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From assimilation to renaissance

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Richard Henry Pratt must be turning in his grave.

Pratt, a U.S. Army brigadier general who lived from 1840 to 1924, was the architect of military-style Indian boarding schools designed to “kill the Indian, but save the man.” Pratt’s experiment of forced cultural assimilation not only failed, but some of these same institutions are experiencing a renaissance known as the tribal college movement.

Pratt and the legacy of Indian boarding schools were among topics discussed at the Kansas Lewis and Clark Symposium at the Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence Sept. 12. The event was the final stop of a three-year series of symposia focusing on American Indian issues and policies during the 200 years since the Lewis and Clark expedition.

Robert Miller, professor at the Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland, said the current federal Indian policy era of self-determination began around 1961 when the Kennedy administration refused to terminate the federal recognition of any more tribes. Dozens of laws and federal programs have characterized this era, including the 1975 Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act. This era has witnessed the evolution of Indian education from institutions of cultural genocide to institutions that empower and celebrate Indian heritage.

Dan Wildcat, director of the American Indian Studies program at Haskell Indian Nations University, said off-reservation boarding schools were devastating for many Indians whose identity was tied to their lands.

“There were many trails of tears,” he said, noting that the greatest irony of the boarding school is that young people found ways to express pride in their identity.

“Children are incredibly resilient. They figured out ways to survive.”

Todd Fuller, president of Pawnee Nation College, spoke about tribal colleges’ role in preserving indigenous cultures and languages. He said the tribal college movement began in 1968 with the establishment of Diné College by the Navajo Nation and continues to gain momentum.

Tribal colleges, controlled by Indian nations and a board of trustees, incorporate culturally relevant curricula – what Fuller called the “indigenizing” of higher education.

“What started as a theory did become a movement. It’s a movement that continues on to this day.”

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The Tribal College Journal Web site lists 36 tribal colleges in the United States. Those institutions serve geographically isolated reservation populations and large populations of nontraditional students.

Pawnee Nation College opened its doors in 2005 with 18 students. Students in its American Indian Studies program are required to choose an emphasis area in American Indian Languages, Artistic Studies, Cultural Studies or Leadership and Management. The college is located on the grounds of the former Pawnee Indian Boarding School, known as “Gravy U” to students from 1878 to 1958.

Fuller said PNC has an open admissions policy and has now served 400 students. He said the college is in the process of pursuing accreditation within the next year.

“You have to build a tribal college from scratch,” he said.

He also spoke of the “reclaiming of the campus” – the preservation of historic campus buildings where Indian children were forced to cut their hair and endured severe punishment for speaking their native languages. The buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

“It’s a direct affront to U.S. policies,” he said.

The symposium also featured an appearance by actor Wes Studi, who premiered clips from his upcoming film dramatizing a Kickapoo boy’s boarding school experience, “The Only Good Indian.”

Studi, a Cherokee and native Oklahoman, told the audience his father attended boarding school but made many friends.

“Focusing on the good times is a method of self-preservation,” he said.

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at