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The evolution of Indian education

LAWRENCE, Kan. – The first students entered the doors of Haskell Institute in 1884. On Sept. 1, Haskell Indian Nations University students representing 124 tribes gathered for the fall convocation to honor the school’s past and to celebrate the evolution of Indian education.

Twelve blanketed chairs sat empty on the stage of the Haskell auditorium representing the first 12 students who attended what was then known as the United States Indian Industrial Training School in 1884.

“We will never forget those who came before us,” said Haskell President Dr. Linda Warner.

The early trades for boys included tailoring, painting and farming. Girls studied cooking, sewing and homemaking. In 1927, Haskell began offering high school classes accredited by the state of Kansas. By 1935, Haskell began to evolve into a post high school vocational-technical institution, and the last high school class graduated in 1965. In 1970, Haskell began offering a junior college curriculum and became Haskell Indian Junior College.

After a period of planning for the 21st century, the National Haskell Board of Regents developed its vision for Haskell as a national center for Indian education, research and cultural preservation. In 1993, the school became Haskell Indian Nations University.

Today, Haskell offers baccalaureate degrees in business administration, elementary education, indigenous and American Indian studies and environmental science. In institutions where assimilation into white society was once a tenet of Indian education, Haskell and today’s tribal colleges now embrace and celebrate tribal cultures and diversity. Haskell integrates American Indian/Alaska Native culture into all its curricula.

Warner said more than 1,100 students were enrolled at Haskell for the 2009 fall semester. “Again, we are at capacity.”

Actor Wes Studi took the stage to give the convocation address, sharing his story with Haskell students. Besides being an acclaimed actor, Studi is a Vietnam veteran, author, activist, sculptor and musician. He has appeared in more than 50 film and television productions including “Powwow Highway,” “The Last of the Mohicans,” “Heat” and “Crazy Horse.”

“I myself am a product of Indian schools,” said Studi, a Cherokee who attended Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma during the 1960s.

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Studi said he was blown away by the diversity of American Indian tribes represented at Chilocco. “I was amazed. It was quite a learning experience.”

He said Cherokee was the only language spoken in his home when he was a boy. “That was life as I knew it.”

His first introduction to the English language came while he was a student at Chilocco. Within a year there, he learned English but forgot his native tongue in the process. He had to re-learn Cherokee.

Today, Studi is the national spokesperson for the Indigenous Language Institute in Santa Fe, N.M., an organization working to maintain American Indian languages. “When we lose a language, we pretty much lose a people,” he said.

Studi recalled one of his teachers at Chilocco who discouraged Indian students from seeking anything beyond learning a trade and holding blue collar jobs. “I did take him seriously for a while.”

Studi said Indian education has changed since his days at Chilocco because Indians have taken over the job of running the schools. “Things have changed, and that’s because we have taken control over our own destiny.”

Studi urged Haskell students to honor and remember those students who came before them and encouraged them to dream big. “Aspire to the highest goals that you possibly can.”

Warner told the assembly that Haskell’s mission today is service and sovereignty – an idea she said would have been unthinkable in 1884. “A lot has changed in 125 years. Now, this school is ours.”

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at