They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School

They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School

They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School

They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School


Established in 1884 and operative for nearly a century, the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma was one of a series of off-reservation boarding schools intended to assimilate American Indian children into mainstream American life. Critics have characterized the schools as destroyers of Indian communities and cultures, but the reality that K. Tsianina Lomawaima discloses was much more complex.

Lomawaima allows the Chilocco students to speak for themselves. In recollections juxtaposed against the official records of racist ideology and repressive practice, students from the 1920s and 1930s recall their loneliness and demoralization but also remember with pride the love and mutual support binding them together- the forging of new pan-Indian identities and reinforcement of old tribal ones.


This is a story of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School, a federal off-reservation boarding school for Indian people. Chilocco was a federal school, so this is a story of an educational crusade--vast in scope, military in organization, fervent in zeal, and violent in method--to transform young Indian people. As in many crusades, its leaders could not accurately predict all of its astonishing results. Chilocco was an Indian school, so this is a story of Indian creativity, adaptability, and resistance to the federal agenda of transformation. Chilocco alumni reveal in their memories of school life how they created a school culture influenced but not determined by the bounds of federal control. This is a story of Indian students--loyal to each other, linked as family, and subversive in their resistance.

A history of Indian education based on the documentary remains of policy statements and school records might summarize the federal crusade as follows: The United States government established off-reservation boarding schools in the late 1800s as part of its grand civilizing plan to transform Native American people. Federal policymakers and administrators cooperated to remove thousands of Native American children and young adults from their families, homes, and tribes in order to educate them in a new way of life. Indian education flowed far beyond academic or vocational boundaries, soaking the child's growing up in the cleansing bath of Christian labor. Tribal/communal identity, primitive language, heathen religion: these pernicious influences would be rooted out and effaced in the construction of a new kind of American citizen.

Commentators have alternately glorified and vilified this educational crusade in the course of a full century; its history has been probed, researched . . .

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