Posted By BrokenClaw on January 29, 2007
The Pawnee Indian School in Pawnee, Oklahoma, was one of many federally funded boarding schools built around the turn of the century for the purpose of assimilating Indian youth into white American culture. Since native children were considered too “slow” for advanced education, the boarding schools were actually institutions of vocational training, run by military style discipline. As far as I can determine, the official name of the school in Pawnee, which taught children up to the Ninth Grade, was the Pawnee Industrial School, but most people referred to it simply as Pawnee School or descriptively as the Pawnee Indian School or the Pawnee Boarding School.
My father was one of hundreds of Native Americans from north central Oklahoma who attended the Pawnee School during the first half of the 20th Century. To this day, the school is known locally as Gravy U, referring to a steady diet of thin gravy in the dining hall. When I asked my father, he said that the nickname had preceeded his attendance there, and that he didn’t recall any particular preponderance of gravy meals. Although the school closed over forty years ago, the sandstone buildings have survived to this day, and the campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the buildings have been refurbished and are now used for Pawnee Tribal and County offices.
A Trip Back in Time
On a recent trip to Oklahoma, my father took me on a walking tour of the grounds. As with any of us, he commented how small the campus seemed compared to his memory as a child. The Superintendent’s House still occupies the primary location at the entrance to the school grounds. In front of the house the Pawnee have erected a monument which narrates a brief history of their people, from their homeland on the central plains to their relocation to Oklahoma.
The School Building, with its adjacent gymnasium, is the largest structure on the campus. Across the road we saw the Boys Dormitory, now in complete disrepair, where my father had lived with dozens of other boys, sleeping in bunk beds on the second floor. He pointed to the attic window, where one of his fellow students served as the barber for all of the boys. We walked across the central lawn, and he showed me where the flagpole once stood, where the students gathered every morning for the Pledge of Allegiance. Behind it is the Dining Hall. He didn’t remember much about the meals except that they always had plenty of milk from the dairy farm which the boys helped to operate.
Vocational training was a main priority. Besides the dairy farm, students also worked in the bakery and at other agricultural pursuits, which helped make the school self-sufficient. My father showed me where the barns and fields behind the Dining Hall were once bustling with activity. He recalled that the boys who worked in the bakery and those who milked the cows had to finish their work before school began each day.
The Girls Dormitory stands opposite the Boys. My aunt, who also attended Pawnee for a time, remembered spending time at the fence which separated the boys and girls, crying with her brother that they could not be together. For the girls, their vocational training was spent in the Home Ec Building to learn sewing and cooking and such. (Incidentally, I have since learned that the first all-Indian Girl Scout troop in the United States was registered at the Pawnee School in 1930.) The remaining buildings on the campus included housing for teachers and staff.
Besides classroom learning and vocational work, there was time for play and recreation. In the evenings and weekends, they were allowed to play about the grounds, and my father remembered trekking with his buddies to “far off” fields and streams. Baseball and basketball were also popular activities for the boys. The school sponsored interscholastic teams in several sports, and often competed with area high schools, as well as other Indian boarding schools like Chilocco near Ponca City. On alternate weekends, the boys and girls were allowed to sign out and walk to downtown Pawnee. My father remembered it as a long walk, across a scary bridge, but it is, in fact, only a few blocks away. With some coins in their pockets, they could enjoy a movie at one of the two theaters and perhaps have enough left over for a sweet treat.
During its half century of service, the Pawnee Indian School provided an educational experience for hundreds of Indian children from the surrounding reservations of Pawnee, Otoe-Missouria, Kaw, Ponca, Tonkawa, Shawnee and others. Much has been written in recent years of the flawed and detrimental philosophy of the Indian schools, whose fundamental purpose was to take Indian children away from their parents in an attempt to separate them from their natural heritage. In other words, they strove to take as much of the Indian out of the Indian and to replace it with the most rudimentary tools for “civilized” life. There can be no disputing the destructive principles of the boarding school system [see the link below], but my father prefers to hold on to the fond memories of youthful camaraderie.
Today, the campus of the Pawnee Indian School is once again accepting students. This time, the school is under the direction of the Pawnee themselves. Pawnee Nation College opened in 2006 with academic affiliations with other colleges in the state of Oklahoma. They continue to work toward full accreditation.
More information on the Web
- About Indian Boarding Schools on the Modern American Poetry website, includes several essays on the true intent and practices of the boarding schools.
- Pawnee Nation, official web site, with history and traditions, as well as local information.
- Visitors’ guide to Pawnee, Oklahoma, from the North Central Oklahoma Wild West Territory web site.