Excerpt: Assimilation, Resilience, and Survival

Samantha M. Williams is a writer and historian who focuses on the history of the Native American boarding school system. She earned a PhD in history from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and served as a research consultant for the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum. The following is an excerpt from her new book Assimilation, Resilience, and Survival (Nebraska, 2022).


The Stewart Indian School In Context

In 1950, at the age of twelve, Florence Millet traveled almost three hundred miles from her home on the Duckwater Shoshone Reservation in Eastern Nevada to the Stewart Indian School, a Native American boarding school located in Carson City, Nevada, that opened in 1890 and closed in 1980. Millet had never left the Duckwater Reservation, but her family was nonetheless compelled by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to send her to the school. Upon arriving, she was assigned to work in the school infirmary as a nurse’s assistant, where she provided care for sick and injured students. Millet did not enjoy her time at Stewart and recalls feeling “lonely and homesick and really depressed” while she attended the school. She ran away three times, even though she was unsure where to go or how to return to her home. Her punishments for these escape attempts included having her hair cut progressively shorter and being forced to scrub toilets with a toothbrush. Millet was unable to sleep or eat while at Stewart and cried almost continuously. After six months, she was permitted to write to her parents, who traveled to Stewart and took her back to the Duckwater Reservation.

Florence Millet’s experiences were not uncommon among generations of Native Americans who attended one of the twenty-seven off-reservation Indian boarding schools scattered across the United States during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning in 1879, the U.S. government embarked on a program to assimilate and “civilize” thousands of Native American children who were taken from their homes and sent to off-reservation boarding schools managed by the BIA. Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the first Native American boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, argued that the education of Indian children by U.S. authorities was a humanitarian project critical to their survival and success in the United States. These schools were designed to destroy the connections between Native children and their lands, isolate them from their families, and remove them from their cultures and traditions, all as a means of promoting assimilation, but also to ensure the unfettered expansion of white settlers into Native lands. According to Pratt, the successful assimilation of Native children into white society could occur in one generation, but only if students were under the constant and firm supervision of BIA employees.

To accomplish this, the Indigenous children who attended these schools, some as young as four years of age, were forced to adhere to a strict set of rules enforced through corporal punishment and physical and emotional abuse. Students, many with no knowledge of English, were prohibited from speaking their Indigenous languages, forced to adopt white, middle-class gender roles, and were compelled to alter their physical appearances upon arrival at these schools. Indigenous children were targeted for this program as a means of instilling white social norms at a young age, and with the hope that they would attempt to restructure their communities according to white standards after their graduation. This traumatic process taught children to disavow their heritage, shattered bonds within Native communities, and fundamentally damaged familial relationships among generations of Indigenous peoples. These practices became so extensive that by 1926, 83 percent of all American Indian children had spent time at one of the many BIA schools operating across the country. Shockingly, though this extensive educational system was central to the lives of generations of Indigenous people for over a century, it is a topic rarely addressed in U.S. history, particularly in terms of its traumatic impact on Native American nations.

I examine this complicated history through the testimonies of students who attended the Stewart Indian School and explore how changes in federal policies, as well as their interpretations by local school officials, impacted generations of Stewart students and their families. Throughout, I maintain that it was not the humanitarian impulses of the U.S. government that led to the boarding school system and propelled the attempted assimilation of generations of Native children. Instead, I argue that settler colonialism, including the drive to usurp and control Native American lands, destroy Indigenous cultures, and silence Native American voices, facilitated the creation of the boarding school system. To understand the extent of these efforts and how they changed over time, this book examines the history of the Stewart Indian School from its 1890 opening through its closure in 1980, and later the decades-long efforts of Native communities to properly commemorate their range of experiences at the school.

Over the ninety years the school was open, thousands of Indigenous children from Nevada and across the West attended the Stewart Indian School. The testimonies of many of these students and their families form the foundation of this study, and their recollections and perspectives are centered as much as possible in each chapter. Throughout, I also emphasize the scope and continuity of U.S. assimilation programs and highlight Indigenous struggles to adapt to, oppose, and subvert settler colonial practices at the school. This approach further considers the implementation of boarding school policies at three different levels while the school was open: the federal, at which policy was developed and decreed; locally, where BIA personnel executed federal policy; and among those Native students and families who were forced to cope with the brutal impacts of assimilation policies.

This study is organized chronologically, and the chapters divided according to specific periods of federal reform and change at the Stewart Indian School. Chapter 1 focuses on the early decades the school was open and examines the complex interactions between school employees, students, and their families. It also highlights the challenges school officials faced in maintaining the strict assimilations program devised by the federal government. Chapter 2 encompasses the years 1925 to 1949 and explores early reforms to the boarding school system, including the impacts of the Indian New Deal on Stewart students, and reevaluates the progressive manner in which this period is generally framed. The implementation of the Navajo Special Program at the Stewart Indian School, which occurred within the context of the federal termination and relocation policies, is the focus of chapter 3. This chapter spans the years between 1949 and 1960 and emphasizes a return to earlier, harsher assimilation policies at the school. Chapter 4 describes the 1960s and 1970s at the Stewart School, and assesses the impacts of student and parent pressure for reform at the school within the context of the broader Indigenous self-determination movement. These two decades represent both stagnation and efforts to enact reforms at the school, especially by Indigenous students and their families. The final chapter evaluates the decades-long efforts of Indigenous communities to commemorate the experiences of former Stewart Indian School students and the eventual establishment of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center & Museum.

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