Sports and the Politics of Identity and Memory: The Case of Federal Indian Boarding Schools During the 1930s

John Bloom
1998 Ethnic Studies Review  
The federal government of the United States developed a complex system of boarding schools for Native Americans in the 19 th century. This effort was generally insensitive and often brutal. In spite of such brutality many students managed to negotiate and create new understandings of traditions and cul tural autonomy while in such schools. Now, however, some for mer students remember their lives as students with mixed emotions. Drawing on oral history interviews and public official documents,
more » ... ficial documents, the author examines the recreational and athletic life at the boarding schools and finds that students were, nev ertheless, able to experience pleasure and pride in creating new ways of expressing their identities as Native Americans. During the late 19th century, the federal government of the United States developed a complex system of boarding schools for Native Americans. The schools were created as part of a crusade by a coalition of reformers who aimed to assimilate indigenous Americans into dominant Anglo Protestant society. With a fervor that was partly evangelical and partly militaristic the creators of the boarding school sys tem hoped that through education they could bring about a mass cultural conversion by waging a war upon Native American identities and cultural memories. The federal effort to educate Native Americans was so total in vision and scope and so often brutal in its enforcement that it is sometimes difficult to imagine how students survived 51 Ethnic Studies Review Volume 21 such an experience that could be profoundly dehumanizing. Recent scholarship, however, has explored oral histories and documents generated from boarding school students. Work by has shown that students not only survived their experiences, but in doing so reimagined their ethnic iden tities in ways that were creative, inventive, and in dialogue with the historical contexts that indigenous people have faced in North America during the twentieth century. i Much of this schol arship has also argued that the 1930s were a particularly important time when economic depression and federal reform created a new terrain over which struggles for Native American identity and memory took place. In spite of the brutality that they often faced, many students managed to negotiate and create new understandings of tradition and cultural autonomy while at school and frequently remember their lives as students with a complex set of emotions. The popular culture, athletic teams, and sporting activities that students experienced at boarding schools comprised one of the most important regions of this terrain where the federal government, educators, and students themselves negotiated the meanings of American Indian identities and memories. The existence of relatively autonomous cultures among students at boarding schools constitutes one of the most sig nificant findings by new scholars of Indian boarding school his tory. Lomawaima and Child, for example, explore how stu dents at Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, and at Chilocco in northern Oklahoma organized their own cultural lives around pranks, gangs, and the breaking of rules. Their research reveals insidious folklore among female students, male gangs that dominated peer relations, students fermenting and drink ing their own alcohol, and even outright student rebellion.i i Sports comprise a little studied but concrete site at boarding schools where students negotiated these cultures within the boundaries of their institutionalized lives. From a very early date in the history of the federal Indian boarding school pro gram, physical education was a core part of the curriculum at many schools. Educators hoped that calisthenics literally could foster moral and intellectual progress by altering the body types of students. Just before the turn of the century institu-
doi:10.1525/esr.1998.21.1.51 fatcat:ehkt3mqoljgjdloloudhbmj2gq