- Writing against Erasure: Native American Students at Hampton Institute and the Periodical Press
In 1886, members of the Indian literary club at Hampton Institute in Virginia released the first issue of their student-run school newspaper, Talks and Thoughts of the Hampton Indian Students (1886–1907). The newspaper contained items of general interest to the school—updates on student clubs and organizations, the results of student contests, and news stories pertaining to Indian education and citizenship—as well as student writings in the form of autobiographical accounts, essays, letters, and folklore. Talks and Thoughts was published monthly, and though it was originally intended to serve as a “communication link” between boarding school students and alumni, the newspaper enjoyed a broader audience composed of school authorities and other non-Indians interested in Indian reform and the educational work of the school.1 From its inception, Talks and Thoughts functioned as a venue for offering Indian perspectives on their changing roles in American society. Within the pages of Talks and Thoughts, students often challenged the myth of the vanishing Indian. Rather than simply accept the notion that Indian cultures were dying out because Indian people were assimilating, students sought ways to worry the notion that being educated at Hampton meant they were no longer Indian. In their writings, they explored the tension between, to use Dexter Fisher’s words, “the imperative of tradition and the inevitable pressure of acculturation.”2 Often, this tension was manifested in their use of spoken and written English.
We see evidence of this tension in the January 1892 issue when the editors of Talks and Thoughts explain their reason for changing their motto, “Tahenan upi qa ounkiya biye,—Come over and help us.” (See Figure 1.) They write:
We decided to take this motto off, not that we are tired of it, but because we wish to print a new motto at each publication of our little paper which change, we think, will improve the heading of its little page. So in this number, we print our first new motto which we have selected ourselves, hoping that our readers will find it a suitable one. [End Page 178]
We omit the Indian print, that our readers may get our thoughts in the English language, which the Indian finds so difficult to master. We do not mean that we can lay aside our Indian language all at once, for well you know, how we love the language in which we have grown up, but we wish you to know that we realize the need of the English language.3
On the surface, the student editors’ decision to remove the Indian language from their motto seems to reflect the program of cultural erasure practiced at Hampton and other boarding schools. Boarding schools sought to assimilate Native children by “physically, ideologically, and emotionally” removing them from their family and tribe and erasing their Indianness.4 The program of cultural erasure enforced at boarding schools is perhaps best reflected in Captain Richard Henry Pratt’s motto for the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, “kill the Indian, save the man!” Pratt and other school authorities believed that by erasing the cultural identities of boarding school students and imprinting them with the markers of white, middle-class identity—clothing, manners, and literacy—they would inevitably “become” like Euro-Americans.5
Interestingly, the emphasis which the student editors place on the necessity of using English to express their “thoughts” in print offers a subtle challenge to the assimilationist practices of the boarding school and anticipates a pattern of ambivalence that would later appear in the works of well-known boarding school graduates like Zitkala-Ša and Charles Eastman. This pattern in writings by boarding school students and graduates reflected a belief that an education in English was simultaneously a source of power and a threat to cultural survival.6 In other words, though students often acknowledged the importance of learning English and using it as a medium through which to enter the world of print, they sometimes expressed misgivings about writing and speaking in English because they were losing their heritage in the process. Their writings often reveal their efforts to negotiate...