This episode of Archiver was inspired by the film, The Only Good Indian, directed by Kevin Willmott, a good friend of the podcast. The film was written by Tom Carmody from Lawrence. It’s about the Haskell Institute in Lawrence back when it was a boarding school for American Indians.
Tens of thousands of school age Indians were forced into these boarding schools all across the country. Many times they were kidnapped by soldiers or police. Kids would, naturally, run away from such semi-imprisonment. The movie is about an Indian bounty hunter played by Wes Studi. His job was to track down the kids who would run. Here’s the film description from IMDB:
"Set in Kansas during the early 1900s, a teen-aged Native American boy (newcomer Winter Fox Frank) is taken from his family and forced to attend a distant Indian 'training' school to assimilate into White society. When he escapes to return to his family, Sam Franklin (Wes Studi), a bounty hunter of Cherokee descent, is hired to find and return him to the institution. Franklin, a former Indian scout for the U.S. Army, has renounced his Native heritage and has adopted the White Man's way of life, believing it's the only way for Indians to survive."
They would cut the kid's hair, forbid their native languages, force them to be Christians. And when they ran away, armed bounty hunters, like the Studi character, would chase them. The line from the movie that most fits our story is when Studi tells one boy, “Sam Franklin is going to be the best white man he can be. I’m going to out white man the God damn white man."
How could any of this be good? I have to admit upfront that I started out on this story absolutely sure how I was going to tell it. But I ended up in a very different place, and it’s a place that I’m not totally comfortable with.
The Only Good Indian tells the story of the worst part of Indian boarding schools. Some of the schools, surprisingly to me, operated until the 1970s, albeit much differently, as we’ll see, than when they were first created. By the 1970s, Haskell had already converted to a junior college.
The whole movement starts with a Civil War veteran named Richard Henry Pratt who coined the phrase, "kill the Indian, save the man". He was a leader of what was known as the “Friends of the Indian Movement” and while "kill the Indian, save the man" certainly doesn’t sound friendly or supportive or even humane, it was far better than General Phillip Sheridan’s notion that the only good Indians he ever saw were dead, something he claimed he never said in all fairness but certainly the phrase has lived through time.
Still, the kidnapping and forced assimilation at Haskell and other boarding schools was repugnant to me. Archiver historian Virgil Dean, certainly no apologist for these institutions, was the first one to suggest that there may have been some virtue to these schools.
“In the early part of the 19th century, as the United States expanded west, the policy had been one of removal of Indians from the east and then concentrating them on reservations,” Virgil says. “Kansas was a big part of that. Kansas territory was created out of what had been Indian territory. Toward the end of the century you have a lot of people looking for other solutions to the so-called Indian problem. Many reformers, at the time, thought education was the solution. By 1884, when Haskell Institute is established, the idea is to bring Indian children in from all over the country to live there and literally change them to make them more able to achieve in a white society.”
Were kids beaten? Yes. Psychologically abused? Yes. Sexually abused? Yes to that too. And it’s not like the government didn’t know. In 1928, something called the Meriam Report was issued. Here’s what it had to say about boarding schools:
“The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.”
Haskell opened as a boarding school seven years after Richard Henry Pratt opened the Carlisle school in Pennsylvania. Carlisle was made famous, of course, by Jim Thorpe, perhaps the best American athlete ever. But it was right around the time of the Meriam report that things began to change, slowly, but change nonetheless.
In 1926, Haskell dedicated its football stadium and 8,000 Indians from across the country came. Some drove, many took the train, some even walked. Haskell won its first football game in its new stadium. They beat Bucknell 36 to nothing. Things at Haskell seemed to get better from there.
To find out more about early Haskell, I talked to Eric Anderson, an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and Chair of the Indigenous and American Indian Studies Department at Haskell. I told him that the whole boarding school concept, even if it had some virtues, still made me uncomfortable.
“We should be uncomfortable with that because it was a matter of saying Western culture is better and we don’t have a place in American society for American Indian cultures. They are inferior," said Anderson. "Whether it was the Army fighting wars or federal bureaucrat running Indian boarding schools it was all part of the theory that there was nothing good in Native American culture," he continued.
"But there are some positives. Whether they got a trade that they learned. Whether it was a place where people of different tribes came together and began to see a common kind of history and they could find strength in their own diversity. Or whether it was a place where sweethearts met and married and went on to have their own kids who the sent to Haskell as part of a growing American Indian experience," Anderson said.
It’s a growing American Indian experience because by the time Haskell was dedicating its stadium, Indians were slowly taking more control of these institutions. My research was clear: there were, in fact, some redeeming things that came out of Indian boarding schools. But I didn’t really begin to feel that until I called Wes Studi at his home in New Mexico.
Studi is Cherokee, acted in Dances with Wolves, played Geronimo in Geronimo: An American Legend and was in Avatar.
Studi was an activist. He was at Wounded Knee, South Dakota in 1973 when it was occupied by the American Indian Movement. But Studi is also a graduate of an Oklahoma Indian Boarding school.
“In 1960, I actually wanted to go to Chilocco boarding school where my dad had gone. The reason was that he had some good stories to tell of having been there. That was maybe 20 years before I went. Now, by the time I went many Indian people had gotten jobs as different kinds administrators as well as people who dealt with the students in the dorms and in the classrooms. It wasn’t a matter of being thrown into a Hell hole by 1960," said Studi.
He continued that there clearly were students who didn’t have the positive experience he had at Chilocco. Still, his memories are good.
“For me it was a big adventure. I wanted to go off someplace and see what I could do on my own.”
This story turned out to be not only a real education for me but far more emotional than I could have imagined. I asked Haskell historian Eric Anderson about that.
“I think we have a really complex story here in boarding schools. Certainly, there were many negative features. Certainly, there are many stories of bitter and acrimonious experiences leading to some fracturing of family relationships leading to assaults on culture that are lasting and we still live with the legacy of.”
Still, Anderson said, many, many Indians came away with an education and used it to transform the boarding schools. Nonetheless the subject is an emotional one for him.
“It’s especially difficult when you look at a picture of toddlers holding up a sign that says Haskell babies. Thinking about how hard that must have been, it’s very hard to remove oneself from the emotionality of it," said Anderson. "It’s our responsibility as historians to look at the broadest possible collection of evidence that leads us to the conclusion that this is a really complex period of time that in many ways we’re still living with.”
I’m reminded, amateur historian that I am, that history is rarely heaven or hell, black or white, the truth is always in between and not everyone’s truth is the same. But if there is a lesson in all of this, for me it was persistence. Studi’s character Sam Franklin said he was going to “out white man the white man.” Many Native Americans endured being ripped from their families, beaten, abused for an education that eventually helped lead Haskell from a boarding school to a university, an institution to be proud of instead of one to be feared. An institution that celebrates Native American heritage rather than trying to kill it.
Our theme music is used in this episode is Shy Touches by Nameless Dancers. Other music used in this episode is Gathering Stasis, Drone Thistle, Balti, Snowdrift and by Blue Dot Sessions; all have been edited.