Education's Histories

methodological grist for the history of education

Our Trickster, the School {part 4}

May 22nd, 2014 by
This entry is part 4 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, Part II, and Part III. Subscribers to our site will also receive a complete version of “Our Trickster, The School.” 


 The Pore

Navajo Girls in Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5386.

Navajo Girls in Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5386.

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Navajo Boys at Start of Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4760.

Navajo Boys at Start of Footrace, Navajo Reservation, Arizona, July 4, 1913. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-4760.

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“How did you come through the experience of being schooled?” asked the education historian.

“I was born to words, truly, ma’am—very old words, from the time when dogs could talk,” responded John Pai.1

“Hmmm.  Having an affinity for words doesn’t really explain how you made it through the gauntlet.”

“I . . . remember myself,” Pai said.2

“But, then, how did you come out to consider yourself an educated person?” asked the education historian.

“I was a camp child, a child of the cloth, trade cloth.  I preached to the dogs in the name of the Sailor, the dragonfly, and the muchacho.  Amen,” he said.3

“Ah ha!  You subverted the school?!”

“Hmmm,” (Pai chuckled in the historian’s mind).

“Did you trick the trickster?” she asked, winking.

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The trickster is not a singularity.  It acts and is acted upon.  As it tricks and is tricked, as it opens up pores for alternate possibilities, it engages individuals and communities in sometimes mundane and sometimes transformative ways.  Scholar Gerald Vizenor writes that “[t]he trickster is a communal sign, never isolation; a concordance of narrative voices.  The trickster is not tragic because the narrative does not promise a ‘happy ending.’”4  The school invites such a “concordance of voices” even if it doesn’t mean to, begging the chance for trickstering and other potentialities. Most conventionally, and as most non-Native reformers had idealized, the school was a means into the mainstream U.S. economy for American Indian students, offering manual training in recognized vocations.  The formalized, written curriculum itself and student accounts of their experiences at schools run by the U.S. government attest to that.  Designed for industrial schools modeled after the Hampton and Tuskegee Institutes, Estelle Reel’s 1901 Course of Study for the Indian Schools of the United States, Industrial and Literary delineated a manual training and domestic arts curriculum that included blacksmithing, carpentry, engineering, agriculture, printing, cooking, housekeeping, laundry, and sewing.  The Course of Study also included study in traditional academic subjects like history, music, math, reading, geography, and physiology.5

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“Before [Max Hanley (Navajo)] le[ft] Sherman [Institute] he had mastered three trades. ‘In the white man’s words, “I specialized,” and certificates were filled our for me which identified what I could do best.’”6

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For Max Hanley, the Sherman Institute in California credentialed his skill in the several trades he had learned there.  The credentials verified his vocational competency to the world outside the Indian school; they were a pore for Hanley.  The credentials and the training that buttressed them were evidence that Hanley participated in a schooling experience that was familiar—at least on its face—to Americans with many different backgrounds.  In this way, the school’s recognition of Hanley’s skills affirmed his potential as a viable “American.”  But his credentials do not necessarily convey whether or not Hanley had converted himself in a wholesale fashion.  Hanley appears to have stepped through the instrumental portal by specializing in several trades, yet he identifies himself as outside the Euroamerican pale.  The ideals promoted by the school to refashion Indians into Americans fell in upon themselves.  Hanley was a skilled Indian straddling cultures.  As such, Hanley tricked the school as he confounded the reformer-idealists.  Hyde writes, “trickster stories are radically anti-idealist; they are made in and for a world of imperfections.”7  Instead of a “happy ending,” there is an ambivalent and ambiguous one.8

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“[N. Scott Momaday’s] John Pai uses English not to repeat the propaganda of the schools, like the paper Indians, but to engage in a type of wordplay doublespeak that exemplifies the ‘riddle’ of his identity (22). When his teacher Carrie compliments him on his command of the English language, he responds, ‘Imagine. I am eloquent, and it isn’t even my native language.’ Carrie replies, ‘But you have taken possession of it, appropriated it, made it your own, as if you were born to it.’ Carrie means by this that he has been able to comprehend and reproduce the lessons in civilization that he has been taught at the school. She tells him, ‘You will make a fine preacher, John. You will spread the gospel, as they say. You will glorify the word of God.’ But when John Pai responds by saying ‘I was born to words, truly, ma’am—very old words, from the time when dogs could talk,’ suggesting that his eloquence is a Kiowa characteristic rather than an effect of English literacy, he puzzles her. And when he inverts her statement about glorifying the word of God, stating that he will glorify instead, ‘the word of dog, the voice of the turtle,’ Carrie says with exasperation, ‘If we can get past your impertinence! Your riddling is . . . out of place. Remember yourself,’ she commands. With a glance at the Medicine Wheel, John Pai insists, ‘I do remember myself: I was a camp child, a child of the cloth, trade cloth. I preached to the dogs in the name of the Sailor [Seta], the dragonfly [Koi-khan-hodle], and the muchacho [Mosatse]. Amen’ (22). Preaching to the Kiowa (in whose mythology the dog—and the ‘giant dog’ or horse—plays an important and respected role) in the name of the three frozen boys, keeping them alive by sharing their story with the people, John Pai sees himself with a far more complicated mission and repertoire of identity than his teacher claims for him.”9

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The ambiguity that trickster invites—in spite of itself—allows for a dynamism that can refashion and reformulate culture.  As the school bit Native students, it also provided an unwitting forum where a pan-Indian identity and literature developed.  For example, literary scholar Amelia V. Katanski writes that school newspapers were the subversive proving grounds for several American Indian writers.  Though school superintendents attempted to control the content and form of articles published in the papers, students found fissures in the domineering authority of the school, and shimmied through them.10  N. Scott Momaday’s John Pai finds his way through the school’s personnel and curriculum, winning a spot at seminary.  When three of his friends freeze to death when attempting to escape the school and return to their families’ camps in a winter blizzard, John Pai discreetly disembarks from his journey to seminary to return to his family’s camp.  The faculty laments his “running away,” believing that he decided to forget his Euroamerican schooling.  Katanski argues that John Pai had cultivated and acted with a “repertoire of identity” that the school and its faculty did not recognize.  In writing John Pai, Momaday refashioned and reordered the categories through which John Pai might be understood.  He was a careful study with a deeply rooted compass that could recognize learning portals and avert being sucked into the school’s vortex. The Hopi did this on a grand scale, reformulating the categories of meaning derived from the school encounter all together.  Historian Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert argues that the group of Hopi students, young and old, who went to the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California from 1907-1910 enacted another form of migration that was congruent with earlier migrations which had helped define Hopi experience and culture over many centuries.11  Whether or not the school recognized this is immaterial.  Lewis Hyde writes, “In creating cultural categories we give shape to this world, and whoever manages to change the categories thus changes the shape.”12  The Hopi “jumped into the liminality”13 and bounced the colonialist purposes underlying the very existence of the school off of the school itself, creating a reformulation of cultural categories.

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Hopi Boy Racing Horse, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, July 8, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5687.

Hopi Boy Racing Horse, Hopi Reservation, Arizona, July 8, 1908. Photograph by Joseph Dixon. Courtesy of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures, Wanamaker Collection, Indiana University, Bloomington, I.N., W-5687.

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Our trickster, the school, is a methodological and axiomatic guidepost.  Historian Philip J. Deloria writes that the trickster “exceeds history, serving as a metaphor, a mode of inquiry, perhaps even a methodological position.  Laced through that method is a lack of certainty, the possibility that any claim may invert itself and become its opposite.  If one believes this, humility . . . stands as a critical ground.”14  The school, our trickster, shows us how we should and should not live in this world as it builds itself up and implodes in on itself.  As it describes idealized forms of learning, it clouds unexpected learnings.  It is prismatically muddled and a transparent wayfinder; it is the spotlight and smoke.

The education historian thus asks, “Is the school a trickster, or does it make tricksters of us?”


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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