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Toil and sacrifice: The price of earning an education at Hampton Institute

HAMPTON, Va. - Earning an education at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute during the late 1800s truly meant that.

The students, both Indian and black, at the school, which initially opened to educate the newly freed Southern slaves, performed manual labor as part of their studies and to pay for their expenses.

They often made the bricks, constructed the buildings, provided upkeep of the facilities as well as grew the food on Hampton Institute's three farms. Any spending money they had usually came from the jobs at the school and from the summer outings where they worked for northern white families.

Female students even made their own clothing, scrubbed the floors and prepared meals for teachers and students for some of their class assignments. Because the Indian female students would return to their reservations and live in frontier houses, they also had to learn how to use tools, and they began studying the technical trades in 1886, learning how to frame a window and build a box or shelves, according to Mary Lou Hultgren and Paulette F. Molin, authors of "To Lead and To Serve American Indians at Hampton Institute 1878-1923."

Years later, Tom Smith, a Hadatsa from North Dakota - whose numerous letters from Hampton Institute and to his former teachers indicated he enjoyed his time there - began to question the usefulness of the technical education the students were receiving, said his great-grandson, James Young, a Hadatsa-Arikara.

"I know he had some reservations about the school later on," said Young, a retired United Tribes Technical College instructor now writing a biography on the Rev. Charles L. Hall and the Fort Berthold Indians. "He was concerned because there wasn't the communication between the Indian agency and the school that there had been. He also had concerns about students being trained in boiler making. That was great for students living in Hampton, but you couldn't use it on the reservation."

Aside from difficulties finding jobs, other Indian students faced rejection by their tribes and families when they returned home. The clash between the assimilationist ways and the traditional Indian culture often left the Indian students torn between two worlds.

Indian students upon graduation were required to recite a passage stating they wanted to be civilized and become Indian missionaries, according to a Hampton University Museum exhibit. Because of this, Thomas Wildcat Alford, an Absentee Shawnee of Oklahoma and Hampton Institute graduate, was criticized by his tribe when he returned because he had broken an oath he took in which he agreed not "to accept Christianity or be civilized," Hultgren and Molin wrote.

Alford, the great-grandson of Tecumseh, entered Hampton in 1879 and was one of the first three Indians to graduate. Despite the criticism, he worked as a teacher, interpreter, surveyor and farmer, among many other positions, detailed in a Hampton University Museum exhibit.

The first Hampton Institute Indian students who came from the Northern Plains were children of tribes that had experienced "war and rapid confinement onto reservations" and "a dramatic and traumatic military defeat," said Wilbert H. Ahern, University of Minnesota professor of history. Ahern, who wrote "An Experiment Aborted: Returned Indian Students in the Indian School Service, 1881-1908," published in "Ethnohistory," said non-Indians equated this "trauma" and their defeat with Indians opposed to changing.

But in researching the returning Indian students, Ahern said he found that the Northern Plains Indians "wanted their children to gain literacy but not to lose their own languages and values."

Because Brig. Gen. Samuel C. Armstrong, founder of Hampton Institute, made the teaching of agriculture a top priority, many Indian students returned to their reservations and became farmers. With an agricultural education, the Northern Plains Indians also quickly shifted to stockraising "pretty successfully" in the late 1800s, Ahern said.

"Some reformers in Washington, D.C., thought farming was a sign of civilization and that stockraising didn't represent enough change, but it was a viable and effective replacement for bison hunting," Ahern said.

Still the Indians who returned home faced other setbacks. Whites opposed to the use of Indian employees were those who "were engaged in mismanagement and fraud," Ahern said. They also held racist views, refusing to see educated Indians as their equals. In his research he found that the returning Indian graduates who became teachers were transferred frequently and encountered problems with the school superintendents and with other teachers.

Despite problems, those that had attended the Hampton Institute Indian Department returned to their communities "with strength to help improve them," Ahern said.

"They brought back skills and understanding of the legal system," Ahern said. "The other thing they brought back was political connections. In the long run, however, the legal and political system failed to serve many of them justly, being more responsive to the surrounding non-Indian communities."

One successful Lakota student from Standing Rock, Joseph Archambault, came to Hampton Institute in 1881 and studied for three years, said his granddaughter, JoAllyn Archambault, the program director for the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Once he returned to the reservation, he worked for his father on the family cattle ranch and later became a clerk and translator for Sitting Bull, JoAllyn Archambault wrote in the article "A Man of Two Worlds: Joseph Archambault," in the "North Dakota History Journal of the Northern Plains."

"In terms of documentation, I am certainly glad that some staff members at Hampton saved the letters and the photographs," JoAllyn Archambault said.

Like many of the students at Hampton Institute, Joseph Archambault studied English and could speak a Native language. After he returned home at age 13 to work with his family, he eventually started his own ranch, operated a country store as well as owned a hotel in McIntosh, S.D. He also served as vice president of First National Bank in McIntosh and later was elected county treasurer in 1917, the first Indian elected to public office in the state, she wrote.

Hampton University Archives maintained records of the students' activities. Because Armstrong sought to Christianize Indians, Hampton instituted religious observances, according to Hultgren and Molin. Indian students attended mandatory afternoon church services, and because many of the Indian students were Catholic, Armstrong had the local Catholic church handle the "spiritual care" of those students, Hultgren and Molin wrote.

"There was tremendous pressure to Christianize them then," JoAllyn Archambault said. "I don't think Hampton was any different in that respect either. But they were probably more humane."

Corporal punishment of students during that era also was an acceptable practice at many schools, she said.

"So you can't blame people for being a part of their time," JoAllyn Archambault said.

To punish those who drank whiskey or refused to cooperate, Hampton Institute had the students placed in a cell called the "dungeon," Donal F. Lindsey wrote in his book, "Indians at Hampton Institute 1877-1923." This dungeon, later criticized by foes of Armstrong, ended up with improvements - even though Armstrong himself once slept in the 200-cubic-foot room with little ventilation or light and claimed it wasn't as bad as it had been described, Lindsey wrote.

Despite Armstrong's claims that the dungeon was needed to punish those who used whiskey, Lindsey wrote, Armstrong's protest to keep the cell became one of several criticisms used against him by his opponents' interested in closing the Hampton Institute Indian Department.

(Continued in Part 4)