Credit: The Riverside Indian School website.
The first we visited was the Riverside Indian School. In 1973 there were still 60,000 children in Indian schools in the U.S., but that number had plummeted to 9,500 by 2007. Most of this change occurred with the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act, which called for moving children from centralized boarding schools to community-based schools, but some school closures were due to being located in tribal communities too poor to sustain their operation. The Indian school became the product of debates over what to do about the complex issues surrounding Native Americans. We like to boast about our moral and democratic superiority among the nations of the world, especially when the subject of genocide raises its ugly head. Being terminally illiterate about our own history, most would never imagine that genocide was actually one of the
options under discussion by the U.S. Congress for dealing with the American Indian . The options under debate were relocation, eradication, and assimilation. While there were advocates for eradication, it fortunately never gathered widespread acceptance, and steps were taken to pursue measures along the lines of relocation and assimilation. The Indian school was the primary tool for accomplishing assimilation. The idea was summarized by Army officer Richard Henry Pratt in an 1892 speech, in which he said,” A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian and save the man.” Pratt advocated “assimilation through total immersion.”
Total immersion meant that children were removed from their families and tribes, sometimes by considerable distances, and placed in boarding schools. Their hair was cut short, a mark of disgrace for boys of many tribes, given European names, and uniforms. They were not permitted to speak their native tongue, even among themselves, nor to practice any of their cultural games, practices, or habits. They were taught American/European culture, forced to attend church services and strongly urged to convert to Christianity. Discipline was stiff, sometimes abusive, and chores were required. While we have to remember that discipline and work ethic for children were much different then, one Anna Moore wrote how children would have to scrub the dining hall floors on their hands and knees. If they were not done by the sounding of the 8 a.m. whistle, the matron would “start” them with a strap while they continued to work. Anyone wishing to consider the subject of life in an Indian school further, you may enjoy reading “The Education of Little Tree” by Asa Earl “Forrest” Carter. The conditions in the book are somewhat more moderate, because this story is based a half-century later, in the 1920’s. It is a very successful book that has seen millions of sales, and also won the American Booksellers Assoc. Book of the Year (ABBY) Award in 1991. There is also a movie that was done from the book in 1997, which is still available.
Fortunately, much has changed since Riverside School first opened with eight students in 1872. After the first school was destroyed by fire in 1878, the school reopened in a new building in 1879. Operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, The Riverside School is the largest and oldest off-reservation Indian school in the nation. It has an 800 member student body, and a 135 acre campus. Attendance is not only now voluntary, but openings for admission are competitive and are sought by children from over 100 tribes across the country. There are self-paced, accelerated studies, a gifted and talented education program, and there is a cooperative program with the nearby Caddo-Kiowa Technical Center. The school was closed when we visited, being a Saturday. We were disappointed that a couple of the original buildings, while still there, are not open to the public.