Sports and the Politics of Identity and Memory: The Case of Federal Indian Boarding Schools during the 1930s

Article excerpt

The federal government of the United States developed a complex System of boarding schools for Native Americans in the 19(th) century. This effort was generally insensitive and often brutal. In spite of such brutality many students managed to negotiate and create new understandings of traditions and cultural autonomy while in such schools. Now, however, some former students remember their lives as students with mixed emotions. Drawing on oral history interviews and public official documents, the author examines the recreational and athletic life at the boarding schools and finds that students were, nevertheless, able to experience pleasure and pride in creating new ways of expressing their identities as Native Americans. During the late 19th century, the federal government of the United States developed a complex system of boarding schools for Native Americans. The schools were created as part of a crusade by a coalition of reformers who aimed to assimilate indigenous Americans into dominant Anglo-Protestant society. With a fervor that was partly evangelical and partly militaristic the creators of the boarding school system hoped that through education they could bring about a mass cultural conversion by waging a war upon Native American identities and cultural memories.

The federal effort to educate Native Americans was so total in vision and scope and so often brutal in its enforcement that it is sometimes difficult to imagine how students survived such an experience that could be profoundly dehumanizing. Recent scholarship, however, has explored oral histories and documents generated from boarding school students. Work by Brenda Child, Sally Hyer, Alice Littlefield, Tsianina Lomawaima, and Sally McBeth has shown that students not only survived their experiences, but in doing so reimagined their ethnic identities in ways that were creative, inventive, and in dialogue with the historical contexts that indigenous people have faced in North America during the twentieth century.(i) Much of this scholarship has also argued that the 1930s were a particularly important time when economic depression and federal reform created a new terrain over which struggles for Native American identity and memory took place. In spite of the brutality that they often faced, many students managed to negotiate and create new understandings of tradition and cultural autonomy while at school and frequently remember their lives as students with a complex set of emotions. The popular culture, athletic teams, and sporting activities that students experienced at boarding schools comprised one of the most important regions of this terrain where the federal government, educators, and students themselves negotiated the meanings of American Indian identities and memories.

The existence of relatively autonomous cultures among students at boarding schools constitutes one of the most significant findings by new scholars of Indian boarding school history. Lomawaima and Child, for example, explore how students at Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, and at Chilocco in northern Oklahoma organized their own cultural lives around pranks, gangs, and the breaking of rules. Their research reveals insidious folklore among female students, male gangs that dominated peer relations, students fermenting and drinking their own alcohol, and even outright student rebellion.(ii) Sports comprise a little studied but concrete site at boarding schools where students negotiated these cultures within the boundaries of their institutionalized lives. From a very early date in the history of the federal Indian boarding school program, physical education was a core part of the curriculum at many schools. Educators hoped that calisthenics literally could foster moral and intellectual progress by altering the body types of students. Just before the turn of the century institutions like Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas, began high profile athletic programs. …