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Hampton Indian students study new language, culture and way of life

HAMPTON, Va. - For some early Indian students at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, a teachers' school initially founded for the newly-freed black slaves, adjusting to campus life, proved difficult.

The Indian prisoners who came from St. Augustine, Fla., had already changed their style of clothing and had worked among whites long enough to have had fewer problems adapting to the changes. The students from the Dakota territories who came later in 1878, however, found the changes more troublesome.

Photographs from Hampton University Archives show the before and after look of the Indian students from many of the Sioux tribes. In one photograph published in the book "To Lead and To Serve American Indian Education at Hampton Institute 1878-1923" by Mary Lou Hultgren and Paulette F. Molin, the male Indian students are wearing long shirts, pants, blankets and moccasins. They also have long hair worn loose or braided. But on a subsequent page, a photograph of the same students show them this time with their hair cut short and dressed in hard-soled, leather shoes, wool pants, buttoned-down shirts and ties along with wool coats.

Changing from their tribe's style of dress to the white style of dress wasn't something many of the students liked, according to a black Hampton Institute graduate and former slave, Booker T. Washington.

"'? but no white American ever thinks that any other race is wholly civilized until he wears the white man's clothes, eats the white man's food, speaks the white man's language, and professes the white man's religion,'" Washington said. (Hultgren and Molin)

By far one of the most troubling experiences for the Indian students was adjustment to the Virginia climate. Those from a drier climate didn't fare well in the humid area of coastal Virginia. Because some of the students either had tuberculosis or developed it once they arrived, it only grew worse in Hampton, according to Donal F. Lindsey in his book, "Indians at Hampton 1877-1923." More than 30 students who developed tuberculosis died and were buried in the school cemetery. Their grave markers identify them by name, many times their Indian name, tribe and year they died. The markers still designate their graves today in the Hampton University cemetery located on Orchard Drive.

Aside from many of the students being sick and missing their tribes, the majority of the Indian students also faced the challenge of learning a foreign language - English. The first 15 Indian prisoners to arrive, however, had already learned some English. Four studied in advanced classes, three in regular classes with black students and two in preparatory classes, according to Hultgren and Molin. The interpreter of the group studied in a junior program, which also was a higher level of the available curriculum.

In 1879, Hampton Institute established its Indian Department and provided seven "non-graded levels" based on English proficiency, Hultgren and Molin wrote. At the first three levels, the students learned English through the use of objects and pictures - it was mostly oral lessons. At the fourth level, Indian students began studying English from textbooks.

"As soon as Indian students were deemed academically proficient, they entered Hampton's normal or teacher-training course of study," according to Hultgren and Molin.

Indians in the teacher-training course practiced their teacher training at the Butler School until 1887, according to displays in the Hampton University Museum. During that time, Hampton had constructed the Whittier School, which is where student teachers later practiced.

The success in educating Indians to become teachers and/or skilled in various trades was noted just two years into the program. President Rutherford B. Hayes was quoted as having said that the Carlisle military barracks in Pennsylvania should be opened as an Indian school since Hampton Institute had been successful in educating Indians.

Despite the education of blacks and Indians in separate classrooms, the first students did study with blacks. The co-education of the two races did create criticism in Virginia, which prohibited desegregated education. Also, both the black and Indian students had stereotypes of each other, and in the beginning were unsure of what to expect from each other, Lindsey wrote.

Teachers, too, didn't know what to expect at first. One of the white teachers, Cora Mae Folsom had written that some female teachers "'got rather panicky,'" when dealing with some of the Indian students. (Lindsey)

Since many of the black students enrolled at Hampton were from poor and rural families, Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong, Hampton Institute's founder, created a work program. The students, including many Indian students later on, worked at the school to earn money to pay for their room and board. Students grew the food for the school, and students helped build the facilities on the campus. For example, the Wigwam dormitory for male Indian students was built by students, who also made the bricks. (Hultgren and Molin)

Hampton also created apprenticeship programs in the 1880s, teaching students the trades of farming, carpentry, shoemaking, tinsmithing, butchering, blacksmithing, printing, wheelwrighting, painting, harnessmaking and engineering.

Outings became a part of the Indian education. During summer months, both male and female Indian students were sent to live with New England families. They would perform chores for the families with some of their money returned to the school, and as they lived with the families, the Indian students improved their English.

Upon graduation from Hampton Institute, Indian students were required to recite a passage, stating that they wanted to be civilized and to be Christian missionaries when they returned home to their reservations. This eventually became a problem for some Indian students when they returned home.

"The [teachers] may have wanted them to be good Christian missionaries, but I find their commitment to the [students] as human beings commendable," said JoAllyn Archambault, program director of the American Indian Program for the Smithsonian's National Museum of History. Archambault, a Standing Rock Sioux, has written about her grandfather, Joseph Archambault, who attended Hampton Institute from 1881 - 1884.

Thomas Smith, another Hampton Institute student in the late 1800s, wrote many letters with positive comments about his experiences at the school. Smith left for Hampton Institute in 1878 with several other students who were Hadatsa, Mandan or Arikara from the Fort Berthold agency, said his great grandson, James R. Young, a Hadatsa-Arikara. These students, too, traveled with Capt. Richard Pratt but by steamboat down the Missouri River where they met other Lakota Sioux students from Yankton. They all then headed to Virginia by a train, Young said.

Young, a retired instructor of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, N.D., has started writing a book on the Rev. Charles L. Hall and the Fort Berthold Indians. In a biography excerpt, "Thomas Smith: A Personal Perspective" for the "North Dakota History Journal of the Northern Plains," Young wrote that his great-grandfather studied the engineering trade at Hampton Institute. This consisted of instructing the apprentices in "care of engines and boilers, steam and gas-fitting, use of cold chisels, files and ratchet drills at the bench." In a letter home that Young quoted in his article, Smith wrote, "'? I can run the engine and stop it again, and I like to work in there very much, and learn something.'" Hampton's Indian students were urged to write home to tell of their experiences. Such letters would help recruit other students, Young said.

"He wanted to let his father know he was doing well," said Young from his home on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in South Dakota where he is a part-time instructor at the Cheyenne River Community College.

Young said that from his research and from what his grandmother has told him, Smith enjoyed his time at Hampton Institute where he sought a basic education. His great-grandfather later became a teacher and a politician in North Dakota.

(Continued in Part 3)

Be sure to check out Indian Country Today's Education magazine, available in its print edition Sept. 3. Learn about tribal colleges, Native studies programs, scholarships and more.