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Teaching Multicultural Literature : A Workshop for the Middle Grades
Workshop 1 Workshop 2 Workshop 3 Workshop 4 Workshop 5 Workshop 6 Workshop 7 Workshop 8
Workshop 3: Research and Discovery - Shirley Sterling and Laura Tohe
Overview
Authors and Literary Works
Video Summary
Teaching Strategies
Commentary
Sally Brownfield
Joseph Bruchac
Jerome Harste
Student Work
Resources
Interactive Workbook -- Explore two poems using strategies from these workshops. Go.
Channel-Talk -- Share your views on the discussion board. Go.


Commentary
Joseph Bruchac
Writer

What is the history of the boarding school program?

Well, the birth of the residential boarding school program could be dated to around 1879; that was the first year, when Richard Henry Pratt founded an institute called Carlisle. It was in Pennsylvania, which was considerably far from most of the reservations of the West, which was where Carlisle drew a great deal of its population.

The idea was that no longer would the Indian be allowed to live in what they [whites] referred to as "savagery," but he would be "brought up" to the level of white culture, although not quite. Because this, like the Hampton Institute and other programs that had been instituted for African Americans, was designed to create a class of Indians who were actually working as laborers, who were people who were not at the level of professionals -- lawyers, doctors, captains of industry -- but were, in fact, service personnel, people who would be working in their proper roles to support white Europeans. And in fact, that was what Carlisle did in many ways.

Between the period of Carlisle's founding and its eventual closure in 1918, thousands and thousands of American Indian people went through the doors of Carlisle and other boarding schools like it that were founded around the country. One interesting statistic is that at Carlisle, very few people ever actually graduated. They attended and they left without a degree. They received some degree of education, but they were also used as cheap labor.

For example, there was a policy at Carlisle called "outing." That meant that during the summers, or even for an entire year or two, they would take a Carlisle student and ship them off to some other part of the country where they would work as a laborer in some particular business, maybe on a farm.

Jim Thorpe, the very famous American Indian athlete who was a Carlisle attendee, actually was sent off on outings on a couple of occasions before he became well known as a football player. He spent two years involved in the outing program.

How pervasive were these institutions?

When Carlisle was first founded in that period of the late 1800s, there were approximately 20,000 American Indians every year attending those schools. By the time Carlisle closed in 1918, the number was up to 25,000 a year.

If you visit the Carlisle graveyard, you'll see the names of more than 30 different Apaches buried there, including Geronimo's son and his wife and their baby, all buried in that boarding school graveyard. Because the boarding schools, in addition to being places where you were removed from your culture, were also hotbeds of contagion: influenza swept through the boarding schools, tuberculosis swept through the boarding schools.

And in doing that research, it was very interesting for me to find how many times when an Indian became sick, they were not kept at Carlisle or wherever their boarding school was. They were shipped home. That meant they were shipped home with their disease. So the Cherokawas, as a case in point, dozens and dozens of family members died of tuberculosis, for example, in Alabama, where the Cherokawas were then held captive because their children came home and that disease was then passed on to them.

What are some of the lingering effects of this program?

The lack of self-worth that was often a result of the boarding school experience devastated people. A lot of people became alcoholics because of boarding school. And then the next generation was affected by it as well.

You see, within an American Indian tradition, children are regarded as the greatest wealth, not just to the family but of the entire nation. You never shout at a child, you never strike a child. You always give a good example when a child does something wrong. The best thing you could do is talk to them or tell them a story.

So imagine the contrast between the child who was raised at home and understands that love and caring and respect are the way children are to be treated, and the child who was raised in a boarding school where physical punishment, where callousness, where continual reminders of their own lack of self-worth is the day's menu. Think of the contrast between those people.

And the reason that we today throughout North America -- in Canada, in the United States, for example -- have many of the problems we have within our Native communities, very often you can trace this back in the family to the boarding school legacy.

We are still recovering from the boarding schools. To me, the amazing thing is that people survived them as well as they did; that so many came out of them as whole human beings. People who were still able to care, still able to give, still able to speak their languages and remember their customs. That to me is for -- for me in many ways, that to me is a mark of the power of our culture, of the greatness of our languages, and of the real heart that exists at the center of American Indian tribal cultures. Even the boarding schools could damage that heart but not completely break it.


Talk about traditional education in American Indian communities.

I think it's important to recognize that there're differences between traditional education, not just in American Indian communities but in many parts of the world, and what we call "Western" education.

Traditional education tends to rely on experiences -- [it's] experiential. If you want to know how to make a basket, you do all the process of basket making, including knowing the cycles of the seasons when the trees are ready, when the materials are ready. And then the basket is made. And there may even be songs and rituals connected to it. So it's a holistic experience.

In the Western tradition, you have didactic learning: basically, your teachers tell you what you have to know and then you repeat back to them what you have learned, which is what they have told you. So that involvement of all the senses and all parts of the person as a being sometimes -- not always, but sometimes -- is lacking in the Western system.

Now the paradigm of the boarding schools ties into this in a very interesting way. Because that Western system, which assumes superiority and leaves out multicultural aspects of learning, can affect not just American Indians. When I lived in West Africa, I observed a postcolonial period where the education system was still recovering from that time when Africans were told they were not really full-fledged human beings. The best they could do would be to be imitations of Europeans: to dress and talk like them, but to never quite reach their level; to aspire, perhaps, to the job of a servant or a driver of a car but not the owner of the car or the person who runs the country. In fact, many parts of the world suffer from this postcolonial legacy of education where they were never taught the proper way to nurture an entire community and personal gain was the first thought. I think we see this in many places in the world.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

One of the interesting stories about boarding schools for me is the story of the Navajo people: the Navajo boarding schools and what happened as a result of their going to boarding school and then the coming of World War II. You see, the boarding school experience lasted from the late 1800s past the middle of the twentieth century. So people of my age and even younger than me actually went to boarding schools. Although I never went to one, I've many friends who attended them.

The irony of the Navajo experience is this: when World War II came, many of those Navajo men who were graduates of those boarding schools were recruited by the United States Marines for a program called The Code Talkers. They would use their Native language to create an unbreakable code. The Japanese were never able to break that code through the entirety of World War II. Because they spoke fluent English and they were fluent in their Native language, they were able to do this. And it was that same language that they had been told was the enemy of progress -- was to be lost, forgotten forever.

By the way, that Navajo code was used in Korea and Vietnam. It was not until the late 1960s that it became declassified. Because it was a government secret, those men who were Navajo Code Talkers were never given medals, never given a grade raise, never given a description on their discharge that could have been useful for them in finding a job -- never given any recognition until the 1970s. It's very ironic in more ways than one.

I've written a book, for example, about the Navajo Code Talkers called Code Talker. And in writing that book, I interviewed and spoke with a number of Code Talkers, men who survived the boarding school experience and men who then went on after World War II to be very important in their communities. And sometimes what they contributed was their simple survival, their understanding of what we can go through as people and still come out the other side. They had seen war, and they'd also seen a cultural war at the same time. They had survived both of those things.

And the idea that you can be a human being in the face of great difficulty, that you can survive and be whole after having been in this pressure cooker that the boarding schools really were, is to me one of the great inspirations. And I think it will be for other people as well.

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