LAWRENCE, Kan. - The U.S. government had noble intentions when it set up the United States Industrial Training School for American Indian children in 1884 in Lawrence, Kan. The goal was to remove American Indian children from their homes, train the boys in agricultural skills and the girls in homemaking tasks. The hopes were that this would turn them into fully assimilated Americans.
Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., has gone from an institution that sought to assimilate American Indians into mainstream culture to one that seeks to preserve the cultures of various tribes.
To accomplish this assimilation, they forbade the children to speak their native languages and prevented any contact with their families for four years. To the children, this kindly paternalism was more like being sent to prison. Others have referred to this as a form of cultural genocide.
Carla and I were at the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum on the grounds of Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. This small center provides the visitor an overview of the history of the university from its negative start to its growth into today’s small, modern college stressing American Indian culture.
In 1970, the name was changed to Haskell Indian Junior College, and it began offering only college-level programs. In 1993, it became Haskell Indian Nations University.
The week’s menu from the early years - the same every week - was posted at the cultural center. The students were fed a monotonous diet, with breakfasts mostly of mush and bread. Their daily schedule was like that of army recruits; they were marched to classes and meals and awakened and put to bed to the sound of bugles. The captive students had poor medical care, resulting in a higher-than-expected death rate.
In retrospect, this attempt by the U.S. government to bring American Indians into the mainstream was a form of cultural cruelty. On our visits to other American Indian cultural centers around the country, we have yet to see any indication that any tribe saw it as a benefit. Haskell University has reversed this original policy of trying to get rid of differences and now seeks to preserve the cultures of various tribes.
We enjoyed our walking tour of this campus of more than 900 students from 130 different American Indian tribes. The university is supported by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior. Students pay no tuition and a fee of only $215 a semester to cover housing and food.
To be eligible for admission, students from most tribes must have one-quarter American Indian ancestry unless he or she is Cherokee, in which case one of the ancestors must be on a list created before the Trail of Tears. That means Cherokees need to have little American Indian DNA. Qualified students are taken on a first-apply, first-come basis.
Buildings range from the 1898 Hiawatha Hall to recently built residential halls. Many of the buildings are from the 1950s. As we toured some of these buildings, we saw some striking American Indian murals, the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame and some modern classrooms with state-of-the-art facilities.
On our pass through the student newspaper area, we picked up copies of the most recent issues of The Indian Leader, "The Oldest Native American Student Newspaper Since 1887." Besides the sports stories, there were stories on alcoholism, diabetes, AIDS and mental illness, subjects of importance to the students.
Majors are available at Haskell in American Indian Studies, Tribal Archives and Tribal Museum Management, environmental science, business administration and elementary education. The first two majors are a complete turnaround from the original goal of assimilation; the elementary education major is intended to improve education in American Indian schools by preparing teachers to instruct from a unique perspective.
What is happening at Haskell now complies with the goals set by the Native American Congress on Indian Education in 1991: "Improved education for Native people will enable them to achieve equal political status within American society and will protect them against complete acculturation. Thus, only with this positive education will Native Americans be able to maintain their values while coexisting in mainstream society."