Academic journal article American Studies International

"Use the Club of White Man's Wisdom in Defence of Our Customs": White Schools and Native Agendas

Academic journal article American Studies International

"Use the Club of White Man's Wisdom in Defence of Our Customs": White Schools and Native Agendas

Article excerpt

On a balmy October evening in 1879, two chiefs of the Absentee Shawnee tribe visited their nineteen-year-old kinsman, Gay-nwaw-piah-si-ka. (1) Their silent arrival, "in single file, from the west," alerted the young man to the gravity of the occasion. The chiefs had chosen him as one of two tribal representatives they would send to a school in the East, to be educated by whites. This, one of them explained, will "enable us to use the club of white man's wisdom against him in defence of our customs and Mee-saw-mi, as given us by the Great Spirit." The chiefs' plan, the youth later recalled, was motivated by their fear "that a crisis was near in the life of the Indian race.... A change of some kind was inevitable," and "a tribe should get some of their men educated so they might understand the treaties and messages sent from Washington." Neither chief spoke English, but both felt a new and desperate need for their people to learn from the white man, to enable them to negotiate effectively and defend their interests. (2)

Gay-nwah was the great-grandson of the famous war chief and pan-tribal political leader, Tecumseh. Eager to lead his people, the chiefs promised him and his compatriot that when they returned, they "would be able to direct the affairs of [the] tribe and ... assume the duties and position of chiefs at the death of the present chiefs." This promise was made with one, strict condition attached to it: that they "should not accept the white man's religion. [They] must remain true to the Shawnee faith." Fully mindful of the high-risk strategy in which they were engaging, the chiefs spent all night discussing with their young emissaries the "life that was before [them], its dangers and possibilities." Their agenda was clear: the youths should enrol at the white school, learn "the white man's wisdom," then return home to help their people retain their lands and identity. (3) This is exactly what Gay-nwah would do, but not in a manner the old chiefs had planned or could ever support.

The chiefs sent Gay-nwah to the Hampton Institute, in Hampton, Virginia. Founded in 1868 to educate the newly freed slaves, Hampton also pioneered the government's campaign to "civilise" native peoples; the two marginalized racial groups were thought to need similar schooling. But Hampton's goals for its Indian students were diametrically opposed to those of the Shawnee chiefs: the eradication of all aspects of native cultures. After just one year, government officials in Washington, buoyed by its apparent success, established a second, eastern boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Carlisle was to be a school exclusively for Indians. Hampton and Carlisle became the blueprint for a national system of government Indian schools. On the basis of two flawed experiments, twenty-four new, large, off-reservation boarding schools were established for Indian children in white communities; dozens more were built on the reservations. By 1900, over seventeen thousand Indian children were being educated in over one hundred and fifty boarding schools, seven and a half thousand of them in off-reservation schools. Twenty-five years later, despite growing criticism of the effectiveness of these off-reservation schools and a concerted drive to enrol Indians in public schools, over eight and a half thousand Indian children were still enrolled in large, off-reservation boarding schools. (4)

These schools spearheaded the crusade to transform tribal Indians into patriotic American citizens. (5) In the 1920s, officials in Washington started to question both the efficacy and the morality of this Americanising venture. The 1928 Meriam Report followed a government sponsored investigation that revealed a picture of Indian dispossession, poverty and continued separateness; the boarding schools were singled out for particularly strong criticism. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.