- Voices from Haskell: Indian Students between Two Worlds, 1884–1928
The phenomenon of the Indian boarding school, a topic that has gained more scholarly attention during the last two decades, has a mixed legacy at best. Federal officials clearly saw the boarding-school program, which removed native children from their homes, families, and communities in order to educate them “properly” and inculcate them with American values, as a method for “civilizing” native populations. According to Vuckovic, “the philosophy and purpose of Haskell Institute had remained constant during all these years: to destroy indigenous cultures and to elevate Indian children from the ‘savagery’ of their people’s past to a brighter future of American citizenship and civilization” (29). Yet, native children, much to the chagrin of boarding-school officials, often transformed their boarding-school experiences into a way to strengthen native identity and create a larger pan-Indian identity by covertly maintaining traditional practices and forging connections with students from [End Page 463] other native groups. Vuckovic’s study of Haskell Institute in Kansas provides a glimpse of the intersection of these competing goals and interests and the results of this conflict.
Vuckovic’s work combines institutional history with social and cultural history, integrating theories of hegemony and theories of public and hidden transcripts (2, 211–212). She first places the creation of the boarding schools within the broader federal policy of assimilating indigenous people. Federal officials thought that reservation day schools could not counteract the negative effect of the students’ regular exposure to indigenous practices and traditions (13). Removing native children from these influences would promote their acceptance of English language and cultural instruction, which would also aid in the spread of Christian religion, another goal of the larger assimilation program for native peoples. A third part of this program was the allotment of tribal lands “to break up traditional tribal structures and to speed up the dissolution of the western reservations” (14). The larger goal of schools such as Haskell had more to do with assimilation than the welfare of the students; against this backdrop, Vuckovic presents the students’ personal accounts of their experiences at Haskell.
Each following chapter considers a specific aspect of student life at Haskell by mining letters, student files, and the Meriam Report, an investigation of native boarding schools. Vuckovic’s discussion includes the decision that families and students made to attend the institute, the regimentation of student life at the institute, the curriculum offered, the types of activities in which students participated outside the classroom, student living conditions, students’ attempts to preserve their own cultural identity despite the goals of the institution, and the experiences of Haskell graduates. Vuckovic reveals the tension between the intentions of boarding schools and the experiences of students by juxtaposing what school officials said about an issue—health care for students, for instance—and what students said about deplorable health conditions in letters to parents and school officials (212). Similarly, although school officials touted the success of graduates who returned home and became active in tribal politics or as cultural mediators, Vuckovic notes that some students experienced sharp feelings of alienation upon returning home from Haskell (251–254). In the end, Vuckovic offers a poignant account of native children’s boarding-school experiences, which could be simultaneously positive and strengthening and deeply destructive to the individuals and native cultures involved. [End Page 464]