Open tuesday – saturday, 10a – 6p

From Trout Creek to Gravy High: Boarding School Experience at Wind River

by Peter Iverson

¬Ľ Photo Exhibit


It was 1879, three years after the fight with that man who had graduated last in his class at West Point, General Gorge Armstrong Custer. A Lakota youth who had some understanding of whit e public opinion about that Indians of the West impulsively and perhaps against his better judgment decided to attend the school in Pennsylvania. He and other children boarded the train headed toward Carlisle Indians School.

At one point the train stopped and the passengers were shepherded off to get something to eat. A throng of non-Indians swarmed around the children, giving mock war whoops, laughing and jostling. The boy later wrote: ‚Äú[We were] surrounded by a jeering, unsympathetic people whose only emotions were those of hate and fear. The conquerors looking upon the conquered, and no more understanding of us that if we had suddenly been dropped from the moon.‚ÄĚ

The boy was Luther Standing Bear and he was one of the early students at Carlisle. This institution and its founder Richard Henry Pratt, a former U.S. army colonel, cast a long shadow over Indian education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Until he was removed from his post at Carlisle in 1904, Pratt lobbied tirelessly for doing things his way and as a result many of the boarding schools established to that point very much mirrored what Carlisle had attempted to do. Pratt’s methods included elements for which the schools would be criticized at the time­and condemned in later years.

A good example of such condemnation may be found in the recent public television program ‚ÄúIn the White Man‚Äôs Image,‚ÄĚ aired nationally as part of ‚ÄúThe American Experience.‚ÄĚ In watching this hour long overview, one is reminded of the wrenching departures from home, the separation from family and homesickness that would not go away. We see school uniforms, the haircuts imposed upon the boys, the military drills, the denial of tribal languages and the insistence on the English language, the denial of the legitimacy of Native American values and traditions and the affirmation of American nationalism. Even the names of the children were to be transformed. Luther Standing Bear became Luther when he arbitrarily picked a name from a list on the blackboard and pointed to it. One name was as good as another. Luther he would be.

Without excusing the excesses of the boarding school system, these educational institutions have to be understood in the context of the era and the specific goals of federal Indian Policy. This period following the Civil War and Reconstruction within the United States marked perhaps an unprecedented degree of national self-confidence. Most Americans were convinced that history had demonstrated the validity of the American dream. Otherwise, why would so many immigrants from around the world flock to our shores? The steely determination to assimilate these newcomers carried over into assimilationist efforts with America’s first residents. Regarding first or more recent Americans, the conventional wisdom dictated that people should fit into prevailing cultural patterns: use of the English language, Christianity, private property, democracy, Anglo-American names, and so forth, Indian families then were not alone in struggling with cultural transformations and difficult choices about the directions of their lives and the lives of their children. But what made the matter all the more traumatic, of course, was that Indians had not chosen to come. They were already here.

Not all immigrant children went to school. Others attended for a time and then drifted on or were compelled to enter the world of work. In the American South, Black students were kept out of schools designated solely for White children; separate but hardly equal facilities offered a more limited curriculum. In the guise of offering practical training, schools channeled students toward carpentry rather than chemistry. And while there was always a need for a certain number of carpenters, there could be little doubt that the Black physicians, attorneys, and other prospective professionals were denied their futures.

Indian education of the time found itself shaped by a rarely questioned perspective, echoed by the photographs of Edward Curtis. Curtis took thousands of photographs of Indian subjects, working on the assumption that Indians as Indians were about to disappear. The course of American history seemed to show that would be the case. The reservations would cease to exist. Resistance once again would be proven ill-advised or worse. However, if native American children could gain more schooling, then they would be better prepared to make their way in that larger world that most assuredly awaited them. Pratt summed it up with characteristically brutal directness: ‚ÄúKill the Indian in him and save the man.‚ÄĚ

Curtis was wrong about the disappearance of Indians and Indian communities. And Pratt’s words sound terrible to us today. Why, then would so many Indians (although by no means all) respect, and even admire Pratt? The answer lies in the fact that Pratt, unlike most others, believed in their potential and their promise­even if his vision of their future seems with hindsight to have been incorrect. At a time when many other Americans saw Indians as beings with no promise, Pratt had been impressed with whom they could become.

At a time when public schools were either distance from native communities or their doors not open to them, or both, was the right answer simply to deny education to Indian children? And once they went to school, however reluctantly, did their experience remain exactly the same in 1920 or 1930 as it had been in 1890? Once they came back to school after making it through their first year, did they all dread every part of everyday? Did it make a difference whether they made that long journey to Carlisle or attended school near their homes?

These are complex questions and the answers to them vary considerably from one individual to another, one reservation to another, and from one decade to another. It is very easy to fall into a kind of trap and only portray the story of schooling in this era as an unrelentingly negative chronicle. The television program ¬≥In the White Man¬Ļs Image¬≤ essentially presents the message of the Indian as victim. Again, this is not to argue that mission schools or government schools were necessarily appropriate avenues in every way. Far from it. We know they had biases, shortcomings, problems. They hardly embraced cultural pluralism. They often suffered from limited funding, poorly paid and poorly supervised staff, and a variety of other liabilities. Nonetheless, given the context of the age, one must try to look beyond the obvious and think more clearly and fully about what happened in these schools. When we begin to do that, we may recognize that not every last person who worked for one of the schools was a bad person or even a bad teacher. Not all Indian children hated all aspects of the schools. The legacy is mixed.

The oral history interviews that form the basis for ¬≥From Trout Creek to Gravy High¬≤ suggest that a number of variables affected how particular Shoshone children as well as their families might have responded to their education experiences. The Shoshone Episcopal Girls School, or Robert¬Ļs Mission (as it is often labeled because of the central role of missionary John Roberts), and the Fort Washakie Government Boarding School (or Gravy High, or the Industrial School) were located close to the homes of most Shoshones, on the Wind River reservation itself. But Shoshone students attending either school still faced the trauma of involuntary attendance. Marie Washakie thus remembers policemen taking her to school because her grandmother did not want her to go there. She remembers, too, that children did run away. On the other hand, families could visit on the weekend.

The local nature of the experience and the fact there were few children from different tribes attending the Wind River schools proved significant. If you had to go to Carlisle, or even as did Eva Enos, to Rapid City, you confronted a kind of detachment that could be threatening.

At any of the schools, the personality of the principal­combined with his priorities and actions­made a crucial difference in the overall character of the institutional environment. The smaller the school the larger one such figure could become.

Decades later, students from the Wind River schools have some vivid memories of particular individuals. It is not surprising that Reverend Roberts and his daughter Gwen emerge as important persons, Orlean Ute, with many others, acknowledges that John Roberts knew some of the Shoshone language­hardly enough to be confused for a native speaker, but enough so that he could have some understanding of general conversations. Given the significance of the language at the time in the working of Shoshone culture, any knowledge of it allowed a person outside of the tribe to transcend, even if partially, what anthropologists call an ethnic boundary.

Orlean Ute also recalls that Gwen Roberts could be strict. She would scrub out the mouths of the children who ³talked dirty.²

³That taught us,² Ute notes.

One would imagine it would.

The harsher discipline one hears so much about at the boarding school appears, however, at Wind River to have been especially evident in the first years of the Government School. As Dorothy Peche put it. ¬≥They¬Ļd round the kids up, the Indian kids and make them go to school whether they wanted to go or not….They just took them down there.¬≤

Suzette Wagon remembers having to kneel down on a broom as punishment and several men recalled whippings with a rubber hose. Staff members clearly could rule with an iron hand. And some did.

But there is also evidence from the oral history interviews that things became considerably more lenient in the 1930s and 1940s. More recent research shows that even by the end of the 1920s the military drills were becoming less characteristic of the off-reservation boarding schools. Changing times and slowly changing sentiments were beginning to take hold. In a new study of the Albuquerque Indian School, for example, Penny Quintana discovered such a transition not only in discipline, but also in curriculum and in extracurricular opportunities for the students.

At the larger off-reservation schools, but also at the Wind River schools, sports emerged as a major attraction for both boys and girls. The boys competed with neighboring public schools in football, basketball, baseball, and track and field. They also competed with teams from other Indian schools. The biggest schools, such as Carlisle or Haskell of Kansas, even took on area colleges and universities. The Haskell football schedule in 1928 included West Virginia University and the University of Minnesota. Such extraordinary athletes as Jim Thorpe, a Sac and Fox from Oklahoma who attended Carlisle, gained national acclaim for their abilities. Yearbooks from other schools demonstrate a growing range of clubs and interest groups for students by the 1930s.

‚ÄúThe Navajo Trail‚ÄĚ of the Charles Burke School (later Fort Wingate High School) at Fort Wingate, New Mexico, includes photographs of the school band, orchestra, boy and girl scouts, home economics club, travel club, and student council, as well as sports teams. Such activities often drew students from nearby and more distant reservations. Eva Enos‚Äôs memory of the Rapid City school as a place with better food, more teachers, and more to do is hardly a unique recollection. Equally normal is her observation that it was not as hard to return to a school in the fall once you knew the people there. The initial trip¬≠it almost always was remembered as one of the longest journeys the person had made¬≠contained difficult moments. The second trip usually was not equally troubling. Of course it varied and even a more familiar environment did not necessarily erase homesickness and separation from loved ones.

Smaller reservation-based schools, such as Roberts’ Mission and Gravy High, thus sometimes lost students to bigger schools such as Haskell or Chilocco in northern Oklahoma. Family tradition sometimes played a role in where or how long a student attended a particular school. The smaller schools often struggled with inadequate finances and that, in turn, affected a number of dimensions. Such places had gardens, for example, not only to demonstrate the value of hard work and to reinforce the agrarian ideals of the time. Gardens also provided food that students could eat and the school did not have to buy. At Roberts’ Mission, the reverend demonstrated the right way to peel potatoes so that not too much would be wasted.

Marjorie Tillman observes the mission garden also included onions and parsnips. Mrs. Tillman never liked parsnips and ‚Äúthat‚Äôs why I remember it.‚ÄĚ For others, the culprit was spinach, oatmeal or other unfamiliar foods. Mrs. Tillman remembers Sundays, the one day in the week when whole milk was available. And it almost goes without saying that gravy, gravy, and more gravy in the school diet gave the Fort Washakie boarding school its rather unenviable nickname. Gravy High had its own smokehouse and its own chickens. It is not clear whether its garden also could boast of parsnips.

Limited funding also influenced the kind of work the students did on the campus. Although school officials liked to contend that experiences within the school were directly linked to vocational training, it is clear that in many schools, students‚ÄĒespecially the older ones‚ÄĒperformed many of the necessary daily chores that allowed the schools to operate. As Suzette Wagon comments, the other name for the Fort Washakie School was ‚Äúthe industrial.‚ÄĚ She remembers the laundry, the cooking, and the baking as an integral part of life in school. Many places dedicated about half of the day to classes and the other half to work.

Especially in the first years of the off-reservation schools, students participated in what Pratt called the ‚Äúouting system,‚ÄĚ through which they were placed for a time with White families. There they worked and, so the theory went, absorbed the values and daily routines of such households. Other students, including some at Gravy High, worked on western farms as laborers ¬≠sometimes instead of returning home in the summer to their families.

Students did not always fit in easily to the world of their reservation if indeed they returned home, but they were not necessarily prepared either to take part fully in the rapidly changing economy of the larger society.

At times the schools fostered developments that were different from what they hoped to achieve, and that mitigated against total assimilation of Indian students into American society. Just as with the very existence of reservation emphasizing separation and lack of integration, the reality of separate schools for Indians, regardless of who taught or what was taught, suggested a different and special identity. One may view this as segregation, but it could also serve‚ÄĒconsciously or unconsciously‚ÄĒto underscore for students the things they had in common with each other. Friendships formed, often to endure for a life time. If you attended an Indian school as a teenager, you might meet the person you would marry. Anna Moore, a Pima student at the Phoenix Indian School, became high school sweethearts, as she put it, with Ross Shaw. They later married and lived happily together. Phoenix Indian School became in Mrs. Shaw‚Äôs memoir, A Pima Past, in part a place where she had met her husband.

Other consequences emerged over time. At schools where only members from one tribe were enrolled, membership in that particular community could often be strengthened. But at schools where people from a number of different Native American communities attended, students discovered they had things in common with each other as Indians. Such a discovery could lessen old tribal antagonisms and could promote a second layer of Indian identity in addition to that of tribe. This development promoted participation in all-Indian activities, including the pow-wow, which would grow dramatically in popularity in the years following the World War II. Another significant example came with the growth of the Native American Church, which stressed brotherhood and a unique form of Indian worship. The boarding schools, ironically, were prime recruiting ground for the church. Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school graduates frequently found employment in the bureau itself. There again they faced a recognition of commonality.

By the late 1920s federal policy toward Indians began the transition that would be realized more fully in the days of the New Deal. More students began to enroll in day schools rather than in boarding schools. Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier and his associates in the New Deal era encouraged Bureau Of Indian Affairs schools to take a less antagonistic stance toward native cultures and traditions. Although it is apparent that not all bureau teachers necessarily got the message, one starts to see some real variations from past patterns.

In the 1930s written forms of Indian languages were developed with active participation by bureau personnel, followed by use of these forms in school primers. Moreover, such bilingual primers presented traditional tribal life in a positive way, depicting Navajo sheepherders, Indian family life, and appreciation for a particular land. Indian arts and crafts were introduced in many classrooms. Such a transition was often incomplete, but its partial existence reminds us that we cannot freeze our image of Indian schools at any one point and assume that they remained exactly the same for decades on end.

In the years after World War II, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began a slow but steady movement to encourage Indian children to attend public schools. New highways, passage of legislation to provide funds for reservation public school construction and operation, and other events allowed for the beginnings of reservation public schools. The old boarding schools did not fade away overnight, and even today a few remain in particularly isolated areas of Indian country. But by the time Gravy High closed down in the mid-1950s, a movement had begun that would eventually claim nearly all of the reservation and off-reservation boarding schools.

When Chilocco shut its doors in the 1970s, many of its alumni protested the action. This protest provided a poignant commentary on the mixed legacy of the institution. The old schools had been part of a common experience, even if it may well have been time to move on to other forms of education. New schools would still confront continuing as well as new problems. There would be no easy answers. The schools would continue to reflect the challenges of Indian life-at Wind River and elsewhere.


St.Stephen’s was the first Wind River Boarding school to convert to a day school. The Fort Washakie Government School followed one year later.

The Shoshone Episcopal Girls School closed its doors in 1949. Rev. Roberts was by then partially blind, elderly, and frail. Although the Shoshones petitioned the church to keep the mission open, there were not even enough funds to operate the school’s furnace

In 1956, a fire destroyed the boys’ dormitory at St. Michael’s. The mission could not afford to rebuild, and so the entire school was closed down. St. Michaels had added high school years to its offering in the 1930s. The Shoshone Mission never went further than the 8th grade.

An improved reservation road system and better transportation gave students the option of going to nearby Lander. In 1933 and 1934, two or three Indian children attended the town’s public school, and their numbers gradually increased as time passed. It was 1955, though , that marked the end of the an era. In that year the Fort Washakie Government School transferred its lands and buildings to public School District #21.