Boarding schools repressive past
Aug 11, 2008
Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ)
- August 11, 2008
Cavazos, The Arizona Republic
Lomahaftewa was 24, she was forbidden from speaking about her Choctaw heritage
while at the Phoenix Indian School.
But when no authorities were around, Lomahaftewa, now 84, secretly learned about
tribes to which her friends belonged.
"You couldn't talk your native language or have your native tradition or
said Lomahaftewa, who graduated in 1943. "But when our matrons weren't around,
we'd laugh and tell each other about how our tribes were, we'd talk about our
parents and what they did. We were lonesome."
Cultural repression was common in Native American boarding schools nationwide,
as federal officials tried to rid students of their
forced assimilation. But in secret, friends learned from one another and turned
to each other for support as they were forced to live in a way unknown to them.
How the students arrived at the school is something that probably would never
Starting in 1891, federal officials rounded up Native American children from
nearly 20 tribes statewide, putting them in boarding schools to "Americanize"
"Imagine being a little child swiped away from the security of your family and
put in an environment where you don't know," said Wendy Weston, director of
American Indian relations at the Heard Museum. "There are stories from people
that said they weren't treated very well, not respected. It was a hardship."
Strict discipline was common in Native American boarding schools and was used to
erase students' cultural identities. Students were given a name, age, birthday
and "American" clothing, and then were taught to be patriotic and to become good
It was considered "less expensive to educate them than to kill them," said
Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan at the school's opening in 1891, meaning that
schooling was cheaper than war.
"The idea was to Americanize the kids," said Richard Murian, a Scottsdale
bookstore owner who sells rare books about history. "To get their clothes to
look like the Americans, to learn the manners and customs of the American
people, to destroy the uniqueness of the Native American
Homesickness was common, but many students who attempted escape were caught and
The school was militarylike, with a busy schedule of classes, chores and
Students also were taught to work the American way. Native American boys learned
such blue-collar skills as carpentry, blacksmithing and farming, while girls
learned how to sew, cook and do laundry.
As the decades went on, students were allowed more cultural freedom.
In the 1930s, John Collier, Bureau of Indian Affairs commissioner, supported
President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Indian New Deal, which emphasized tribal
autonomy and religious freedom. Boarding schools were allowed to start school
clubs that performed and exhibited Native American art, dancing, music and
clothing. Collier also favored school sports.
During World War II, many boys at the school were shipped off to war.
To fill in the enrollment gap, children from tribes around the country arrived,
leading to greater diversity. Many former graduates returned to teach at the
school. Students learned the different customs practiced by peers. No longer
forced to attend, Native American youths chose to go to the school to be around
members of other tribes.
By 1978, graduate Gordon Hammond felt no sense of repression and enjoyed the
openness of talking about his
learning of others.
Hammond, a Ute, came to the school from Colorado, as did his brother.
"There wasn't very many Utes where I was to talk about things from the different
tribes," Hammond said. "They spoke in their native language and you didn't know
what they were saying, but you knew what they were talking about."
After high schools were built closer to reservations, the Phoenix Indian School
closed in 1990.
Section: Arizona Living
Record Number: pho108753503