The Pawnee Indian School

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.

Gravy U

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

School BuildingSuperintendents HouseOn 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.

Dining HallBoys DormitoryThe 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.

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