For many, steam rising from turkeys fresh out the oven last week evoked images of the Pilgrims. Schoolchildren learn that the origin of American democracy is the Mayflower Compact by which the Pilgrims pledged themselves to self-governance.
Less is said in classrooms and by television’s talking heads about the experience of Native Americans in the years since they were at that first Thanksgiving.
For American Indians, an event of the sort reported in an 1883 Tribune article headlined “Little Injuns” conjures up painful memories:
“The Feehanville Training-School received a large and unique addition to its inmates in the last few days in the form of forty Sioux Indian boys from the Dakota Indian reservation. “
“The notables among them,” the Tribune noted, “were three hereditary chieftains — Wa Myhe, the son of Sitting Bull, age 23; Catan Sapa, the son of Black Hawk, age 11; and Itaizipo, the son of Good Bear, age 19. “
The school was in the northwest suburbs near Des Plaines, starting out as St. Mary’s Training School then becoming Maryville Academy in 1950. Bringing boys and young men from the Sioux tribe there from a Western reservation marked an abrupt U-turn in the country’s policy.
The U.S. government had been sending American Indians westward, ever since the East Coast Natives were forcibly exiled west of the Mississippi River in the 1830s under the Indian Removal Act.
The Tribune was told the agent assigned to the Standing Rock Reservation in the Dakotas had “induced 200 Indian families to take up farming and build houses there within the last year, and has the whole body on the reservation, numbering 5,000, under perfect control and discipline. “”
But the Sioux boys were sent from that reservation eastward to a Catholic orphanage. There they would stay three years.
David Beck, a professor of Native American history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said schools like St. Mary’s took part in a system of economically driven cultural genocide.
“They needed a source of funding,” Beck told an NPR interviewer earlier this year.
He said the school was struggling financially and the federal government was offering to pay the Chicago Archdiocese $107 per boy annually.
The purpose of such a contract and the effort to education the Natives in Western ways, as colloquially described by Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, was to “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man. “
“The Indians under our care have remained savage,” he said in an 1892 speech. “We have never made any effort to civilize them with the idea of taking them into the nation. “
He didn’t mince words about what he saw as the solution.
“In Indian Civilization I am a Baptist, because I believe in immersing the Indian in our civilization and when we get them under holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked,” he wrote in the memoir “Battlefield and Classroom: Four Decades With the American Indian, 1867-1904. “
He worked out the practical application of his mantra when serving as a jailer to Kiowa, Comanche and Cheyenne prisoners of war at Fort Marion in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1875 to 1878.
Finding the prisoners sinking from “helplessness into depression,” he had their leg irons removed. He explained that good behavior would be rewarded, taking them on camping and fishing excursions. He gradually introduced them to life in St. Augustine beyond the prison walls.
Then he gave passes to selected prisoners to explore the white man’s world, usually in pairs. The locals were both fascinated by the Indians and initially fearful of them. In time, the sight of Indians strolling and shopping along St. Augustine’s streets became commonplace.
Not all his innovations were instant successes. Thinking that if American Indians were to be integrated into the white man’s world they had to dress like him, he issued them trousers. But preferring Indian leggings, the prisoners cut them off at the hip. A stern talk persuaded the Indians to wear their trousers unaltered.
What Pratt took away from that prison became the template for about 357 Indian training schools. Between 1800 and 1978, they housed 60,000 boarders. Most were taken from families with no say in the matter.
Just as in the others, Indians were robbed of their culture on the day of their arrival at St. Mary’s Training School. Their hair was cut short, and they were given American names.
The St. Paul Post published a glossary of name changes for Indians in 1883. Mazakaha became Samuel Godereau. Wasicuncinca became George Pleats.
It noted that Hoksilaska, a boy being taken to St. Mary’s, drew a picture of a horse, like those he had known on the Standing Rock Reservation.
St. Mary’s and other schools like it were founded to keep Catholic children from losing their faith in the essentially Protestant ethos of the public schools. At the same time, the school was force-feeding mainstream American culture to Native American children. Speaking English was required. Tribal languages were strictly forbidden.
Yet life at the school wasn’t shaped solely by malice and greed. There was also a measure of genuine concern for American Indians by those who contributed to shaping the country’s policies.
“The rush of Western settlement grows more and more,” wrote Henry Pancoast, a Philadelphia lawyer who organized the Indian Rights Association, after an 1882 visit to Sioux reservations in the Dakotas. He found the Native Americans ill-equipped for the inevitable cultural confrontation, where they were at a considerable disadvantage economically.
Thomas Morgan, the commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1889 to 1893, wrote that “a wild Indian requires a thousand acres to roam over, while an intelligent man will find comfortable, support for his family on a very small tract.”
Accordingly, social reformers thought that to survive in an individualist society, the Native people needed what today’s shrinks dub assertive therapy.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, the abolitionist author of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” applauded Pratt’s work in “The Christian Crisis,” a publication with a progressive readership. She liked what she saw when visiting his St. Augustine prison program.
“We found no savages,” she wrote. “There were among these pupils seated and docile, with books in hand, men who had seen the foremost in battle and bloodshed. Now there was plainly to be seen among them the eager joy which comes from the use of a new set of faculties.”
Outreach to Indians had previously come from Christian missionaries preaching in tribal languages. Their successors were schoolteachers who took on the work of teaching the American Indian children English.
The results were passed through a filter of institutional prejudices. At St. Mary’s, they were blatant.
“The Indians, with the exception of three white boys, have been exclusively employed on the farm,” Indian Bureau inspectors found. “More Indians ought to learn trades. They are eminently imitative and under prudent directions they can become proficient in mechanical arts. Two (or) more Indians might learn baking. Four or five carpentry, the same number shoe making and tailoring. Thus when they return to the reservations they can receive an encouraging compensation for their labor. “
The school’s contract wasn’t renewed. Money for educating Native Americans was getting tight. Maybe the feds simply thought it better spent elsewhere. It was cheaper to school them on the reservations.
Either way, on Oct. 28, 1886, 48 of the surviving members of the initial group of Sioux were transferred away from St. Mary’s. Five Indians were left behind. Having died from respiratory diseases, they remain in Des Plaines.
The boys, whose Native names are in school records — among them Red Bull, Black Hawk, Gray Bear and Walking White Buffalo — are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.