Driving along the highway in Phoenix, I pass an exit called “Indian School Road.” I don’t know what that is and it becomes anonymous, it might as well read Indeensculroad, one word, no real meaning. I resolve to look it up. The road is named for the Phoenix Indian school located at Central and Indian School Road, opened in 1890 and closing in 1990. The former site of the school is now the Steele Indian School Park. I wonder if any part of the school is still there?
What is an Indian School? The Indian School was the product of the idea of Indian assimilation. So, remove Indians from their families and send them to boarding school. Clean them up in western dress, teach them English and forbid them from expressing themselves with their culture and their language. I hate to be draconian in my definition of what an Indian School is, but I believe my summary is accurate.
To look at the date 1890 in context, you have to understand the Apache Wars, Indian treaties, the fear and prejudice between the settlers and the Apaches. This will help you understand how the idea of the Indian School came to pass. The prejudice against the Apaches in Arizona was so strong that it was normal for a settler to shoot an Apache on sight. The Apache they said, came an went like ghosts. (I would too if I thought someone would shoot me on sight.) The hunt for Geronimo is the epochal story of this time period. It captured the imagination of the country and launched Geronimo’s national celebrity. Once Geronimo surrendered in September of 1886 (for the 4th time) the Apaches in his tribe were relocated to Pennsylvania and Florida, ostensibly because anti-Apache feeling was too high. I reference the Apaches although all tribes were affected by this policy of assimilation. The Apaches were the headliner grabbers in turn of the century Phoenix.
“If the Great Spirit had desired me
to be a white man
he would have made me so
in the first place.
He put in your heart
certain wishes and plans;
in my heart he put
other and different desires.
Each man is good
in the sight of the Great Spirit.
It is not necessary,
that eagles should be crows.”
..Sitting Bull (Teton Sioux)
Consider that the Phoenix Indian School was formed less than 4 years after the surrender of the most famous Apache that lived and the harsh policy of Indian assimilation through education can be seen as improvement in the local attitude. Because this is the Internet where it is difficult to determine what someone really intends, let me state very frankly that I think the story of the Native American experience is horrific and the abuses suffered by the First People help characterize the quality of life they experience generations later.
That is the 30 second Indian School summary. I need this background after I visited the Heard museum with my son in a quest to learn more about the Indian schools. I was struck by a haunting painting of a runaway girl, titled Going Home by Judith Lowry. This painting is part of the permanent exhibit “Remembering our Indian School days.”
I could not stop thinking about that picture. I went home and read online the story behind the painting. This is a case of a picture worth a 1000 words. The artist’s great aunt Molly Lowry is the child in the painting. She was a student at the Greenville Indian School in California, at the time she ran away from the school she was 9 years old. She ran away after a strapping by her teacher. She succumbed to exposure and froze to death in the snow, she was found clutching a bag of candy in her hand next to a tree. Ms. Lowry chose to depict her in a crucifixion pose with an owl as a totem taking her to the Spirit World. Ms. Lowry learnd the story of her aunt’s fate in the early 1990’s. The painting is a way for her to find solace. Consider that the Phoenix Indian School closed in 1990, that this painting is the product of new information from the early 90’s, and suddenly I realize how young Arizona is and how fresh our history is.
“My friends: I am going to talk to you a few minutes, listen well to what I say. You are all just the same as my children to me, just the same as if my children are going to school when I look at you all here. You are here to study, to learn the ways of white men, do it well. You have a father here and a mother also. Your father is here, do as he tells you. Obey him as you would your own father. Although he is not your father he is a father to you now. The Lord made my heart good, I feel good wherever I go, I feel very good now as I stand before you. Obey all orders, do as you are told all the time and you won’t get hungry. He who owns you holds you in His hands like that and He carries you around like a baby. That is all I have to say to you.” ==Geronimo to the students at the Carlisle Indian School on the occasion of his visit in 1905
I grew up less than ten miles from the Carlisle Indian School. I’ll visit this summer and walk the grounds with my boys and let them complete a full circle from the Apache Trail to the Carlisle Indian School. We are one American story and I like knowing a little bit about where we came from. I think it will help us make better decisions going forward. My take away from this lesson is now that I work in a school to remember to honor the child and not the prevailing attitude of the time. (Special thanks to Barbara Landis for her web page about the Carlisle Indian School, it looks like a labor of love on your part.)
Not so long ago after all,