Segment from The Melting Pot

Kill the Indian, Save the Man

From the BackStory archives: Brian speaks with historian Tsianina Lomawaima about the enduring legacy of Indian boarding schools, which sought to forcibly integrate tribal children into white society. She also shares the story of her own father, who was a student at the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School for much of his childhood.


Please Listen Carefully by Jahzzar

00:00:00 / 00:00:00
View Transcript

NATHAN: So we were just talking about what assimilation meant in early America and as the country expanded west. Joanne, as you pointed out, white Americans as far back as Thomas Jefferson did not envision any place for Native American culture. In this case, assimilation really meant one thing– Indian cultural erasure. Our next story, from the BackStory archives, is about the effort to Americanize Native American children.

BRIAN: In 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School opened in Pennsylvania. This was the first federally-funded, off-reservation school designed to educate Native American children. The basic idea was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” School officials taught the native children English, dressed them in Western-style clothes, and tried to convert them to Christianity. All this required taking children away from their families, often by force, and often across great distances.

JOANNE: As the century wore on, the government opened more and more of these schools out west. Many of them operated well into the 20th century. One was the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, located on the Kansas-Oklahoma state line. After its founding in 1884, the US government brought thousands of Indian students from all over the region to, in effect, teach them to assimilate.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: My family was “introduced,” shall I say, to Chilocco when my dad and his older brother were placed there by order of the court

BRIAN: This is Tsianina Lomawaima. She is Muskogee and an Indigenous Studies scholar at Arizona State University.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Because their mom was an Indian woman– their dad had left the family– so by definition, as an Indian woman trying to raise her kids by herself, she was deemed incompetent. So my dad, Curtis, was about eight, nine years old. His brother, Bob, was a little bit older when they went into Chilocco in 1927. And my dad remained there until 1935, when he managed to get away.

BRIAN: Inspired by her father’s experiences, Lomawaima began to collect oral histories from other Chilocco alumni. She says her father and his fellow students bristled under the school’s strict, military-style regime.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Students wore uniforms. They marched in close-order drill. There were 22 bugle calls every day. Even though they were schools, academic instruction was quite secondary and never proceeded much higher than the equivalent of grade six in US public schools.

That did not change until, really, after the Depression, maybe even after World War II. Students were taught to labor. And that was an important part of the ideology of believing that what civilization meant was that native people were required to learn how to work. It was assumed that they were not, by nature, industrious, self-disciplined people.

So work details, as they were called, constituted half of the school day. The ideology was, well, we’re teaching them to become civilized through this labor. But the reality was it’s what was necessary to keep the schools functioning.

BRIAN: What about your father’s story? You’ve mentioned that he went to this school. And you suggested he didn’t have such a great experience.

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: He was eight years old. I think, at that age, it was impossible to understand the emotional dynamics of being placed there. And he did not take well to the military discipline and the attempt to eradicate individuality.

So my dad started running away, oh, gosh, it must have been about 1933. So he was about 14 or 15 the first time he ran away. There was a bounty system, you could call it, for capturing students who’d gone AWOL. So farmers in the immediate area, if they brought a student back, I think it was $5 a head, which in the Depression era was a lot of money.

He did not make it far the first time. The second time, he hopped a freight. He made it all the way to Los Angeles and was caught there and was brought back. It was the third or fourth time he made it home to Wichita.

That’s actually why he was running away. He had not seen his mom since he had been brought to the school at age eight. So at that point, the school authorities allowed him a summer off to go home and spend that time with his mother.

And he came back in the fall to give it another try and just could not stand, just could not stand it. So he ran away again. And by that point, he and his mother were pretty estranged. They just were not able to reestablish a relationship.

So he hit the hobo trail. He rode rails, as a teenager, all over the western United States, worked on hotshot fire crews, and ended up in a CCC camp, where the commander of the camp is the caring adult who took an interest in him and enabled him to finish high school and actually go to college.

BRIAN: Long before you became a scholar, you must have heard about these schools from your father. How did that change your own life?

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: Well, of course, Chilocco is the place my dad grew up. And so his stories of childhood were stories of Chilocco. And when my sister and I were young, they were funny stories. He was a great storyteller, really funny stories.

But when I did this research, then, I first went to my dad and asked him, do you think this is a good idea, to get these stories and tell the history of Chilocco? And he was so supportive and so excited and yes, yes, yes. And then, at that point– later, he was more forthcoming about some of his experiences and his brother’s experience that were so tough. I mean, we had never heard those not-funny stories.

And then, as time went on, after the book came out, and we were doing public speaking, and my dad would come along with me, what came out later, much later, after years and years, was his anger at his mom for feeling abandoned. Never saw that one coming.

I mean, he was a fiercely intelligent man. He worked his way through that. But there was a point a few years after the book came out when he was deep into that anger when I thought this was the worst thing I ever did. I never should have done this.

BRIAN: I see. Looking at the history of these schools, how do you explain the long-running practice of separating kids from their families, often against their family’s will?

TSIANINA LOMAWAIMA: That’s a wonderful question because you do hear this mantra of family values so often. The key thing to remember is, whose family? I think what this speaks very directly and very transparently to is a very longstanding reality upon which the nation, the US, was founded, which was the dispossession of Indian land.

So you have a fundamental tension from the very creation of this nation of, what do we do with native people? That was defined as the Indian problem. And the problem was, frankly, that Indians were sticking around, a rather uncomfortable reminder. So I think this long-term– and it’s still going on– denigration of native society, the assumption that native people live in the past and cannot cope with modernity, that’s deeply ingrained into the US perception of self as a nation.

So native families, by definition, I think, could not be valued. That was a way of life that, in the ideology of the US, had to pass away. It had to pass away. Because that would show that Euro-American civilization really was a better way of life, that Christianity and the technology and capitalism really were chosen by God.

BRIAN: Tsianina Lomawaima is a professor at Arizona State University. She is the author of They Called it Prairie Light, The Story of Chilocco Indian School.