The Hard-Learned Lessons of History

California’s last boarding school for Indigenous students moves toward embracing—not disgracing—tradition and culture.

first opened in 1902, sherman indian high school, originally known as sherman institute, has housed several generations of indigenous students
Sherman Indian Museum

For most Americans, high school is a chapter of life that they begin in their mid-teens and finish at the cusp of adulthood and look back on—fondly or otherwise—for the rest of their lives.

While high school may be a place of personal growth and transformation for the students who pass through its halls, the educational institution itself tends not to change all that much over the years. That has not been the case for Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California.

Lorene Sisquoc was born at the boarding school, back when the place was called Sherman Institute. Although she attended public school outside Sherman’s walls, she grew up on its campus, alongside her grandmother, who taught there, and her mother, who cleaned and monitored the dorms (the children of employees typically attended public school, a custom that lingered after the revocation of a decades-long rule that prevented them from attending the school). During the summers, she and the other employees’ kids rode their bikes and skated around the otherwise deserted 80-acre campus. “We had the run of the place,” Sisquoc says. “It was our playground.” Decades later, she teaches at Sherman and has become the keeper of its history. While Sisquoc, a member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and a descendant of the Cahuilla tribe, has remained on campus most of her 60 years, the school itself has undergone such a radical transformation that its founding principles—its aims and its curriculum—have been turned on their heads.

Sherman Indian High School was no ordinary high school, but a campus built in a national campaign of cultural annihilation.

This article appears in the Fall 2021 issue of Alta Journal.
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When Sherman Institute opened its doors in 1902, it became the last off-reservation boarding school built by the federal government. At the turn of the 20th century, there were more than 25 such institutions, from Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School, whose first director learned the ropes as a jailer of Kiowa and Cheyenne prisoners of war, to Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, which turned 140 last year. Founded on the philosophy that the U.S. government must “kill the Indian” to “save the man,” these schools set out to “civilize” Indigenous children and assimilate them into mainstream American culture, away from the supposedly negative influences of their parents and tribes. For decades, children as young as four were forcibly removed from their families and shipped off to the schools.

The often shameful history of Indigenous boarding schools has grabbed international headlines recently following the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves on the grounds of former schools for Indigenous children in Saskatchewan and British Columbia. The revelations in Canada have prompted the U.S. interior secretary to begin a search for similar burial sites in this country.

In the United States, Sherman was the flagship institution of a boarding school system overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The place was not unlike a military base: uniformed students marched to classes and meals, saluted the superintendent during morning colors, and, if they acted up, did time in the school’s jail. The campus boasted a grand administration building constructed in the then-popular mission revival style and fronted by an immense parade ground; single-sex dormitories shared space with the school’s hospital, laundry, and ranch. Tourists staying at Riverside’s now-iconic Mission Inn could take a trolley to see the “Indian school” and its residents, before continuing on their way to the nearby zoo.

Today, Sherman is one of only four remaining off-reservation boarding schools in the country and the only one left in California. If the founders could see it now, they would hardly recognize the place, and not just because many of the school’s original buildings are long gone. Where students were once punished for speaking their own languages, tribal languages and customs are now celebrated. During ordinary, non-pandemic school years, Sherman hosts annual Indigenous film festivals and fashion shows, ceremonial fires and powwows, where around 450 students from 76 tribes share their cultural traditions with one another. Sisquoc is at the center of much of it, serving as the curator of the school’s on-campus museum and teaching classes on Native traditions. “Everything’s done to instill cultural pride while they’re away from home, to share and pass it on and learn from other tribes,” she says. “It’s all about pride, not shame, as it was originally.”

How did such a change come to be? Why do students who are passionate about understanding their culture flock to a school that, during its formative years, was accused of trying to literally and figuratively beat the “Indian” out of its charges? And why do people who attended the school back then encourage their own kids and grandkids to attend now? Over the past decade, a growing number of scholars have been uncovering the lost histories of Sherman, examining everything from its “outing” system—a labor program that sent schoolkids to work in fields, on ranches, and in local homes as part of their “civilizing” process—to its sports and performing arts offerings. But if the early days of the school were dark, they also laid the groundwork for the gathering place and cultural mecca the school has become.

STUDENT LABOR

Like so many California stories, Sherman Institute’s begins with water. Although there was already a small school for Indigenous children in nearby Perris, the superintendent there, Harwood Hall, aggressively campaigned to move it to Riverside, claiming that the Perris location lacked adequate water to support the school’s needs. Hall teamed with Frank Miller, a local entrepreneur who hoped to tap the school as a source of workers for his new hotel, the Glenwood Mission Inn (now known as the Mission Inn Hotel & Spa). Using Indigenous students from Sherman not only provided Miller with a supply of inexpensive, steady labor but also helped bolster the hotel’s faux-mission theme, one that became so ingrained in the establishment’s lore that many later guests thought they were visiting an actual mission.

For the founders of Sherman, the fundamental goal was assimilation—but not into the dominant American culture or with an eye to preparing students for college. Rather, they were trained for domestic labor along gender lines: the boys learned to cook at the Sherman cafeteria, where they prepared hundreds of meals for their classmates, or tilled crops on the farm; the girls trained to become nurses and seamstresses or prepared for jobs as housekeepers and governesses in the school’s domestic science courses.

An integral part of the assimilation process was the school’s outing program, a labor system rooted in racist notions about Indigenous peoples. It was supposedly intended to give students practical work experience and, at least for the girls, intimate contact with the higher elements of white civilization, in their employers’ own homes. But the aim was never to “uplift the race,” and in practice the program was rife with abuse. Hall instructed employers to pay the boys “whatever [they are] worth,” and wages ultimately went to Sherman; students were paid in chits redeemable at the school store, not unlike on post-Reconstruction Southern plantations. “You look at an outfit like Fontana Farms, which in the 19-teens was one of the biggest farms in the world,” says Kevin Whalen, author of Native Students at Work: American Indian Labor and Sherman Institute’s Outing Program: 1900–1945. “They were looking for a bunch of cheap, pliable, and coercible workers. I read documents from cantaloupe growers in Brawley who said, we’d love to have your Native students, because we’re relatively certain that Native American workers do better than Mexicans in the heat and the sun.”

By 1915, the outing system had evolved into a money machine with an agent overseeing students’ placements and wages. Participants gained minimal autonomy over their wages and, in some cases, saw the outing system as a means to make more money than they could earn on the reservation; indeed, a few used the school as a de facto employment agency after they graduated. Many students were also drawn by the school’s music and athletic programs. Sherman’s sports teams were standouts. Hopi runners on the track team were among the best in the country (according to the Los Angeles Times, track star Philip Zeyouma took first place in a qualifying race for the 1912 Olympics wearing moccasins), while for years the football team regularly trounced local college teams, including the squad at the University of Southern California. The school had strong and varied musical offerings, from touring marching units and orchestras to jazz bands and mandolin clubs, as well as a large drama program. “There was a troupe of Sherman students who toured the United States in the 1930s, doing plays and skits, with a full symphony-type orchestra,” says Clifford E. Trafzer, the author of several books on Native history and the coeditor of The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute. “It was a way of raising money for the school, but also to show how civilized they were.”

The school’s shift from its original mission of rooting out all traces of “Indianness” in students—something Sisquoc and others describe as cultural genocide—happened gradually. Attitudes about off-reservation boarding schools evolved during the civil rights movement and were further altered by incidents like the 1969 takeover of Alcatraz Island by 89 Native protesters. In 1971, the Bureau of Indian Affairs made attendance at the school voluntary, eliminated its K–8 classes, and changed its name from Sherman Institute to Sherman Indian High School; in the ensuing years, the administration added courses on Indigenous history, literature, and languages. Today, Native folks make up most of the school board and fill other positions of power.

THE NEXT GENERATION

Matthew Leivas Sr. came to Sherman in 1968. Born and raised in the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe on the Colorado River Indian reservation near Parker, Arizona, Leivas had been recruited in his sophomore year to play for the school’s football team. Back on the reservation, life had been tough. There was no running water or indoor toilets; the home Leivas shared with his family (he had six siblings) was a barracks that had once housed Japanese Americans interned during World War II. “The government was selling those as homes for the Indians, so my mother bought one for $50,” he says. For Leivas, going to Sherman was a big step up. “You get to wash your clothes, take a shower, you get three meals a day,” he says. “At home, we were lucky to get two.”

Leivas’s mother attended an Indigenous boarding school, but not willingly. Her mother had tricked her into getting into a car full of individuals from the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “My grandmother told my mom there were apples inside, and away they went,” he says.

His mother had later been sent to Sherman, and she was happy to see her son go too. He excelled at school, becoming captain of the football team and president of his senior class. Even so, he experienced racism during away games (“You would see a lot of crazy calls”) and in town. And while the school had long since stopped sending students out as free labor and prohibiting them from speaking their first languages, it still didn’t offer classes in Native studies or history, and the level of the academics was low. “It was pretty much remedial,” Leivas recalls. During his senior year, he and some of his fellow students worked to secure state accreditation for the school. “We wanted to bring the academic standards up to the state level,” he says. “To be equal, so they wouldn’t look down their noses at us.”

As a student, Leivas didn’t know about the cemetery on the school grounds. This was largely by design. In 1904, the founders had placed the cemetery five miles west of the campus core—as far away as you could get and still be on school property, which at one time encompassed 110 acres of farmland. At least 65 souls are buried there, including 59 students, a three-day-old infant, the stillborn baby of two students, and a beloved cat. Most of the children died of typhoid or tuberculosis or pneumonia. While the school endeavored to send caskets home, often by train or wagon, distance and lack of transportation led to many being buried in the cemetery. Male students created headstones in the school’s shop class.

After leaving Sherman and returning to Arizona, Leivas became a Chemehuevi elder, an environmental activist, and a tribal chair. “I was the leader of a group that wound up taking over our reservation, but in a good way,” he says. “That was part of the leadership skills I learned at Sherman.” He is also a cofounder of the Salt Song Trail Project, a group dedicated to reviving and preserving the sacred songs of the Paiute people that connect living tribal members with their ancestors and help the deceased ease their transition to the next world. In 2004, Leivas and his group traveled to the cemetery at Sherman to sing Salt Songs for the children who never returned home and to hasten their journey to the spirit world. Decades earlier, his mother had sung some of these songs at Sherman, but not in the open. “It was prohibited, so she and her friends used to hide behind buildings and talk the language and sing Salt Songs,” he says.

A CLOSER STUDY

Over the past decade, there’s been an explosion of scholarly interest in the school. There are comprehensive books about Sherman’s 119-year history (The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue, Diana Meyers Bahr’s The Students of Sherman Indian School: Education and Native Identity Since 1892); its educational system (Matthew Sakiestewa Gilbert’s Education Beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902–1929) and photo archives (Shadows of Sherman Institute: A Photographic History of the Indian School on Magnolia Avenue); its outing program (Whalen’s Native Students at Work) and health concerns (Jean A. Keller’s Empty Beds: Student Health at Sherman Institute, 1902–1922). There have been scholarly studies on Sherman’s nursing programs and art classes and vigorous promotion as a tourist draw. “There’s a lot of exciting new work coming out,” says Whalen. “I don’t know where it’s going to go, but I know it’ll keep going.”

Sisquoc is the conduit for much of that research, guiding generations of curious scholars to the school’s vast archives. She also accepts and catalogs new donations to the museum’s collections; last year, that included a rare Navajo shirt and skirt worn by a girl in Sherman’s marching band in the 1940s or ’50s and a scrapbook filled with photos of Sherman athletes from the 1970s, taken by a woman who had volunteered at the school and traveled with the teams.

As a teacher and the museum curator at Sherman, Sisquoc knows the sometimes awful history of the place. But she also knows its many good points, including how the school works closely with local university recruiters, from UCLA to Pitzer to Cal Poly Pomona, to help its students attend four-year colleges. Perhaps most of all, says Sisquoc, “kids come here to go to school with other Native kids,” to take classes in Native studies and tribal governments and traditions that most young people wouldn’t have access to until college, if then. It’s a far cry from the past. Sisquoc often fields questions from kids and grandkids about their elders’ stays at the school. “Some students came, and they must have assimilated so well that they never even passed on what tribe they were to their kids,” she says. “We get people who say, ‘I just found out my grandpa went to this school, and we didn’t even know we were Indian.’ ”•

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