From the Desk of Jacqueline Emery: The Boarding School Legacy

The following is by Jacqueline Emery, editor of Recovering Native American Writings in the Boarding School Press (December 2017). Emery is an assistant professor of English at State University of New York at Old Westbury.


The Boarding School Legacy

Recovering Native American Writings in the Boarding School Press is addressed to readers interested in Native American literature or history, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American literature, periodical studies, and U.S. print culture. In this collection readers encounter student-authored texts in a variety of genres from personal letters and autobiographical essays to short stories. The compilation ultimately offers readers insight into the boarding school legacy and its influence on Native American literary production. Besides student writings, selections include writings by prominent Native American literary figures like Gertrude Bonnin or Zitkala-Ša (Yankton Sioux), Charles Alexander Eastman (Santee Sioux), Arthur Caswell Parker (Seneca), Angel DeCora (Winnebago), and John Milton Oskison (Cherokee), among others, who used boarding school newspapers as a forum for their writings on a range of topics. As the writings collected here reveal, Native Americans used the boarding school press for various purposes—as a vehicle for voicing the interests of their communities, for celebrating tribal identity and preserving oral traditions, and for cultivating networks of Native American editors, writers, and readers at the turn of the twentieth century.

The idea for this collection grew out of the archival research I conducted for my dissertation on boarding school newspapers. Early on in my research I came across a passing reference to Talks and Thoughts of the Hampton Indian Students, a newspaper printed and edited by students at Hampton Institute in Virginia. My interest was immediately piqued. I knew that scholars had mined official school records to gain insight into the educational work of Hampton and other boarding schools like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. I was also familiar with the important work of Native scholars Brenda J. Child (Ojibwe), K. Tsianina Lomawaima (Creek), and Robert Warrior (Osage) which has allowed us to move beyond seeing boarding school students and prominent Native American writers affiliated with these schools—Bonnin, Eastman, DeCora, Carlos Montezuma (Yavapi), and others—as simply assimilated victims or simply resistant. These scholars have worked to understand boarding school experiences by reclaiming the voices and writings of students and making them central to discussions of Native American literature. While much of the existing scholarship focuses on retrospective accounts of boarding schools that were published in book form or unpublished student letters, I decided to seek out Talks and Thoughts to see what insight into the student experience might be gleaned through reading this student-run newspaper.


I made several trips to the New York Public Library, which houses the most comprehensive run of Talks and Thoughts. This monthly, which was founded in 1886 by members of the Indian literary club and had a more than twenty-year run, contains items of general interest to the school—updates on student clubs and organizations, the results of student contests, and news stories—as well as autobiographical accounts, essays, letters, and retold tales. Whereas school authorities sought to capitalize on white interest in Native cultures to drum up financial support for the school by publishing a newspaper that featured Native-authored texts, students used their newspaper for their own purposes. The more I read the more convinced I became that Talks and Thoughts was a rich and understudied archive worthy of serious attention for the insight it provided into the ways students negotiated between the assimilationist imperative of the boarding school and the dominant culture and the commitment to preserving and affirming Native identities and cultures. As I delved deeper into my project, I sought out other Native-edited boarding school newspapers. I studied the School News, a monthly published by Carlisle students from 1880 through 1883. After reading Talks and Thoughts and the School News alongside and against the white-edited newspapers at Hampton and Carlisle, I began to realize that students were often more critical of the narrative of assimilation told by school authorities than those figures often let on in their accounts of the cultural transformations the students were undergoing at the schools. Indeed, in their writings students often affirm their Native cultural identities, thus undermining the idea that being educated at Hampton and Carlisle meant they were no longer Indian.

I mined roughly ten boarding school newspapers for Recovering Native American Writings in the Boarding School Press, which features writings by thirty-five Native authors and editors. Besides Talks and Thoughts and the School News, I culled Native-authored texts from the Hallaquah, a little-known newspaper founded, printed, and edited by three female students in 1879 at the Seneca Indian School in what is now Oklahoma. I also included Native writings from several of the newspapers published at Carlisle and Hampton, including the Indian Helper, the Red Man, and the Southern Workman. With a few notable exceptions, writings by boarding school students and prominent Native American public intellectuals that appeared in boarding school newspapers have lacked critical attention and thus remain virtually unknown and unavailable to most scholars and students of Native American studies. Some of these periodicals have disappeared entirely and are no longer available. Those that do still remain in print are often in poor condition and in desperate need of being preserved. My book fills this gap in the scholarship by making available a representative sampling of Native-authored letters, editorials, essays, short stories, and retold tales published in boarding school newspapers. It is my hope that bringing visibility to these archives will spur increased efforts at preservation, especially through digitization, as well as encourage further scholarly investigation into early Native American writings in the boarding school press and other newspaper archives.

I also see this book as an opportunity to transform the way Native American literature is taught in the college classroom. This collection will help engage students in more meaningful discussions about the boarding school experience and its impact on the Native American literary tradition. When used in the classroom alongside boarding school narratives by prominent turn-of-the-twentieth-century writers like Zitkala-Ša, Charles Eastman, and Luther Standing Bear, as well as twenty-first century works like Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, this collection will reveal interesting parallels and points of contrast that will help students gain a deeper appreciation of how the boarding school legacy has shaped and continues to shape Native American literature.

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