Dispelling the Cloud of Black Eternity: the Willamette School at Grand Ronde in 1857

Once the tribes were removed to the reservations, additional work began to civilize them. The Indian Agents and teachers disregarded the tribe’s cultures and previous life-ways and immediately began a program of education. Adults got their education through changing the ways they used the land. No longer were the tribes allowed to freely travel about and harvest resources from the forests, rivers, lakes, and prairies. In fact, adults at Grand Ronde and Siletz could not own weapons of any type, forcing them to subsist on government handouts of flour, beef, and potatoes, which was supplied at best, inconsistently. At the encampments on the coast, there was a different subsistence philosophy, the tribes could hunt and fish to subsist themselves while awaiting the ratification of their treaty. Tribes at Grand Ronde were made to begin farms, because they were expected to become farmers. It was through agriculture and labor that they would become civilized. Some of the adults took other roles, like woodcutting, construction, and blacksmithy.

Education of the children began in the model of the traditional schools of the Americans and Europeans. The Indian agents and teachers knew that they could change the culture of the children through education and this began in earnest as a program of assimilation. The first school for the tribes at Grand Ronde was quite small, was under a canvas tent, had about 10 children. The teacher had few supplies, no books, and they had to wait until the treaties became ratified before funding was available for building a better school and getting school supplies.

The first lessons of the school were to teach the students how to speak English, and to socialize them into using soap, and dressing in American clothing. The students came from a culture where nudity was not uncommon and they did not use soap. There were likely cultural ways of keeping clean within the tribe, but soap was an unknown concept for the tribes. The problem presented by the teacher’s letter below, was that in March of 1857, the tribes had been on the reservation for a year, and there still were not enough resources for supplying the basics of “civilized” life-ways for the 2,500 or so people on the reservation.

The following letter is a rare window into how the early education system was imposed on the first peoples on the Grand Ronde Reservation.

Grand Ronde, March 15th, 1857

[to] A. F. Hedges, Supt of Indian Affairs, O.T. 

Sir, in compliance with your request I embrace this moment to give you a brief report of the state of the Willamette School. We have just closed our second quarter under Promising auspices. The school, at first quite small, not exceeding ten or twelve students, has increased to sixty. Of this number about one half are regular attendants, the others are very inconsistent. The improvement of the school has exceeded my expectations.

Many of the students who at the commencement of the session were entirely ignorant of our language, and in a state of filth and nudity, have undergone a great transformation. They now understand the most that I say to them and are beginning to speak intelligibly. The most of them know their letters and can spell words of one syllable. A small number can spell words of two syllables and are beginning to read. They learn the letters, figures, and writing, quite as readily as white children. It is not to be expected that they will improve as fast in reading until they become more familiar with our language, inasmuch as the letters convey to them imperfectly the sounds of the words and words without meaning are void of interest. 

They have great powers of imitation and delight to sing and write. I have found no difficulty in improving their personal appearance by the application of water, soap, and cloth. Doubtless you are convinced, from the returns of the agency that I have made a free use of the latter article. [the use of soap was discussed at length in an earlier letter] I have made and issued over two hundred garments; this, in addition to the labors of my school, has kept me most securily from falling into one of the worst of vices, idleness. 

From all I have seen since my labors here, I am convinced that the Indian children are not deficient in moral and intellectual powers, and that under propitious circumstances they would make ladies and gentlemen

I need not tell you that we have been embarrassed for want of a suitable room and books. A commodious house is being erected and would have been completed ere this had it been possible to procure materials for building. Measures are also taken to supply the school with books. 

I have thus briefly attempted to make you acquainted with the condition of our school and hope you will not deem it presumptuous in me to offer some suggestions relative to the best manner of conducting the educational interests of this reservation. I have no hesitancy in saying that before our schools can be real, lasting, practical utility to the tribes, they must be established on a different basis. Much may be done under our present mode of instruction, but yet it is far from being efficient. In order to improve the Indian race, it is indispensable that we implement good habits in the hearts of the rising generation, and how can we hope to do this while they are daily contracting the pernicious habits of their ancestors, under the influence of which they are wasting away like the snows of April; unless we can properly educate the Indian children, I can see no ground for hope of ameliorating the condition of the tribes. 

Under the term educate I include such training as will under their facilities prompt and active, as will teach them to be cleanly, industrious, and to supply their wants by honest labor- as will impart to them a just sense of the nature of crime, as will inspire their minds with the sublime morality of the Bible and the tender Charities of the Christian religion. You are ready to inquire, “is it possible to impart to them such an education as you urge?” I answer by referring you to the history of the tribes located in the Indian Territory bordering the Atlantic states. They were once as warlike and deeply immersed in barbarism as these tribes, now they are a civilized christianized, happy people. Shall we despair with such living examples of the influences of civil and religious efforts before our eyes! Let us rather by our labors and instructions, and example, essay to dispel the cloud that hangs like a black eternity over this forlorn, broken people. A happier day may yet dawn on these long benighted tribes- Already [meltwiks?], I see gleams of twilight which portend the rising sun. 

I have said that our present school system is not efficient because we can not bring salutary influences to bear in the formation of habits. It is not possible to keep the children cleanly as long as they return home to sleep in their filthy beds. Nor can we expect them to become industrious as long as they are permitted to spend all their time in idleness. As little can they be expected to perform duties of which they know nothing. To supply this desideratum I think we should establish a boarding school in which the students should devote a portion of time to study another labor, and the immanence to [consideration?]. The boys should be required to cultivate a field and garden. The girls would be instructed in sewing, washing, house-keeping and cookery. Especially should they be instructed in the latter art. I am informed by the physician that their ignorance of this art is one of the chief reasons  for their sickness and mortality. The provisions for the children should be issued to the boarding house. This would be an incentive to the parents to keep the children at school. 

I am aware we shall be told that schools conducted on a plan similar to what is here recommended, have failed on this coast [reference to Jason Lee’s Mission school?], but inasmuch as schools thus organized have proved effective among the Eastern Tribes, I am induced to ascribe their failure  in Oregon to the manner in which they were conducted rather than to a defect in the system- But as I have already extended my remarks greatly beyond what I contemplated when I took my seat I close with the pleasing assurance that your wish to promote the welfare of the Indians will lead you to use the best means to secure that end. 

Your Most Respectfully, Mary C. Hull, Teacher of Willamette School

Rev. Adrien Croquet (Crocket)

The educational program recommended above is not uncommon for the era. It was common to have boarding school education in the East Coast and throughout Europe for people who could afford it. And much of the education was taught by people of Christian persuasions, if not by actual priests, and orders of sisters in many locations. There were very few lay teachers (non-religious) that taught outside of Christianized schools, many of whom were supported by churches. Then, not all children went to school, there was not public school systems in most locations. Many people grew up unable to read and write their entire lives. This was the second school system imposed on the Grand Ronde in about 1860, The federal government employed the Churches they assigned to each reservation as the primary teachers of the tribal children. At Grand Ronde, Catholic Father Joseph Adrian Croquet was assigned to the reservation in 1860. He managed the religious and instructional services, and directed an order of sisters, from the precursor to Marylhurst, to give instruction to the students, until about 1880.

St. Michael’s Church in Grand Ronde, OR

The educational services imposed at the Grand Ronde Reservation were agreed upon by the tribes in the treaties. Tribes in the 1850’s, saw education as the key to American culture and an entry into access to power and wealth. Education by whatever means was desired by the tribal parents for their children. It took a few decades for education of the children to make an impact on tribal culture. Many children would return home and speak their native languages in the home and English in school. This would have been alright if just “education” was the goal of the Indian service. But over the next few decades and into the 20th century it is revealed that the true goal of the Federal Government was the complete elimination of the tribes through assimilation.

The Federal government’s polices regarding the tribes would change every few generations. By 1865 and 1875, the policies of allowing to tribes to possess over a million acres in western Oregon for the reservations, ended, and pressures from continuous American settlers to Oregon came to open up the Coast Reservation for settlement, despite the fact that the treaties stated explicitly that the tribes are to have a permanent reservation forever. The Coast Reservation was reduced twice in ten years, in 1865 and 1875. Then in 1891, once the people at Siletz and Grand Ronde were allotted individual allotments, the sale of “surplus lands” began. And by 1909, the remaining lands at Grand Ronde were reduced to about 33,000 acres, roughly half the acreage of the original reservation. By 1954 when the tribes are terminated there are a bit over 2,000 acres total in tribal ownership at both Grand Ronde (597acres) and Siletz, which was further reduced by termination to a few dozen acres. In 100 years the tribes begin by owning all their lands before treaties, to owning nearly nothing, completely disenfranchised from their lands.

Chemawa Indian Boarding School, Salem Oregon, still in Operation today

Parallel with the reduction of tribal lands, the federal boarding school, Forest Grove Industrial school,  that which became Chemawa, was opened at Forest Grove in 1880. In about 1885 the school was moved to just north of Salem, and renamed Chemawa Indian School. The boarding school system implemented the purpose laid out by Grand Ronde’s teacher, Mary Hull, of removing the children from their tribal influences and teaching them all a trade along the lines of what was acceptable for men and women in American society (its doubtful she had any real role in the boarding school program and that she was just stating what was common education practice in her day). The boarding school system was contemporary with the day schools on the reservations, and the on-reservation boarding schools that were implemented for a short time on some reservations, including Grand Ronde and Siletz. Boarding schools were intended to more efficiently socialize the children into American culture, and by extension eliminate native culture altogether. In the latter part of the 19th century it was assumed by many in politics that if they could eliminate the tribal cultures, the former “Indians” would stop being “Indians” and there would then be the basis for eliminating reservations, and the federal funding of the reservations. This argument was used by the federal government to terminate many tribes, including Grand Ronde and Siletz in 1954, as they both were declared colonized and assimilated people, and deemed able to be released from government supervisor and integrate into society. These decisions were made without any true studies of the issues of assimilation, or the tribes.

However, none of the treaties suggest that the descendants of the treat signers must remain culturally Indian,there is no definition of “Indian culture” offered, and therefore the argument is invalid. It is a purely political notion, a pseudoscientific argument intended to influence those unfamiliar with history, native culture, or treaties. In many ways, the argument  has survived and is still used today within tribal political landscapes.

Native education, is today radically different from that proposed in 1857. Most Native students go to public schools and many have educational opportunities in tribal programs. In fact, place-based education, where native culture is employed in curriculum, using native instructors and education protocols, like utilizing oral histories, have proven the most successful among Native students.

The letter from Mary Hull shows us this amazing vision of what was happening at the Grand Ronde reservation in socializing Native people. The issues like the use of soap for cleanliness, of the idea that the tribes were living in “idleness” on the reservation, and that a year into the reservation and there were no or few supplies that would help the agents promote the “civilization” of the tribes, are all significant. Idleness of the tribes was never a thing until reservations when they were not allowed to leave the reservations. In this system, the tribes were really given no role, except that of inmates of the reserve.  Supplies to the reservations were really programmed incorrectly from the outset. In order to get the reservation going there needed to be a large fund for building the reserve that included supplies and housing, regardless of their treaty. And, the manner in which the agents and their staff looked at the tribal people as “filthy” and were disgusted by their nakedness, was really a problem with the imposed Christian morality and ethics of these outsiders. Mary Hull even wrote about them as people of blackness, a direct reference to their non-christian values. It is like the tribes were seen as literal animals and could offer nothing of value from their own cultures.  Letters like this sometimes reveal more about the letter writers, than about the people they write about.


M234, Roll 610

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