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  • Indian PlayStudents, Wordplay, and Ideologies of Indianness at a School for Native Americans
  • Lisa K. Neuman (bio)

Missionaries come to Oklahoma,
Find Indians need much knowledge,
Build big school on hill-top,
Call 'em Bacone College.

Indians hear 'bout big school
On hill-top far away,
Send boys and girls—learn something—
Humph! Maybe so, some day.

Indians come from all directions;
From Montana, land of Crow,
Through Nevada, Oklahoma, Texas,
New Mexico—where wild Zuni grow.

At first Indian get much homesick;
Too much books and rules;
Want go back to tepees—
No like 'em White Man's School.

President tell 'em—No get discouraged.
Some day he give 'em sheepskin.
"Humph! Got sheep ranch in Montana,
Want go back home again." [End Page 178]

Sometimes "Mating Moon" shine on hill-top;
Braves steal maidens' hearts away,
Some go home—get married—
Rest—want knowledge—stay.

Twelve Great Suns pass since we come here,
Few drop out, few new come in;
We fight brave fight, all way through
Now we want 'em Sheep Skin.

—Ruth Hopkins (Choctaw), Bacone high school valedictorian, 1928

In the spring of 1928 Ruth Hopkins, a student at Bacone College, an American Baptist high school and junior college for American Indians in Muskogee, Oklahoma, wrote a poem that cleverly revealed the complex feelings that many Indian students had about their experiences at school.1 Hopkins's poem is one of many examples of student writings, speeches, artistic creations, and musical performances produced by Baconians from 1927 to 1955 that directly comment on the meanings of being Indian and being educated.

The case of Bacone College provides an insightful opportunity to examine how students articulated their ideas about Indianness while attending a school for American Indians. As neocolonial institutions designed to assimilate American Indians to European American cultural and religious values, social institutions, and economic practices, most schools run by the federal government and missionaries during the first part of the twentieth century sought to suppress all or most aspects of their young students' Indian identities.2

Bacone College, however, proved to be different. Established in 1880 by Baptist minister Almon C. Bacone with the goal of training American Indian students to be teachers and preachers, by the 1920s Bacone was pursuing a unique fund-raising strategy that emphasized the Indian identities of its students and provided innovative curricular and extracurricular programs in Indian arts, histories, and cultures. Within this unique historical context, students at Bacone had an unusual amount of freedom to publicly engage ideas about what it meant to be Indian and educated.3 Through their frequent use of humor and inventive wordplay [End Page 179] to reference Indianness, students articulated the (often contradictory) meanings of being educated Indians in mid-twentieth-century America. In an inversion of what scholar Philip Deloria calls "playing Indian" (i.e., the widespread appropriation of romanticized notions of Indianness by non-Indians to define their own identities), I borrow Deloria's term Indian play to describe Native students' creativity in publicly engaging, articulating, and negotiating ideas about their own and others' Indian identities.4 As Deloria helps us see, historically, the Indian play of both non-Indians and Indians has been firmly intertwined. I argue that Indian play was a powerful aspect of peer culture at Bacone that merits careful analysis. While playful and spirited, the Indian play of students at Bacone was dedicated to a serious purpose: challenging white stereotypes of Indians, exposing the differences among diverse American Indian communities, recognizing the effects of colonialism on American Indians, and questioning how schools run by European Americans could truly benefit Native students. In this context Indian play among peers at Bacone fostered the development of important new Indian identities.

In analyzing the richness and complexity of Indian play among students at Bacone I take a theoretical approach to the study of the anthropology of education known as cultural production. Studies of cultural production employ dynamic notions of the relationship between education and culture; they view schools as potential sites where new cultural meanings may be created. Scholars of cultural production view students as active producers of cultural forms rather than passive recipients of school knowledge and ideology...


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