Roll call at the Sherman Indian High School makes it immediately apparent that this is a very different kind of school. The students’ surnames are so distinctive and evocative that there is a kind of poetry to the morning ritual. Recent students include Yellow Horse, Looking Horse, and American Horse; White Eagle, Jumping Eagle, and Black Eagle; Thunder Hawk and Many Goats; Whirlwind Soldier and Big Crow; White Dress, Imitates Dog, and Kills in Water.
At Sherman, only one of four remaining off-reservation boarding schools in the country, reminders of students’ Native heritage are everywhere on campus. The hallways and corridors are adorned by students’ paintings depicting Native Americans in traditional dress or reservation tableaus. Pueblo pottery and Kachina dolls line a glass case in the lobby. On the school grounds, located in Riverside, about an hour east of Los Angeles, wooden sign posts signify how many miles the campus is from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota, the Lupton Navajo Reservation in Arizona, the Hopland Pomo Reservation in Northern California, and others across the country where the students were raised. Outside some classrooms, teachers post inspirational messages in English and Navajo. On the edge of the campus is a museum that features Native figurines, basketry, beaded jewelry, ceramics, and intricately woven rugs.
Sherman is one of the few Native American institutions that continue to thrive. Native youth endure the highest rates of poverty, teen suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, and the lowest rates of standardized test scores and high school graduation in the country. While only seventeen percent of Native children attend college, more than seventy percent of Sherman graduates continue their education after high school. The teaching staff, many of whom are Native Americans, emphasize native culture and traditions and provide a welcoming environment for students who often felt ignored, alienated, or harassed at public schools.
Many Native Americans consider the off-reservation boarding school system one of their foundational problems, a legacy that still lingers, and one that not many non-Natives are even aware existed. The first off-reservation boarding school was created in the nineteenth century with the express purpose: “Kill the Indian…to save the man.” Attendance was mandatory. Children were removed from their homes – often forcibly – and upon arrival were stripped of their native clothing; given haircuts and their braids, which were tied to their tribal identity, were shorn; administered English names; and forbidden to speak their native languages. Some students were not allowed to return home for years. Many scholars have called this experience, “cultural genocide.” When students returned home, they often were unable to communicate with their families because they could no longer speak their tribal languages. They felt alienated on the reservations and out of place in the cities. Many believe this experience has contributed to the profound problems that beset Native Americans today, stripping them of their cultural identity but not preparing them for life off the rez.
At the turn of the twentieth century there were dozens of off-reservation boarding schools; fifty years ago, there were thirteen; twenty years ago, there were eight. Today Sherman is one of four remaining. Because of the shameful history, tribes began establishing boarding schools and day schools on their reservations in the hopes that students could obtain an education without losing their identity. Even with that transition of educating more kids on reservations, according to Native leaders and graduates of schools such as Sherman, there is still a place for off-reservation boarding schools, and those that still exist have evolved. Many tribes do not have the funds or political organization to run their own schools. A few reservations are so vast that some students must bus dozens of miles to attend school. And Sherman offers another advantage to its students: a number of kids go there to escape problems at their reservations, or tribal schools, or in their homes, especially in communities and in families where drug abuse, alcoholism, and domestic violence are unfortunately so common. National studies reveal that alcoholism and drug abuse rates are higher among Native Americans than any other ethnicity. For many students, Sherman is a sanctuary, a last chance – maybe an only chance – to secure their education and their future. For example, during a recent class, most students were outspoken in their support of off-reservation boarding schools; they contended that non-Natives had a biased view based on history, not from knowledge of the schools today. All students are required to take classes in Native Studies and Tribal Government. Navajo language classes are offered, and literature, U.S. and world history, art, and even science courses incorporate Native themes and issues.
“It’s ironic now that the past history of these boarding schools has been one of trying to scrub the Indian white,” Monty Roessel, former director of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) has said. “Now they are at a place where students can come and celebrate who they are. They reflect the culture of the students and the culture of the tribes they represent.”
At the beginning of the school year Joshua Hathaway, who teaches Native Studies, provides an alternate version of U.S. history, a perspective that his students would not be exposed to at a public school. “We’ll start this class when the first ships from England arrive and they created the first colony, which spread like a cancer, and that’s when everything changed for all of us. Later, we’ll study Manifest Destiny, which was a white Christian belief contending that whites were superior to us. In fact, they didn’t even view us as human beings. They believed it was their Christian God-given right to steal our land. If that meant putting bullets in our heads and forcing us on to reservations, well, they decided that was the good Christian thing to do.”
Hathaway pauses and looks around the classroom he has filled with placards including: TERRORIZING NATIVE AMERICANS SINCE 1492, LEGALIZE FREEDOM, and THINK INDIAN. Students consider Hathaway the most inspiring teacher at Sherman. They identify with him because he is Native American, because they appreciate his rebellious streak when he stands up for them and challenges school officials and administrators, and because he has a welcoming, non-authoritarian manner. On this warm afternoon, Hathaway, who has shoulder-length hair and tribal tattoos on his forearms, is wearing gray shorts, thongs, and a black T-shirt.
“Why are we on reservations today?” he asks.
One boy in the back of the class calls out, “Because white people wanted our land.”
“That’s right, Hathaway says. “We had the best land. They wanted it for themselves and then they moved us to land nobody wanted where we struggled to survive.”
He points out the window to a towering Palm tree on the edge of the campus. “If you moved that palm tree to North Dakota will it survive and thrive?”
The students shake their head.
“That’s what happened to my people. My people are Cherokee. We lived in the Blue Smoke Mountains; what white people call the Smokey Mountains. Some of you who are from tribes in the Midwest who didn’t meet white people until the 1800s. My people were fighting for three hundred years, starting with the Spanish. Later, I’ll tell you what happened to us when we talk about The Trail of Tears. The raping and pillaging of Indian people coincide with the raping and pillaging of our land. My people lived on bison for thousands of years. Then the colonizers hunted them to extinction in 200 years.”
Hathaway tells the class there is a reason that all incoming students are required to take Native Studies. “If you don’t have a crazy uncle who forced you to listen when he was telling you about your tribal history, you don’t know the truth. You don’t know the real history of America. You’ve all been lied to and brainwashed up to this point. I’m here to change that.”
His goal as a teacher, he tells the class, is not to drill them and require they memorize names and dates, but to encourage them to return. To their culture. To their tradition. To their spirituality. And, ultimately, to their reservations where they can become leaders, root out corruption, and improve the lives of their people. The class will trace the history of many tribes, he says, starting on the East Coast and eventually focusing on California, home to 109 federally recognized tribes. He will delve into massacres, unfair treaties, the way tribes were hornswoggled out of their land, among other tragedies.
At the beginning of the class, the students seemed enervated by the heat and slouched at their desks, and a few whispered messages to classmates or passed notes. After a few minutes of Hathaway’s discourse, however, all the students listened intently, enthralled by his passion. He paces in front of the class and asks, “What are the major concerns facing Native people today?”
“Alcoholism,” a girl calls out.
“Domestic violence and suicide,” another girl says.
“Drugs and high school dropouts,” says a boy.
“Yes,” Hathaway says. “All these are big problems. And the way to combat all this is we have to reconnect with our traditions.” He tells the class that on Fridays he will take them outside, light sage and cedar in an abalone shell, and everyone will gather in a circle, pray and sing traditional songs, while he’ll beats a drum. He will give extra credit to anyone who goes to sweat lodges. Students who return to their reservations for traditional ceremonies will not be penalized and will not have to make up work.
They will be angry as they learn Native American history, he says, but he wants to teach them why they’re angry and then help them transform this anger into a positive force. “This class is designed to help you know who you are as indigenous people, to know your culture and history. We have to start focusing on our people and what is our responsibility to them. After you learn why our people are beset by so many problems, it’s your responsibility to start effecting positive change.”
At the end of the class he briefly discusses the history of Sherman and other off-reservation boarding schools. This history was so devastating and destructive, he says, “that much of our trauma stems from this period because our culture was erased, our identity eliminated, and the connection with our families, reservations, and tribes were severed.”
Hathaway is what Natives call a “sidewalk” or urban Indian. He was raised far from the reservation in the suburban sprawl not far from Sherman. His father is Cherokee, and his mother is Anglo, and the family moved from Oklahoma to Southern California in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl. His father, a heavy equipment operator, is from a generation who are reluctant to talk about their people’s tortured past. His grandfather told his father: “Don’t ask questions.” Hathaway’s father told him, “If people ask what you are, tell them you’re Mexican because you’ll be more accepted.”
Hathaway did not begin exploring his identity until he enrolled at San Bernardino Community College and spotted a plaque honoring John Trudell, a Native American graduate of the school, who became the spokesperson for the United Indians Of All Tribes two-year occupation of Alcatraz Island. He later was named national chairman of the American Indian Movement. Intrigued, Hathaway researched Trudell and then began researching his own identity, studied Native American history, and began attending powwows and purification ceremonies at sweat lodges.
“I started doing a lot of reading and talking to my auntie,” he says. “She knew a lot of family history and she provided me with background. I learned that what clan you’re from is very important and I discovered what clan I was from – the Long Hair Clan. A lot of chiefs and teachers came from our clan. I started going to more and more Native gatherings. It was a personal journey of discovery.”
By the time he graduated from college and began teaching at a Riverside Public High School, he says, he knew enough about the mendacious and exploitive treatment of his people by the U.S. government that he was radicalized. This passion and anger carried over into the classroom, and during the Iraq war he began exposing his social studies students to the hypocritical history of America’s involvement in the Middle East. Many of the students’ parents were Republicans and he was soon given the choice to resign or be fired. In 2004, Sherman was looking for Native teacher and he was hired.
“I wanted to work with young Native kids; I knew I could help them,” Hathaway says. “I was this lost Native kid who found himself. I wanted to help other kids like me find themselves. What the traditional boarding schools took away, I’m trying to bring back. Even when kids grow up on the rez, they’re not being raised in a traditional way and they don’t know their history and traditions. But this is a federal job and I knew I’d be criticizing the federal government. I figured there’s no way I’d keep this job. But I was prepared to tell the truth and I didn’t care about the consequences.”
Sixteen years later, Hathaway is still at Sherman.
She grew up on the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho without any sense of identity and knew nothing about Native American history or tradition – until she enrolled in Hathaway’s Native Studies class. “It’s funny that I had to leave the rez to learn about my tribe. Mr. Hathaway tells it like it is and gives you the truth.”
For many years, her mother and five siblings were homeless, moved constantly, and couch surfed with friends and relatives. Sherman provides her with a foundation of security for the first time. In addition to Hathaway’s class, she particularly appreciates the powwows that one of her other teachers often holds at the Sherman Museum. They boys gather in drum circles and the girls perform the Fancy Shawl and the Jingle Dress dances. It’s a way, she says, to relieve stress and alleviate homesickness. She enjoys the performers that the teacher brings to the powwows from various Southern California tribes, including Cahuilla Bird Singers and Apache Crown Dancers.
She plans to attend Fort Lewis College in Colorado, which is tuition-free for Native Americans, and eventually work in the health care field. Before she enrolled at Sherman, she wanted to get as far away from the rez as she could. Now, she says, she wants to follow Hathaway’s advice and return.
He left the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota to attend Sherman and Hathaway inspired him to be an activist. He now speaks at school board meetings and protests about campus problems. Students are not getting enough to eat in the morning, he told board members, and sometimes go to class hungry; in addition, the milk is occasionally spoiled and the food moldy. He criticized the facilities workers for not keeping the campus clean and informed the board about a number of other campus shortcomings.
Still, life at Sherman is much better than at Pine Ridge. “The place is a complete dump,” says the boy, who has shoulder-length black hair and an intense demeanor. “There’s trash and pollution everywhere. Young kids are getting hooked on meth. Nine-year-olds are taking care of younger brothers and sisters because parents are drunk and neglectful.”
When he returns to Pine Ridge in the summer, he attends Tribal Council meetings and often leaves outraged. Nobody knows where the casino money is going. The last tribal president, he says, was only in it for the money; he lived in a beautiful home while everyone else struggled to provide for their families. After he graduates from college, he plans to run for tribal council and shake things up. He wants casino funds devoted to building drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers and youth programs. He sees the rampant unemployment and plans to lure businesses to the rez so residents won’t all have to work minimum wage jobs. He believes that all the churches that ring the reservation and devote their resources to proselytizing aren’t accomplishing much and wants to see the facilities put to better use. His teachers predict that he will accomplish great things when he leaves Sherman.
When he told his parents that he wanted to leave the reservation and attend Sherman, they initially refused. The oldest of three children, he had the responsibility of caring for his younger siblings. When his mother saw how unhappy he was at home and how his teachers always raved about his potential, she relented. And then cried. He stays in close touch with his siblings, impresses upon them that “education is the only way,” and encourages them to apply to Sherman when they are ready to attend high school.
When he attended public school in South Dakota he always felt alienated when he was forced to stand up and pledge allegiance to the flag. This was a constant irritation, a daily reminder of “how the white man colonized us.” At Sherman, he said, being around other Native students, and listening to Native teachers in class, he has different daily reminders, ones that give him pride and hope for the future.
She also grew up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but her family moved constantly, frequently leaving the reservation to stay with friends in Texas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. She attended thirteen different schools. Despite her peripatetic upbringing, she was the only one of her siblings who was a good student. She enjoyed learning and reading and always found school a safe haven from her chaotic home life. At the reservation school, however, she was bored and believed the teachers only paid attention to the students who were good at sports. When she was in middle school a friend of her mother’s told her that because she was such a good student, she should consider attending Sherman. Her mother, who had never graduated from high school, refused. The heavy winter snowfalls in South Dakota often made it difficult for her to get to the reservation school, which is fifteen miles from her home. She was concerned that if she didn’t graduate from high school, she’d end up like her mother and work in a gas station.
“I kept asking my mother and she kept saying, ‘No!’ She was afraid I’d never return home. Finally, after a lot of begging, she agreed. Now, whenever I’m going through a rough time, she always tells me that I can come home. She’s goes to that right away. But I’m determined to stick it out.”
After graduating she wants to attend Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas and become a social worker. She has seen so many neglected children on the rez, so many parents who leave their kids alone without any supervision, so many who are abused or born with drugs and alcohol in their systems, that social work is where she believes she can do the most good when she returns to Pine Ridge.
Sherman is an 80-acre campus dotted with palm trees, a sun-drenched savanna that is a stark contrast to the grim Midwest reservations plagued by arctic winters where many students were raised. Riverside was once the navel orange capital of the U.S., and the school was surrounded by endless groves; alumni still fondly recall the scent of orange blossoms that wafted through the campus. Now Sherman is bordered by suburban homes and strip malls. In Joan Didion’s classic story, “Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” she evocatively describes the Inland Empire, which encompasses Riverside: “…an hour east of Los Angeles…is in certain ways an alien place: not the coastal California of subtropical twilights and the soft westerlies off the Pacific, but a harsher California, haunted by the Mohave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana winds that come down the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the Eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves.”
Sherman’s single-story administration building and classrooms are ringed by athletic fields, vegetable gardens, and barns that house the goats, turkeys, chickens, and sheep for the school’s agricultural program. The four low-slung dormitories on campus all have names with Native meanings: Wigwam, Wauneka, Winona, and Ramona. Tall fences surround Sherman and a security guard in a kiosk at the school’s entrance controls access. Students are not allowed to leave campus without permission. Any high school-age student who is a member of a federally-recognized tribe can attend the school and all expenses, which includes room, board, and transportation costs to and from home, are paid for by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), which is a division of U.S. Department of the Interior. Since its founding, the school has survived and metamorphosed and is now a dramatically different place than the Dickensian off-reservation boarding schools of the past.
Still, the school is beset by challenges. The turnover at the top is constant; since Hathaway began teaching at Sherman, he has seen seven principals come and go. In June, Sister Mary Yarger retired as principal and several temporary principals are filling in. One of her biggest dilemmas was financial. The school still has not recovered from the loss of thirty-four employees during cutbacks a decade ago. One Sherman teacher earns $25,000 a year less than his wife who teaches at a nearby public school. During her three-year tenure, she constantly lobbied for funds to hire five more teachers, who are desperately needed. Her other key challenge was the academic shortfalls of the entering freshmen. Some student are several years behind their grade level in reading and math, and teachers and volunteer tutors from a nearby colleges struggle to close the gap. In addition, the dropout rate is extremely high – about fifty percent, says Vernon Shattuck, a math teacher. “The freshmen are young – fourteen and some get very homesick. Some students come from close families and relatives get sick or die, or their moms want them back home. Or families need help taking care of younger kids.”
Another teacher added that some students get kicked out because of drugs or behavior problems. Sherman, however, has an advantage, Yarger says, because all the students are there because they want to be, and their education and living expenses are free. Some are fleeing problems at their reservation or at home. Others transferred to Sherman because they were unhappy at public schools, felt the sting of discrimination, and wanted classmates who had similar backgrounds. A number of students are attracted to the school because they have relatives who attended Sherman. Before she packed up her things and retired, she lingered in her office and pointed to a sepia-toned photograph on her office wall of a young woman wearing a long elegant dress and holding a mandolin. The woman is Yarger’s grandmother, a Sherman graduate.
Yarger grew up on the Pala reservation, about fifty miles from Sherman. Her family was a rarity; she grew up with parents who encouraged her to focus on school, attend college, and explore the word beyond the confines of the rez. After years of teaching science at Catholic schools, she returned to the Pala reservation to head the high school. Yarger was one of a new generation of mentors who were attempting to repair and salvage an identity that had been under assault for centuries. Previous generations, she says, either lost touch or were ashamed of their culture. Yarger, who spent three years at Sherman, says both academic counselors are Native and along with a number of Native teachers and a progressive curriculum, some students are now learning “what it means to be Indian,” for the first time.
A few hours after Hathaway introduced his class to Native history, Fern (Tara) Charley-Baugus tells her Tribal Government class that she once sat where they are sitting. She enrolled at Sherman when she was fourteen and after graduating from college, returned to teach at the school. She was shocked, she told the class, that in the 1970s, when she began teaching, there was no Native curriculum. She created the Tribal Government and Native Studies classes that both she and Hathaway now teach.
“In this class you’ll study your own tribe and learn the history of how it governed itself, how it dealt with other tribes, how it resolved problems…all the way to the present day. I want you to contact your tribal offices and learn who the council people are and talk to them and study your constitutions and bylaws. For the final you’ll stand in front of the class and give a campaign speech, as if you’re really running for tribal office. Some day you might run, and I want to prepare you. Listen, I want you all to appreciate your time here. Sherman did a lot for me. I have a great career and a nice home. If I’d have stayed on the rez, I wouldn’t have what I have now.”
Tara’s personal history echoes the tortured history and eventual redemption of the boarding school saga. She has written an autobiography, Dream Tree, which she hopes to publish that traces her remarkable journey. She grew up on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico, a descendent of several clans, including the Red Running Into The Water clan and the Salt clan. She was one of ten siblings and her hooghan had no electricity or running water. Her father, a heavy drinker who often abused her mother, worked as a coal miner and in construction. He only finished second grade and her mother had a tenth-grade education. Every night before she went to bed, she had to cover all of her personal items because her father told her Skin Walkers, or evil forces, could target her through her possessions. They lived in a remote part of the reservation and when Tara and her siblings went into town for shopping, her father often sprinkled corn pollen on their heads to protect them from other evil forces. Her mother saved colorful flower sacks and made school dresses for the girls.
When she was nine, in the late 1950s, her parents left New Mexico in search of work, so they sent Tara and two sisters to a boarding school in New Mexico. She had long thick hair that reached her lower back, and shortly after she arrived a dorm matron hacked off her hair and gave her a short bowl cut. When she recalls the incident, she grips her biceps and says she still feels traumatized from the memory. She is a slight, shy woman who speaks softly, but her eyes flash when she discusses the injustices she’s endured. “I was so vulnerable, and I felt so violated,” she says. “Our hair was part of who we were as Dine (Navajos.) It was like they were stealing our identity, stripping us of our culture, and trying to make us white.”
School administrators immediately separated Tara from her sisters because they prohibited students from speaking their native language and they believed that if siblings lived in the same dorm they would not be able to enforce the no-Navajo rule. She was desperately lonely and longed to see her sisters. Church attendance was required, so one Sunday Tara snuck into the room where one of her sister’s was attending Sunday school, sat next to her, and held her hand. When she was discovered, she was forced to walk around the dormitory in the rain until midnight as punishment and wasn’t allowed to eat lunch or dinner. She returned to her room wet, cold, hungry, and angry. Tara says she “wasn’t a naughty girl,” but she grew up speaking Navajo, struggled with English, and was punished a few more times for speaking Navajo to friends.
The students were not allowed to return home on weekends because school administrators believed this would hinder the assimilation process. Occasionally, families were allowed to visit. They weren’t allowed inside the dorms, so they gathered with their children on a dirt parking lot on front of the school. One afternoon her parents packed some fry bread, boiled mutton, and kneel-down bread in a paper bag. She was disgusted by the bland dorm food and was looking forward to enjoying a Navajo meal later in the evening. When she returned to her room, a dorm matron chastised her, confiscated the bag, and informed her she was only allowed to eat “American” food. She closes her eyes and murmurs, “I wouldn’t wish that boarding school experience on any child.”
After two years, her family’s financial situation improved. Tara and her sisters returned home and attended reservation schools. When Tara was in junior high school, she knew her future was limited. She saw teenage girls getting pregnant, boys arrested and sent to prison, old men discovered in the mornings frozen to death, still tightly gripping whiskey bottles. The schools on the rez, she believed, were abysmal, most students showed little interest in class, and those fortunate few she knew who graduated from high school did not go on to college. She spent hours climbing a favorite cottonwood tree in front of her hooghan, sitting on a web of branches, and gazing out at the majestic volcanic escarpment called Shiprock and the purple outlines of the Lukachukai Mountains.
“I called that my ‘dream tree’ because that’s where I dreamed of my future,” she recalls. “I knew I wanted to do something with my life, but I knew I couldn’t accomplish anything if I stayed on the rez. I didn’t want a minimum wage job like most of the others I knew. I’d gaze out at the mountains and I realized I had to go way beyond them if I wanted to accomplish anything.”
A few of her aunts had attended Sherman and spoke highly of the experience. She thought to herself: Maybe that’s my way off the rez and the path to college. While the school was not particularly progressive, her aunts emphasized that it was far different than the brutal New Mexican boarding school that she had attended. The teachers were more enlightened, the discipline was not as harsh, and it could provide a pathway to college. Tara and a sister asked their mother if they could attend Sherman, but she refused because she needed them to take care of the younger children, chop wood, haul water, cook, and clean. After many months of pleading, their mother finally acquiesced.
When Tara arrived as a freshman at Sherman in the mid-1960s, it was a far different place than it is today. Students were still punished for speaking their native languages, there were no cultural offerings, and tribal identity was discouraged. When she was a freshman, she was once again punished for speaking Navajo. She and a friend were late for band practice, so Tara urged her in Navajo: “Hurry, Hurry.” A dorm matron overheard her, sent her to the principal’s office, and as punishment she was forced to spend the next Sunday sweeping the floors of the dorm, folding laundry, and she was prohibited from going to the school dance. Tara attended Sherman during a period of great transformation. By the time she was a junior – in the late 1960s – political activism swept the country and the Red Power movement significantly influenced Sherman teachers and administrators and those at other boarding schools. Students were now allowed to communicate in their native languages; tribal clubs were established; cultural events – including Hopi dancing – were featured on weekends; and students could sell native foods to raise funds, among other changes.
Although Tara was often homesick, she persevered, graduated, and received a scholarship to California State University, Fullerton, where she majored in Speech Communication and minored in Native Studies. She then returned to Sherman in 1973 to teach. There weren’t many Native teachers and she felt she had a responsibility to inspire the students and help them achieve their goals. The school, she believed, had been the key to her academic success. She understood the challenges the Natives faced, the many ways they could be distracted and discouraged, succumb to the pull of the rez, drop out, and return home.
When she began teaching, she was stunned to see that Sherman still had a traditional curriculum that mirrored a public high school, with no classes focused on Native identity or culture. She immediately created Native History and Tribal Government, which are requirements for graduation. In Tribal Government she chronicles tribal origins, early forms of government, the impact of European colonization, and the many horrific federal treaties that destroyed traditions and culture. During the second semester students focus on how tribes govern today, and the class examines the challenges facing Native people and how leaders are addressing these problems. Students are required to research their own tribes and delineate exactly how they would effect change. Today, she says, Sherman is a far different and a far more welcoming place for students than when she enrolled with her sister more than fifty years ago.
She is one of Sherman’s top students, a senior who grew up on the New Mexico Navajo reservation, not far from where Tara Charley-Baugus was raised, but almost sixty years later not much had changed. Her mother, and sister lived in a one-room trailer without running water or electricity. Every week they drove fifteen miles to the nearest water hole to fill a dozen jugs. In summer, they bought ice every day and stored food in a chest. They never bought meat in the summer, but in the winter the trailer was so cold they could leave ground beef out on a shelf and it would stay frozen. Every night in winter she slept under twelve blankets. If light was needed, they had to flip on the generator. She took weekly sponge baths.
Although she didn’t learn to speak English until the first grade, she soon became a top student, but was bored at the reservation school. In the eighth grade, she says with a sigh, she was studying third-grade math. Many Navajo parents try to keep their kids on the rez, but her mother wanted more for her. She enrolled at Sherman as a freshman and is now a senior, a league champion cross-country runner with a 4.0 grade point average. After graduating in 2020, she plans to attend the University of New Mexico and study psychology.
She has never met her father and despite the challenges she has faced, she has a buoyant, lively personality. Her teachers say she is extremely determined with an indefatigable spirit. Before Sherman, she says, she never experienced anything new, never left the rez, never did anything interesting. She speaks excitedly now about her trip to see the ocean for the first time, her visit to Los Angeles museums, the night all her students in her dorm were given tickets to America’s Got Talent. She is a vivid example of the critical role Sherman can play in offering those with promise but few opportunities at home, a hope and a plan for a better life.
“I really feel spoiled at Sherman,” she says, nodding. “I’ve had so many experiences and opportunities that I wouldn’t have had back home. I’m very motivated to succeed. I feel that I’m not just representing myself, but also my tribe. I don’t want to rep it badly.”
Richard Henry Pratt created the first off-reservation boarding school in Carlisle Pennsylvania in 1879 at the end of his long military career. Pratt had headed the 10th Cavalry Regiment, composed of freed blacks who had joined the Union army and were later known as “buffalo soldiers.” After the Civil War, they were sent west during the Indian Wars. After one battle they were ordered to escort a group of Indian prisoners to Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida. Pratt, who had a more progressive attitude than most of his contemporaries, provided his captives with classes in English, history, Christianity and math. He was so enthusiastic with their progress that he lobbied Congress and obtained the approval to establish the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in an abandoned army barracks.
He summarized his educational philosophy in a speech: “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 in him, and save the man.” Pratt’s philosophy was echoed a decade later – but in a much harsher manner – when U.S. Indian Commissioner Thomas Morgan said it was “cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.” Another commissioner, Carl Schurz, had actually calculated the price difference. He determined it only cost the government $1,200 for eight years of Indian schooling versus $1 million to kill an Indian in battle.
Carlisle, which was adequately funded and staffed, was held as a model for Indian education. But as the number of off-reservation boarding schools proliferated, many reported hellish conditions. Students complained about being forced to perform hard manual labor and sometimes prevented from seeing their families for years, and there were reports of beatings and sexual abuse. Because the schools where chronically underfunded, an “outing” system was established in schools across the country where students went “out” in the community to work in homes, hotels, restaurant and resorts, as well as farms and ranches, providing cheap labor. Boys labored on ranches, harvested crops on farms, worked in printing or carpentry shops, while the girls were employed as maids or kitchen helpers. Because the schools were never adequately funded by Congress, student labor was necessary to keep them afloat.
Douglas Wallace Adams contended in Education for Extinction that many of the schools used the outing system as a cut-rate employment agency: “Perhaps the most blatant example of this was the practice of sending out work gangs in groups of 50 to 100 to work for farmers and ranchers.” Some schools, he wrote, “regularly sent out contingents to the beet fields of Colorado. Likewise, Sherman boys were sent out to southern California ranches to harvest cantaloupes and oranges. In such cases, students labored monotonously in the hot sun from daybreak to sunset, often sleeping in barns or tent camps at night…”
Sherman was originally opened in 1892 as the Perris Indian School in Perris, California, but it was relocated to Riverside in 1903 and renamed The Sherman Institute, after the lobbying efforts of Frank Miller, who owned a thriving hotel, The Glenwood Inn (later renamed The Mission Inn.) Miller wanted the school to be nearby as a source of labor for his hotel, which was designed to resemble one of the original Southern California missions. He believed that having an Indian school in the city and Indian workers providing local color would give his hotel an Old California, Spanish colonial ambience and attract tourists. The school was later named Sherman Indian High School, and while not as draconian as other off-reservation boarding schools, Sherman still believed in transforming every aspect of the students’ lives, from the clothes they wore, to what they studied in class, to the language they spoke.
The boarding schools operated on a military schedule with marching, drills, and harsh disciplinary action. Students wore uniforms and attended class for half a day with the remaining half devoted to vocational education. Boys learned industrial and agricultural trades and girls received domestic training. Some Indian leaders and parents expressed support for the schools because they believed that assimilation was the best hope for their childrens’ future. And some families willingly sent their children to the schools because they couldn’t afford to feed them. Most families, however, didn’t want to be separated from their children and resisted sending them far from home. While attendance was not compulsory, agents from the Office of Indian Affairs, who received bonuses for collecting children for school, often used coercion by threatening to withhold food, supplies, or government funds from recalcitrant parents.
Indian agents, county workers, government officials, and priests used whatever means necessary to persuade families to send their children to boarding schools. During the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs in 1929, there was extensive testimony regarding “Kid Catching on the Navajo Reservation”: “In the fall the government stockmen, farmers, and other employees go out into the back country with trucks and bring in the children to school..,” a witness stated. “The Navajos far back in the mountains hide their children at the sound of a truck. So, stockmen, Indian police, and other mounted men are sent ahead to round them up. The children are caught, often roped like cattle, and taken from their parents…and then they are sent far away…I think the child catchers should be called off. I have heard too many stories of cowboys running down children and bringing them hogtied to town to think it is all an accident.”
The first boarding school on the Navajo reservation in the 1890s stated in its charter that the purpose of the school was to “remove the Indian child from the influence of his savage parent.” Native American writer David Treuer wrote that the boarding schools “for many Indians was one of the darkest times in our history.” In 1926, more than eightyrcent of all Indian children were attending boarding schools. Two years later, the Brookings Institution released a report titled “The Problem of Indian Administration,” directed by Lewis Meriam, an 848-page document that came to be known as the Meriam Report. The document described the deplorable conditions in all areas of Indian affairs, but some of the most severe criticism focused on the boarding schools. The Brookings researchers criticized the overcrowded dorms, substandard food, and insufficient medical attention, concluding that the after-school work programs were “a violation of child labor laws.” In addition, Indian children, as compared to other children in the U.S., were six times as likely to die in childhood while at boarding schools from diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles because of overcrowding, poor sanitation, and malnutrition. The cemeteries that remain on the grounds of virtually all of the boarding schools – including at Sherman where sixty-seven children are buried – are distressing reminders of this sad statistic. The report recommended that the Indian Bureau send students to schools where they could be near their families, and that the off-reservation boarding school should incorporate cultural aspects of Indian life in the education programs because forcing students to accept white values, then returning them to their reservations would “invite disaster.”
While some students appreciated the opportunity for education and the possibility of a future off the reservation, many climbed the high fences, slipped past guards, and ran away. Acclaimed Native writer Louise Erdrich wrote a poem, “Indian Boarding School: The Runaways,” reflecting the thoughts of a student who perhaps had fled a horrific school:
“Home is the place we head for in our sleep
Boxcars stumbling north in dreams…
We know the sheriff’s waiting at midrun
To take us back…
All runaways wear dresses, long green ones,
The color you would think shame was…remembering
Delicate old injuries…
Despite the Meriam Report’s call to action, the impact was fleeting and for decades little changed. In 1969, however, a major study was conducted by the Special Senate Subcommittee on Indian Education and a document was released titled: Indian Education: A National Tragedy – A National Challenge. The grim conclusions led to a national debate on Indian education. This document was similar in many ways to the Meriam report. Once again, this report decried the inadequate funding devoted to Native education. Boarding schools, including Sherman, were excoriated. Sherman was described as a “rigid, uncompromising, bureaucratic, authoritarian, non-innovative feudal barony.” The document criticized the education Indians received in both public and government-run schools. The findings included these problems: drop-out rates for Indian students were twice the national average in public and federal schools; achievement levels of Indian children were two to three years below those of white students; only one percent of Indian children in elementary schools had Indian teachers or principals; one-fourth of elementary and secondary school teachers – by their own admission – would prefer not to teach Indian children.
As a result of the report, more funding was allocated for Indian education and bilingual programs were created. In addition, Indian Boards of Education were created at local levels, a national Indian Advisory Board was established to review Native American education programs, stipends for higher education were increased, and tribally-controlled community colleges were founded.
During these optimistic years, her grandparents left their reservations, met at Sherman and married. They eventually raised her and two siblings and encouraged her to leave the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation in Arizona and attend Sherman.
“When I was in the eighth grade I became really interested in Native culture. I wanted to know stuff, and my grandparents told me I could get it at Sherman. Here, I learned a lot about the history and tradition that I was interested in. I learned about the various tribes, how they were different, how they were distinct. My eyes were opened to a new perspective. In English class I was exposed to Native American writers like Sherman Alexie. I even got to write the creation story of my own tribe. I wouldn’t have got any of this at my old school.”
It wasn’t until she left home that she was truly aware of all the problems on the reservation. She is outraged by the corruption at home, the brutality of the town police toward her people, the high teen suicide rate, the abused and neglected children. Now she wears a Navajo ghost bead necklace and bracelet – dried juniper berries interspersed with black beads – which are supposed to repel negative energy and evil spirits. Despite all the problems, she is often homesick, misses her grandparents and siblings, and understands why so many Sherman students drop out. But she resists the lure of returning home because she knows her future will be diminished. And the bond she has formed with other students, from other tribes, has assuaged the pain of spending four years so far from home. The Sherman slogan – “You come as friends, but you leave as family” – may sound clichéd, she says, but in her case, it has echoed her experience.
The enlightened approach during the 1970s ended when President Ronald Reagan was elected. He “remains notorious in Indian country,” according to one Native scholar. The funding cuts during the 1980s were so drastic that when Reagan proposed visiting a reservation for a photo op, Suzan Shown Harjo, executive director of the National Council on American Indians recommended that he “get out of town quick and do not fire any bulbs in your one-watt administration.”…
As for recent presidents,
George H.W. Bush:
- Showed an interest in tribal concerns, instituting a policy in 1990 to preserve and promote Native languages
- Signed the Museum of the American Indian Act requiring that Native artifacts held in the Smithsonian Institution be returned to the tribes
- Created a task force to evaluate Native American education
- Enacted measures to enhance Native education, including $200 million for BIE school’s construction and repair
- Issued an executive order setting goals for Native students and focusing on the impact of substance abuse and poverty
George W. Bush:
- Was passive in his approach, contending that state’s rights superseded tribal rights
- Increased funding by $8.9 million for Native education in 2010
- Issued an executive order creating a White House Council on Native American Affairs for improving lifelong educational opportunities while respecting greater tribal control over tribal education.
- Repeatedly slashed funding for BIE education programs and tribal scholarships, but were frequently overridden by Congressional bipartisan efforts.
- Proposed privatizing tribal lands for oil exploration which, critics contend, would benefit Trump’s political allies, not Native Americans.
During the past few decades, until the auspices of the various administrations with their often conflicting agendas, the boarding schools that have managed to survive underwent a radical transformation. They are now seen as places that have preserved Native traditions and are institutions to be valued and protected, not eliminated. “The best thing about boarding schools is that it enabled our kids to develop relationships not only within our tribe, but inter-tribally,” Forrest Cuch, former director of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs, has said. “They created an inter-tribal, pan-Indian relationship across the country, enabling our people to relate to one another, and strengthened our political relationship nationally…A lot of that …developed from those schools.”
A few of the students at Sherman have hung above their beds in their dorm rooms willow hoops covered in a web of natural fibers, decorated with feathers. They are called dream catchers. Placed where the morning sunlight can filter through the web, Native Americans believe that they attract all sorts of dreams and thoughts. Bad dreams are caught in the web and the morning light burns them up. Good dreams, however, pass through and gently descend down the feathers to comfort the sleepers.
Dream catchers originated with the Ojibwa tribe and were later incorporated by neighboring tribes through intermarriage and trade. During the 1960s, as disparate tribes joined forces for political power – the Pan-Indian Movement – they became a symbol of unity among Native Americans across the country.
The dream catcher symbolizes the student’s journey from their reservations, to Sherman, to graduation. They arrive alone, knowing only the people of their own tribe, often discouraged after years on the rez, but many leave with a feeling of Native brotherhood, and hopeful about the future.