Harvard Educational Review
  1. Boarding School Seasons

    American Indian Families, 1900–1940

    By Brenda J. Child

    Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998. 145 pp. $35.00

    Brenda J. Child’s first book powerfully reveals the experiences and perspectives of American Indian students who attended federal boarding schools. In Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families, 1900–1940, Child skillfully uses primary documents, personal letters, and school newspapers to unveil the important stories of Ojibwe children who attended the Haskell Institute in Kansas and the Flandreau School in South Dakota. The historical context in which the Ojibwe lived is vividly captured in actual letters and documents from the schools and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). This book provides a glimpse into Ojibwe families’ thoughts, motivations, and hopes for the future — perspectives that have often been overlooked in historical research. “Letters are at the heart of this story” (p. xii), Child writes, referring to the hundreds of letters written by Ojibwe children and their parents.

    Each chapter introduces a theme that shapes and further explains cultural nuances and knowledge familiar to, and shared by many, Ojibwe families impacted by the boarding school experience. In chapter one, “Star Quilts and Jim Thorpe,” the author states, “The boarding school experience spanned several generations and affected dozens of tribes in the United States and Canada. The experience . . . has become part of our common heritage as North American Indians” (p. 8).

    Child writes in the first person, welcoming the reader into an experience shared among Native peoples. She does this by bringing the reader’s attention to specific letters sent from child to parent, thereby personalizing and acknowledging their experience of “our common heritage.”

    “From Reservation to Boarding School” (ch. 2) is an overview of the transition from reservation life to boarding school life experienced by Ojibwe families. Child writes about the impact of legislation passed to redistribute land into individual allotments and the resulting depressed economic conditions on Indian reservations. Ojibwe families living on reservations were not the only ones affected economically, however. Child writes, “Boarding school became a solution for many urban Indian women when they were not able to support a family” (p. 21). This research also reveals how Native families turned to the federal Indian boarding schools as a way to meet their children’s social, medical, and educational needs. Child’s presentation of letters weaves together both the personal and the historical, helping to place the Ojibwe people within a broader history that encompasses most American Indian families.

    Child brilliantly brings together the letters of Ojibwe parents and students, school superintendents and BIA agents regarding “homesickness.” Taken together, this correspondence tells a story of how difficult it was to acquire permission to visit children attending boarding schools far from their reservation homes. As an example of how much control the school and BIA officials exercised over relationships, they often denied parents’ requests to visit their children. More generally, children were not allowed to leave the boarding schools until they had completed their programs of study, which usually spanned four to five years, depending on the child’s age. Although these letters are evidence of emotional hardships, they also indicate how both children and parents desired “proper” industrial training and education. In addition to its discussion of the letters and school documents, the book displays photos of some children attending these schools. One photo shows two young men working on a car; another depicts a sewing class. The most endearing photo is that of the “Haskell Babies,” a kindergarten cohort and the youngest group of children enrolled at the Haskell Institute.

    Child has rewritten a part of American Indian history in a way that encourages further exploration. The many letters revealing the experiences, emotions, and hopes of Ojibwe families are treated with respect and care. Initially conceived as a book contributing to Child’s own Ojibwe tribal history, Boarding School Seasons is also a powerful contribution to the field of American Indian education and the history of American education.

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