Indian
School

Teaching the
White Man's Way

Michael L. Cooper
(Clarion)

In the waning days of the 19th Century, the Bureau of Indian Affairs set up almost thirty off-reservation schools for young Native Americans --- mostly in the middle west and southwest. These operations were to take young men and women from their cultures and "civilize" them. The students were forbidden to speak their own languages; they were required to wear "normal" clothing and shoes; they were forced into a strict, quasi-military regime --- one that dictated when they were to get up, to eat, to study, to play, and to sleep.

Author Michael Cooper has dug up letters, diaries and photographs showing how these schools were established, how they were operated, and from the words of the students themselves, how painful the familial separation and the enforced enculturation could be for these "wards" of the state. One of the ironies was the fact that the prime mover in this system of enculturation was an old Indian fighter by the name of Captain Richard Pratt --- dutifully named "the father of Indian education."

Since he was a military man, it was understandable that these schools were modeled in imitation of military training centers. His school, Carlisle, in Pennsylvania, was the most prominent of the "off reservation" schools (there were dozens more on the various reservations).

Students were not only required to give up their clothing --- see the "before" and "after" pictures at the beginning and end of this review --- they were also required to yield their language, observe an alien religion, and even cut off their hair (the loss of which, to them, was a symbol of mourning). As well, they had to forego their given names:

    Names such as Ota Kte, translated as Plenty Kill, evoked a savage past...Ota Kte's teachers at Carlisle gave him the first name of Luther and for a last name, used the English translation of his father's name, Standing Bear.

Some of the teachers gave strange names to the youngsters. In one school, there was a Rip Van Winkle and a Julius Caesar. A student resisted being named after Joseph Conrad. He said,

    Some of the girls call me Cornbread and some call me Conrat, so I do not like the name. So I want you to give me a new name.

All this seems quite innocent in retrospect until we see a photograph of the cemetery at Carlisle, with the caption, "Most BIA schools had their own cemeteries because so many students died." The Spokanes lost sixteen out of twenty-one students; sixty-eight students at Fort Hall School in Idaho caught scarlet fever --- eight died, "and another thirty became so ill they were sent home to die."

A very few of the students went on to become famous: Charles Eastman became a prominent doctor, and Jim Thorpe a champion athlete. But for most of the young, it was a painful, wrenching experience that put them between two cultures, leaving them satisfied with neither.

Indian School is apparently written for junior and high school students, but the straightforward language and the impressive photographs makes it even more poignant --- a sad token of an era when it was thought "uncivilized" to live in America as part of another culture, with another language, and another system of beliefs.

--- Ignacio Schwartz


Craig Childs is one of those dreadful people who, by age thirty-two, has written five books, won several awards, and spends his life happily working as river guide, naturalist, cartographer, and adventurer. If the writing in his other titles is as rich as this, he will end up taking over the tiny world of naturalist letters.

His specialty is water --- water where you and I would expect none: in the middle of the high desert country of the American west. One of his tasks is to map water holes, but in his descriptions of his various journeys through the Sonoran desert, and up into the Grand Canyon, and over into Utah is less that of a scientist, and more of a poet. The words he strings together are so lyrical that I found myself comparing him to another naturalist --- that naturalist of the air --- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. The two of them have the ability to take what would be monotony to the rest of us --- and turn it into music:

    This give and take is never subtle. Water in flood means exactly what it says. It has no hypocrisy. Even as it murders, it leaves life behind and carves elegant, intricate passages into raw stone, all the while having no debate about its intention. It is the same water that will sit complacently in a hole for months or years, the same arrangement of atoms that flows gently, singing lullabies, the same that fiercely consumes children and tears the walls from the titanic canyons.

Childs relates tales of wandering across the desert for days, finding hidden fissures filled with water. He relates legends from the Tohono O'odham Indians of the North Sonoran desert. He speaks of climbing across the north face of the Grand Canyon, finding seeps, each with its own rhythm of drop-drop-drop --- like a myriad of clocks in a shop.

He tells of walking across dry creek-beds that two days before were raging or, alternatively, of finding an arroyo that only begins to leak water when the sun goes down:

    I returned to a place...where earlier I had detected a trace of dampness. I organized a stopwatch, a tape measure, and my notebook on the stream cobbles and watched the spot, which was still moist. At about 5:30 water came out of the ground. It did not spew up, but slowly escaped into the surrounding sand and small rocks. The wet circle grew until water became visible. Then it bubbled out like a small fountain and the creek began....Many of the desert streams that flow through the summer emerge in this way. They come out at night, as if fearful of the sun, rising through small gravel-filled corridors that connect the stream on top to the subsurface stream flowing far beneath. By midnight, this entire creek bed would be the site of a clean, swift stream. Walking across during the day, you would find this absurd to imagine.

He speaks of the consistency of water, its color, its taste (the water coming out of the western face of the Grand Canyon is old water, with a bitter taste; that of the east is fresh.) He tells us of shrimp --- anhydrobiotic animals --- which lie in gullies for months or years, and when the rains come, spring to life. He tells of predaceous beetles that appear in a new pool, live there for nineteen days, and, an hour before the pool dries up, "the entire group of beetles lifted into flight at once. The swarm set off into the southwest, disappearing at the horizon."

Most of all, he invites us to go along with him in gorgeous isolation, attempting such foolish adventures as crawling into a cave into a cave stuck in the side of a canyon from which icy water is spewing. His description of finding (and losing) handholds, fighting the current, losing his footing, is so lousy with adventure (the canyon floor below to which he might be flung at any moment is forty feet down) that we want to tell him that he is such a nice guy, and such a fine writer, that we wish that he would just stop, leave it be, sit outside, in the sun, admire the huge flow of water, leave it alone, stop trying to crawl back in the womb, for God's sakes.


It ran from June 1941 until April 1945, but it was astonishingly brutal, destructive, and --- in truth --- as insane blood-letting carried on in the name of two men. Two men who were not just dictators in two large and powerful countries; they were both schizophrenics, were --- as is often the case with some loonies --- able to convince millions of their fellow citizens that they knew and understood the world they were to control. In less than four years, the war between Russia and Germany consumed the lives of over 30,000,000 people. It is as if a marauding hoarde came along and wiped out present-day Los Angeles and New York City, with Washington D.C. and Miami thrown in for good measure.

And it just wasn't the military dying out there on the steppes. The bombing of Nanking by the Japanese and Guernica by the Spanish Nationalists introduced the concept of "total war," which meant that the civilians got to participate in the destruction as well; eg, they got to suffer and die along with the soldiers. Russian and German troops took this to its natural conclusion: everyone was the enemy; there were no allies. At first, the people of the Ukraine had welcomed the Germans as saviors from the Soviets who had so brutally used them during the collectivization of the kulaks --- but, to Hitler, the Slavs were an inferior race, and had to be treated as such. That is where the concept of "total war" began.

Stalin was no better. Because a few of the Russian minorities --- the Kalmyks, the Chechens, the Balkars, the Tartars --- had joined the Germans in the early stages of the war, whole towns were shipped off to the gulags. How many? Records are scarce --- but Rees guesses that more than a million were deported. Thus, while the Russians were in the middle of a life-and-death struggle with the Germans, they were also in the midst of an ethnic war on their own people. In schizophrenia, the enemy is everywhere.

What saved Russia from defeat? Rees believes that it was the battle fought in the early days of the war in the Ukraine, at Vyazma, where five Soviet armies were trapped. Stalin, who had in effect been commander-in-chief, was responsible for the loss, and decided from then on to leave the battles to the generals. (Hitler was never able to accept such a lesser role, which probably contributed to his defeat).

The other key element that saved the Soviets occurred during the German advance on Moscow in the fall of 1941. Stalin made a belated decision not to abandon the city, not to flee. No matter the bloody fifteen years of his rule so far: he was the leader of his people, and his decision to stay made a profound difference in morale.

Finally, there was the true turning point of the war, which came about at Stalingrad. The Germans knew that if they captured the city the war might well be over. One German general, Joachim Stempel, interviewed by Rees, said:

    We came to a rise which offered a very good view of Stalingrad... The city was in flames and suddenly, like a silver ribbon, I saw the Volga. It came as quite a surprise. We all knew we had to get there --- that's our goal, maybe the goal of the whole war...It was a very impressive thing to be standing on the border with Asia and being able to say --- we're at the Volga!

But the Russians held. One of the main reasons was that out of the ashes of previous defeats, came military geniuses like the Soviet General Vasily Chuikov. The tactics of his men:

    The Soviet troops would inhabit the city like "living concrete" and take on the Germans in hand-to-hand fighting. Chuikov decreed that the Soviet troops must station themselves as close as possible to the German front line. That way the German bombers and artillery risked hitting their own men in any attack... "The gap between you and the enemy should not be bigger than 50 or 100 meters, or not more than a grenade's throw."

Rees has given us a excellent overview of the German-Russian conflict --- one, he points out, that many of us have scarcely heard of. With the opening up of Russia, he and other historians have, for the first time, been able to interview not only Russian generals, but soldiers who fought those battles.

It's hair-raising stuff. The random killing of friend and foe alike. The destruction of whole cultures. The burning of the land and the crops and the houses. A war where the citizens were immolated as easily as the enemy. And since both Stalin and Hitler branded all warriors captured by the enemy as "traitors," it turned more and more vicious, putting one in the mind of the classic mot of Tacitus, Solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant... "They make a wilderness and call it peace."

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