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  • Acting Out AssimilationPlaying Indian and Becoming American in the Federal Indian Boarding Schools
  • John R. Gram (bio)

During the summer of 1886 the students of Albuquerque Indian School (ais) marked the passing of Decoration Day (predecessor of Memorial Day) with a day-long picnic. The following Monday the students took part in the Decoration Day parade in Albuquerque at the invitation of the local gar (Grand Army of the Republic) post. The boys wore their school uniforms and marched “in precision of movement and soldierly bearing,” while the girls, dressed in white aprons, rode on a float decorated with patriotic bunting. Each side of the float bore a banner with a different motto: “Anglo-Saxon civilization rules the world, we submit.” “Wise statesmanship demands a homogenous population.” “Patriotism precludes allegiance to civil powers, independent of the United States.” “We are free born; education confers knowledge and power to assert and maintain our freedom.”1

Scholars have long noted the assimilative importance of activities beyond classroom and industrial training at Indian boarding schools.2 What has received little focus in the existing literature, however, is the use of public performances, such as the Decoration Day parade described above—moments intended for consumption by both the student body and local citizens—as agents of assimilation. This study hopes to demonstrate the importance of public performance to the assimilative mission of the federal Indian boarding schools by examining how they were used at Albuquerque and Santa Fe Indian Schools from roughly 1880 to 1930. It also hopes to demonstrate that studying such performances at the boarding schools can place Indian education within the larger project of assimilation that preoccupied the country during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as the [End Page 251] larger struggle over how the American public was to understand Indians and themselves.

Though likely with varying levels of awareness, the Indian students participating in this parade, the Albuquerque Indian School personnel who arranged their participation, the gar post that invited them, and the Albuquerque citizens who watched the child soldiers and float pass by were all engaged in several national conversations as they took part in their local parade that day. These conversations remained important ones in American society during the era stretching from roughly 1880 to 1930.

The first conversation revolved around how late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century Americans would think about Native Americans now that the conquest of the West was drawing to a close. The Wounded Knee Massacre, often thought of as the last battle of these wars, would happen a mere four years after this parade. One popular image of Native Americans was championed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show and other similar Wild West shows that enjoyed immense popularity during this time period. The appeal of these shows was the opportunity to witness an “authentic” display of a quickly closing chapter in the nation’s history. As historian L. G. Moses explains, “It appeared to many Americans . . . that the West and its native inhabitants, however wild they once may have been, were passing from existence.”3 In the words of another historian, Paul Reddin, the shows “tantaliz[ed] people with the proposition that they had missed something special because a particular phase of Plains history was nearing its end or had already passed.”4 These shows were about selling the past, not the future. And the Indians who worked in these shows were carefully crafted inhabitants of that past. They wore traditional costumes and performed traditional activities for audiences, which could include anything from building a teepee, to dancing, to “traditional” attacks on wagon trains. The message was clear: the era of such Indians was over. Fear and anxiety had been replaced by curiosity and nostalgia.5

The federal government during this same period, however, was firmly committed to the idea that Indians not only were part of the nation’s past but also must be made part of its future. One consequence of this competing “image” of Indians was government-operated boarding schools, which sprang up in significant numbers in the trans-Mississippi West in the late nineteenth century, representing the next step in a nearly four...


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pp. 251-273
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