The Power of American Indian Boarding School Records

November is Native American Heritage Month. Visit National Archives News for more information on related events and resources. Today’s post comes from Gwen Granados, Director of the National Archives at Riverside, California.

Not only the voices of policy makers and administrators appear in the records of the National Archives, but also those of individual people whose lives were changed by their interactions with the Federal agencies whose historic legacy we manage. Often these individual stories can capture the imagination.

No Federal agency has been more intimately involved in the lives of those in its sphere than the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which was known as the Office of Indian Affairs until 1947. For decades scholars have used the records created by Bureau administrators to show the influence of Federal policies on American tribes and American Indian communities. Nowhere has that influence been more criticized than in the Indian Affairs’ role in educating Native American children.

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“First girl attendants on the day they were received after having been ‘changed,'” June 19, 1923. (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives)

Our holdings at the National Archives at Riverside include two of the Bureau’s largest off-reservation boarding schools: the Sherman Institute in Riverside, CA, and the Phoenix Indian School in Phoenix, AZ. Much attention has been paid to these schools, and scholars have repeatedly pointed to their policies and practices when describing the systematic decimation of traditional cultures and languages.

The impact of these institutions is clear, but they weren’t the only Indian Affairs institutions responsible for introducing Native American students to American-style education. Many Indian agencies also managed on-reservation boarding schools. These schools provided education for Indian children from the surrounding communities and other Indian reservations. They boarded and taught young children, as early as kindergarten. Their job, as one teacher described it, was to “see them develop from reservation life to school life.”

Records of schools like the Theodore Roosevelt School on the Fort Apache (now Whiteriver) Reservation in Arizona, the Crownpoint Boarding School on the Eastern Navajo Reservation in New Mexico, and the Fort Mojave Indian School in Arizona provide a glimpse of boarding school practices in a vastly different setting than that of the off-reservation schools.

By the 1920s and 1930s, these schools and their governing agencies had been hard at work for decades in fulfilling the Office of Indian Affairs’ policy of acculturation. “Before” and “after” images, such as these taken at the Theodore Roosevelt School in 1923, demonstrate the very visual celebration of their work.  

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“The school’s first girl attendants as they were received from Keams Canyon, June 19, 1923,” These students are Navajo. (Fort Apache Central Classified Files, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives)

Official correspondence and reports document that persistent pursuit of “Americanization” of the communities under the agency’s purview. But filed among the policy circulars and correspondence with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs are letters featuring the tight curves of a child’s handwriting and reports written in the near-perfect cursive of an elementary school teacher. And most important, these records document individual perspectives in their own words.

A few years ago, while working with the records of the Fort Mojave Indian School, I encountered letters that had been returned to the school by the U.S. Postal Service. The letters were unclaimed by the parents to whom they were originally sent. Written by 8- and 9-year-old kids, it broke my heart to read them. These “home letters” were written to accompany report cards. They were formulaic, and reading them as a group, I can envision the sentences written in immaculate cursive on the blackboard: “we are having nice weather”; “there was a basketball game against Parker”; “I am happy at school”; “we are going to have a Christmas program.”

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Curtis Etcitty to Elth She Etsitty, February 25, 1929. (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives)

While the task of writing the letter is clearly an assignment, glimpses of the children shine through. They ask about family and friends, they plead for visits, money, and familiar food. Curtis Etsitty’s January 16, 1929, letter to his father starts very much like the others, “We have pitcher [sic] on the wall. And we made books too. They have basketball game too. Please send me some mutton. How are the snow on ground. How are my brothers and sisters.”

Curtis, a Navajo student from near Ganado, AZ, who had come to the school as a 9-year-old, clearly longed for the taste of mutton three years later.

Eunice Vanderbilt’s letters show her strong emotions and longing to be with her family. Eunice and her younger sister Donna Mae had come to Fort Mojave from Needles, CA, a distance of only 15 miles, but over the course of two years they had heard from their mother less and less, and eventually, their letters were returned as unclaimed. 

Eunice’s letters dive back and forth between her “home letter” assignment and the childlike tendency to share what is truly on her mind. She tells her mother about the Armistice Day football game in Kingman, about the string beans, corn, and radishes they eat, but “just some time and not all the time.” She tells her mother that they are fine and that Donna is writing with her left hand. And then adds a postscript, written later:

And I am writing to [sic] again. Are you still on the work. And this be all.
Good-by
Good-by
and
Goodnight
Goodnight
I love you
Good kiss and
Kiss from Eunice
I love you very much. Good by
Goodnight.

She wrote again the next day, as promised and says that Donna Mae is happy, and at the same time, bad and cries all the time, and mentions, again, that Donna Mae is writing with her left hand. 

Similarly, Donna Mae’s November 14 letter tells of the cool weather and the boys’ football game with Kingman, adding that there will be another game on Saturday. Donna tells her mother she wishes she could eat Thanksgiving dinner with her and asks, “Do you think I can write good.” Then she encloses a picture she made for her baby sister, Betty.

One gleans from these letters the heartfelt sadness of these children, separated from their parents, siblings, and culture. It is clear how the separation at such a young age would impact them for the rest of their lives.

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Employee building at Crownpoint ca. 1920, (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Archives).

But what isn’t always clear is the impact that life in these schools had on the women who taught there. It would be naive to think that the teachers walked away unaffected. And, indeed, it is clear that they were. Many did not fully comprehend the challenges they would face: students who didn’t speak English and who didn’t behave as expected. In addition, on-reservation schools and agencies were isolated—teachers lived in small agency-furnished quarters. They lived and ate with other agency employees, isolated by language and terrain from their familiar lives. 

This summer, I came across a series of diary reports written by teachers at the Crownpoint boarding school in the mid-1930s. They were tasked with outlining their curriculum and outcomes for Hugh Carroll, the school’s new principal. Much of it is what one might expect to see. In a set of lessons titled, “Why the White Man Came to Our Country,” Miss Maxine Schrimsher offers the following lessons: Columbus and Magellan; Sir Francis Drake and the Cabots; Champlain and the founding of the English Colonies. This must have been a curious take on history for the Navajo kids whose traditional cultural exposure to Europeans more markedly Hispanic in nature.  

Miss Elizabeth Pack reveled in teaching her students about Valentine’s Day and candy-making, “The children made valentines while the candy cooked. Three plates of delicious chocolate candy was made and eaten at the school party. A nice chart story was made. Several new words were learned such as stir, mix, pour, surprise, chocolate. The boys and girls learned to work together to make one definite thing.” She also hoped that her first graders would return home and take their candy-making knowledge with them.

But there are also glimpses into cultural tolerance and curiosity by the women, several of whom were Native American themselves. Mrs. Ina Mae Ance was Laguna Pueblo and Winnebago.  She reported, “for my own experimentation, if I knew the Navajo word for an object or action, I told that to them first and then the English word. It seemed to me that the association helped them to remember some of the words.” She noted that the language barrier was one of the greatest problems she faced in teaching the young children, and she seemed eager to use the children’s native language to overcome it. 

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Summary of work done during September and October 1934. Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs)

Loleta Schrimsher, Maxine Schrimsher’s twin sister and a member of the Cherokee tribe, pointed to the impact of an anthropology course she had taken from Dr. Ruth Underhill on Navajo culture and history. She stated that it “helped to better understand their mode of living,” and it “was a great value to me in working with the Navajoes.” She went on to emphasize the use of the demonstration hogan and examples from Navajo life to assist in her teaching.

Mrs. Ance’s description of children’s leisure time activities included a description of home play in the demonstration hogan, play with toys like Lincoln Logs and dominoes, and “One little boy [who] always ran for the drum and one drum stick to he could sing Navajo. He has a very nice voice and unusually good rhythm for a little child. He seemed to enjoy entertaining the girls with his songs which seemed to be quite accurate.”  

It is evident in the way that these women write about their classes and the children that they taught that they developed very real bonds and cared a great deal about the work that they were doing. Ina Mae Ance went on to teach at the school for many decades, retiring in 1978.

It is the blessing of an archivist to be able to work with the materials that not only preserve the larger historical narrative but also provide perspectives on the lives of individuals. These holdings may not be the sort of materials expected to be housed at the National Archives, but perhaps they have more of an impact due to their unexpected presence.

To learn more about Native American records at the National Archives visit our website. Visit our Professional Development Webinars for more information about using Native American records. 

5 thoughts on “The Power of American Indian Boarding School Records

  1. My relative, Cornelius Hugo Bode, was the pastor/administrator for Cook Christian Training School, a interdenominational training center for Indians in Phoenix in the 1930s and probably into the 1940s. Where would those records reside?

    1. Since the Charles Cook Christian Training School was a Presbyterian institution, the National Archives doesn’t hold records. You may want to contact the Presbyterian Historical Society in Philadelphia. They have archival collections relating to missionary work among tribes of the American southwest. https://www.history.pcusa.org/

      In addition, there are some materials related to the Presbyterian Synod in the southwest in the Richard K. Smith Papers at Arizona State University Library in Tempe, Arizona. You can contact them at archives@asu.edu.

      Either of these resources may be able to assist you in tracking down any surviving archives. Best of luck!

  2. Are there records regarding who the worked as representatives for the Office of Indian Affairs? We have a family story that one of my husband’s ancestor worked with Indians. He died in SE Nebraska in 1888. But in his early years he also lived in NE Kansas and NE Missouri.

    1. Yes, we may have records of individuals who worked for the Office of Indian Affairs. They would be located in agency records, so you should contact the National Archives at Kansas City to see if they have any agency records which reveal the work of the individual: https://www.archives.gov/kansas-city

      You may also have luck contacting National Archives at St. Louis in the civilian personnel records: https://www.archives.gov/st-louis/civilian-personnel

      Good luck!

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