get as far as he can from it.1 — Henry Roe Cloud
Spades

Dear Sir Capt. Pratt:
I write this letter with much sorrow to tell you that I have spoken one Indian word. I will tell you how it happened: yesterday evening in the dining-hall Alice Wynn talked to me in Sioux, and before I new what I was saying I found that I had spoken one word, and I felt so sorry that I could not eat my supper, and I could not forget that Indian word, and while I was sitting at the table the tears rolled down my cheeks. I tried very hard to speak only English.2
— Nellie Robertson

Spades
 
Thomas Indian School Children Listening to Dr. Dixon, November 28, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4311.

Thomas Indian School Children Listening to Dr. Dixon, November 28, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4311.

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Thomas Indian School Children at Flag Raising Ceremony, November 28, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4312.

Thomas Indian School Children at Flag Raising Ceremony, November 28, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4312.

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“Hey!  What did you do that for?” the education historian hollered as the sources tattled on the school.

“I cannot lie,” the source remarked (in the education historian’s mind).

The source continued, “That school ran me down and stripped me bare.  It bit my heart.  It made me a shadow of a human being.”

“I don’t know what to say.  I want to cry,” said the education historian in response.

Spades

In the amplified U.S. appetite for land and natural resources after the Civil War, the school was to serve as the “civilizer” of children.  It was also an unmistakable marker of colonization.  For non-Natives, a school signified arrival; for American Indians, the school signified departure and even entrenchment.  The Indian school and its curriculum, which followed a model of industrial training that was part academic and mostly vocational, ostensibly prepared Native students for life outside their home communities.  American Indian students learned English, and with it, reading, writing, and ciphering; they also were supposed to learn individualism, materialism, love of country, Euroamerican gender roles, and functional trades.3

One such presumed manifestation of this learning is captured in Joseph Dixon’s images of flag raising ceremonies at different missionary and Bureau of Indian Affairs schools for Native children.  As students were expected to develop a sense of individualism and love of country through their manual and academic studies, they were also to demonstrate these qualities during Arbor Day, Columbus Day, and U.S. Independence Day celebrations as well as through staged flag raising ceremonies.4  In both of Dixon’s flag raising pictures featured here, children are dressed up, wearing ties and woolen hats and sweaters, and they are lined up, with the smallest in front and the tallest in back.  In the first image, Joseph Dixon stands in the foreground holding the U.S. flag as children of the Thomas Indian School in upstate New York look on, many with their hands in their pockets.  In the second image, students’ facial expressions are clearly visible.  They are not smiling, and they do not seem to be looking at the flag or its raising; rather, they appear to be looking at the camera, which was offset from the flag.  Does this image demonstrate how the school had “civilized” Native children?  Or might it demonstrate the motions that American Indian children went through in school because it was simply part of the educational procedure?5

John Dewey warns that we should not mistake the educational for the educative.  He writes, “It may be fairly said . . . that any social arrangement that remains vitally social, or vitally shared, is educative to those who participate in it.  Only when it becomes cast in an mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power.”6  In other words, when the motions of learning are motions, the growth and the curiosity that beget self-sustaining learning are no longer in play.

Was the school “vitally shared,” or was it “cast in a mold” and thus drained of its educative potential?  Operating a washing machine, as Henry Roe Cloud did, demonstrates that the industrial school operated on a shoestring budget; it also demonstrates that schooling American Indian children may have been as much about control as teaching reading, writing, and ciphering.  The school could be brittle.  It could also induce students to cultivate a strong sense of shame and self-hatred, as Nellie Robertson expressed after she “had spoken one word” of Sioux at Carlisle, one of the most well known industrial Indian schools in the U.S.  As the industrial curriculum modeled at Carlisle rolled out across the country in Indian schools run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it and its attendant school policies, such as hair cutting, military time, and renaming, ignored and shunned cultural categories of meaning and language that were resonant with Native students.

In fulfilling its promise for some, the school destroyed the promise for others.  In fact, it actively worked to annihilate the languages, cultures, and values of American Indian children and communities.  In this way, the school violated the conditions set upon it while simultaneously and seemingly fulfilling those same conditions:  teaching children how to read, write, and cipher and be members of U.S. society.  In demanding that Native children go all in for complete cultural conversion, only adhering to the curriculum being carried out in schools, the school violated that which was of paramount value—the students.  Historian David Wallace Adams has called this process “education for extinction.”7

Working as a vortex, the school sucked in American Indian children, attempting to recast them as Americans who would shun the historical and intergenerational influence of their families and communities.  In so doing, the school and its muscle (Indian Office agents) pulled Native children into its “own uncanny territory” and “provoke[d] doubt.”8 Trickster changes us, and trickster just changes. It is a plastic shape shifter after all. As the school damaged children, it also created pores of absurdity and humor, thus opening up possibilities for new ways of making meaning.9


Donald Warren of Indiana University and Christopher J. Frey of Bowling Green State University served as peer reviewers for this essay.  We are grateful for their careful attention to and thoughtful feedback on this meditation.





 

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