- Recovering Native American Writings in the Boarding School Press ed. by Jacqueline Emery
IF EVER THERE WAS A PLACE where we would expect Native voices to be muted, surely that place would be a boarding school newspaper. In thrall to the coercive assimilation agenda for which they were invented, boarding schools intended to erase Native voices and repackage them based on white middle-class models of comportment and gender. School administrators confidently relied on cheery newspaper stories and essays to push assimilation forward by touting the merits of hard work, discipline, and success. But as with so many other boarding school programs, the plan often went off the rails when students dutifully learned their craft but then employed their new skills to write and publish essays and commentaries celebrating Native histories and cultures and defending Native interests and needs. In this important new book, Jacqueline Emery argues that far from obliterating Native voices, student authors "gained control over their self-representations and revised what it meant to be educated Indians" (23).
Emery's selections reflect a wide array of stances on everything from religion to work to education, and they highlight the complex mix of attitudes and opinions that shaped Native identities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Importantly, the sources challenge "the assumption that Native Americans voiced static or homogenous perspectives on issues like assimilation, citizenship, and education; indeed, these issues were widely debated in Native writings" (13). Thus the book juxtaposes John Milton Oskison's ardent praise for the pragmatism and goodwill of the Sherman Institute's founders against Charles Eastman's unbridled celebration of traditional cultures. Angel De Cora lauded the reemergence of Native art at Carlisle, but Arthur Parker lamented that "the Indian cannot always remain an Indian" (287). Henry Roe Cloud, no sentimentalist he, asked Native people to rely on "Almighty God" (307), and Carlos Montezuma decried the "gross injustice" (194) of allowing Indian people to dance. Samuel Townsend, the Pawnee editor of Carlisle's School News, called on Indian families everywhere to "send all their children to school" (57) so that they could learn the skills necessary to prevent whites from controlling them, while Gertrude Bonnin bitterly remembered feeling like "one of many little animals driven by a herder" (257).
Many students used the newspapers to convey their versions of [End Page 176] traditional stories, subtly reminding readers that the lessons and values in those narratives continued to have deep resonance. Others heaped praise on their reservations. Alonso Lee (Eastern Band Cherokee), for example, lauded his people as "peaceful, law abiding citizens" (88) who were models of comportment for their white neighbors, and he took delight in describing the reservation as a beloved homeland. Other writers celebrated their enduring friendships with students from far-flung communities. In an especially endearing commentary, four authors from four different nations collaborated on an 1892 editorial in Hampton's Talks and Thoughts and noted that although writing in the English language helped "our readers … get our thoughts," this did not mean they were ignoring their native tongues. "We do not mean that we can lay aside our Indian language in which we have grown up," they wrote, "but we wish you to know that we realize the need of the English language, and that we are trying very hard to master it" (62).
This important and revealing collection of documents reminds us that Native people were negotiating modernity in ways that simultaneously confounded and pleased critics and friends alike by revealing complex notions about ethnicity and identity. If some modern-day readers are discomfited by the proassimilationist leanings of Arthur Parker and John Milton Oskison, it is well to remember that they were forcefully asserting that it was Native people, not outsiders, who would determine what it meant to be a Native person. In doing so, these authors also remind us of the many ways to express Indigenous sensibilities and identities. [End Page 177]
CLYDE ELLIS is a professor of history and university distinguished scholar at Elon University.