Boarding schools repressive past
Arizona Republic
Aug 11, 2008


Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ) - August 11, 2008

Author: Julian Cavazos, The Arizona Republic

When Mary 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 culture mentioned," 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 culture through 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 happen today.

Starting in 1891, federal officials rounded up Native American children from nearly 20 tribes statewide, putting them in boarding schools to "Americanize" them.

"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 citizens.

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 cultures ."

Homesickness was common, but many students who attempted escape were caught and punished.

The school was militarylike, with a busy schedule of classes, chores and activities.

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 culture and 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.

Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Arizona Living
Page: D2
Dateline: AZ
Record Number: pho108753503