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  • Indigenizing the Safety Zone:Contesting Ideologies in Foodways at the Chilocco Indian Industrial School, 1902–1918
  • Jennifer Bess (bio)

“Before the Pale Face there was no poison in the Indian’s corn.”

“There will be hungry Pale Faces so long as there is Indian land to swallow.”

—Charles Dagenett, Indian School Journal, 1909


By 1884, the year of Chilocco Indian Industrial School’s founding in Chilocco, Oklahoma, the prairie that had sustained Great Plains peoples and that, by the reservation era, was home to eastern peoples as well, was suffering a greater ecological devastation than any other ecosystem in North America (Samson and Knopf 1994; Flores 2001). As Charles Dagenett, Peoria Indian and alumnus of Carlisle Indian Industrial School, encapsulates in “Indian Proverbs” above, the Great Plow-up of the American prairie and the agrarian capitalism that inspired it brought cereals and forage crops to the increasingly global market during World War I and, simultaneously, a virtual food desert to the peoples indigenous to the Plains (Fite 1977; Worster 1992; Isenberg 1992; P. Carlson 1992; Knobloch 1996; Lynn-Sherow 2004). From the 1830s onward, oceans of cereal crops replaced bluestem, grama, and buffalo grasses, along with native food plants including the prairie turnip or Indian breadroot, Jerusalem artichoke, and varieties of berries, wild plums, grapes, persimmon, and chokecherries that nomadic, semi-nomadic, and sedentary peoples used to supplement their diets alongside crops such as corn, squash, beans, and sunflowers, which were cultivated and traded (Wilson [1917] 1987; Heiser 1976; McBeth 1983; Hurt 1987; Wedel and Frison 2001; [End Page 193] Berzok 2005; Adair 2006).1 By the end of the nineteenth century, even the carefully managed fields of agricultural peoples including the Hidatsa, Mandan, Arikara, and Wichita had deteriorated as competition for dwindling game, conflicts among indigenous peoples and with settlers, and increasing dependence on a market economy demanded more mobility and time away from the fields (Holder 1970; Wilson [1917] 1987; P. Carlson 1992; Wedel and Frison 2001; Fowler 2001). As these changes were unfolding, the Department of the Interior (DOI) expressed concern that farming was “foreign to [the] nature” of the indigenous American, basing such conclusions on Anglo views of equestrian cultures and ignoring agricultural traditions as well as the plastic and complex networks of trade these traditions upheld (DOI 1902, 717; Albers 1993). At the same time, in a feat of ideological contradiction, agriculture and agricultural education were perceived as the best means of assimilating indigenous peoples into the Anglo culture and economy. Between 1880 and 1902, the federal government opened twenty-four federal Indian boarding schools based on the model provided by Dagenett’s alma mater in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, each with its own agricultural program (Adams 1995, 57). By 1901 Chilocco School was seeking to place the farm at “the center of interest for the boys” (Chilocco Indian School 1938, 6). According to Chilocco’s own Indian School Journal, “This is known as the best equipped institution in the Indian Service for imparting a practical knowledge of the agricultural industries so much needed by the majority of Indian boys” (“Chilocco History and Description” 1905). Thus, as the implementation of the 1887 General Allotment Act, or the Dawes Act, opened up lands to Anglo settlers and sought to transform Plains hunters into farmers, the implementation of an agricultural vocational program—despite concern about its efficacy—became a central mechanism of forcing a specific lifeway on indigenous peoples through the turn of the twentieth century (Adams 1988; A. Littlefield 1993).

While Chilocco was built upon contradictions regarding Anglo views of indigenous peoples and their affinity for farming, the ideology of Anglo supremacy eclipsed these contradictions and ambivalences, belittling and erasing indigenous histories and epistemologies; simultaneously, boarding school students and alumni expressed clear visions of their collective past, their future, and the role of foodways—both agricultural and dietary—as mechanisms of what Duane Champagne calls “cultural continuity” (2007a, 371). Long before contemporary anthropologists began examining the “symbolic load” accompanying [End Page 194] foodways, the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) was using food as a weapon in its assault on indigenous cultures, and students faced that assault with a wide variety of strategies rooted in their traditions and...


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