The United States like to view themselves as a country of immigrants where diverse cultures blend together in a metaphorical melting pot. For the Indigenous peoples of North America, however, was not a fairytale, but a grim reality that still affects their communities today.[♣] Of all the different ways in which the American federal government has tried to separate Native American communities from their lands and cultures, schooling was one of the most far-reaching.

 

Between 1879 and the early 1970s, the government operated a network consisting of hundreds of day and boarding schools. Particularly important were 24 off-reservation boarding schools where children spent long periods away from their families, following a curriculum rooted exclusively in Euro-American culture.[1] With these schools, white bureaucrats hoped to eradicate the cultures, political systems and economies of Indigenous nations. It was not until the 1930s that the American government slowly abandoned this policy in what historians consider to be a historic reversal.[2] In the schools themselves, however, assimilation had not yet passed its peak.

 

That assimilationist politics continued on the local level into the 1930s is evident from the use of “scrip” (see image 1), an educational form of substitute currency that school officials used to communicate the values of capitalism. Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, was one of the first boarding schools to introduce such a system in November of 1933. For the next eight years, the school had a model economy in which pupils received weekly wages for the work they did in their classes. They could then spend their incomes on food and clothes, as well as candy and day trips. Crucially, scrip not only showed students how an economy works, but especially what government officials considered to be correct economic behavior. In the process, school staff emphasized consumerism and private possession with little room for alternative approaches. Even so, students used scrip creatively and defied the school’s expectations. In many ways, scrip is characteristic of the ways in which American authorities continued their efforts to transform Native Americans into Americans even after the reforms of the 1930s.

 

Education as a tool for assimilation

The US government began to employ schooling as a strategy for the cultural assimilation of Native Americans on a large scale in the 1870s. In order to prevent children from learning about their own cultures, the government financed boarding schools to separate young Native Americans from their communities and immerse them in a Euro-American environment.[3] The first major off-reservation institution was the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, which opened its doors in 1879.[4] At the school, students spent half their day in a classroom learning subjects like English, geography and history. The other half of the day consisted of vocational classes where boys trained to become carpenters, blacksmiths and printers, while girls learned to clean and cook. In an attempt to discipline students, teachers made them wear uniforms and march across campus, and students faced harsh punishment for speaking their own languages. Following the example set by Carlisle, the government soon opened another twenty boarding schools across the western United States. The Sherman Institute opened in 1902 and mainly targeted Indigenous communities in California and Arizona, such as the Cahuilla, Hopi and Navajo peoples.[5] School officials implemented their own curriculum, but for the most part, all schools followed the Carlisle model of military education and physical labor.

 

School superintendents and other officials regularly

praised capitalism as a sign of civilization and progress.

In the early 1930s, the federal government began taking tentative steps to transform the boarding school system. These reforms were set in motion when an independent committee published a report in 1928 that shone new light on the excesses of the boarding school system, such as malnourishment, exploitation, and violence.[6] At Sherman Institute and the other large boarding schools, military training for young children made way for a high school programs that approached students as individuals.[7] In addition, the reforms created space for Indigenous cultures, which had been unimaginable up until that point. At the same time, however, English remained the primary language of communication, and white educators typically taught classes on Indigenous cultures based on the research of white anthropologists.[8] On top of that, federal policy was often a suggestion rather than a command to local officials. As a result, assimilation continued to determine school curricula, and economic education was no exception.

 

Image 1. Picture of a scrip bill from the 1936 school yearbook.10


Acquiring capitalism

Efforts to prepare students for a working life had been integral to the boarding school program from its inception, and economic insight was a key aspect of this preparation. In his book about the boarding school system, historian David Wallace Adams describes the core of economic education as “possessive individualism” – a kind of individualism rooted in materialism and private possession.[10] In other words: students needed to see themselves in relation to property and their opportunities to acquire property. Initially, school newspapers like the Sherman Bulletin published advertisements for local stores alongside reprimanding speeches about sensible spending. In speeches, too, school superintendents and other officials regularly praised capitalism as a sign of civilization and progress. Although students had some opportunities to earn a small income, they typically had few opportunities to bring these lessons into practice during their time at school.[11] When the Great Depression limited these opportunities even further, school officials looked for new ways to have students experience capitalism. One particularly inventive solution was the scrip system, which drastically altered everyday life for students.

 

(L)earning their place in society

The scrip system was one of the most striking innovations that school administrators introduced independently from the federal government to advance capitalist education. With the introduction of substitute currency in late 1933, school life at Sherman Institute began to revolve almost completely around money. Vocational classes became a way to earn money, and scrip was now necessary to participate in extracurricular activities or make purchases in the school store. Student wages depended on a ranking system: beginners earned 22 cents per hour as “helpers,” while the more experienced “foremen” earned 27 cents per hour.[12] With some students working as much as 35 hours a week, they could count on a weekly salary between $8 and $10, which was comparable to average wages at the time – although higher than what most Native American workers earned.[13] Likewise, the school charged prices for commodities and services similar to those of real businesses.

 

They learned to see private property as a source of happiness,

and money as more than a means to an end.

In many ways, the scrip economy at Sherman Institute was a simplified version of the American economic system. Students were paid by the hour, they earned more if the quality of their work improved, and school staff operated like a central bank. In a 1934 letter, school superintendent Donald Biery even compared the school’s work to that of the American president, who occasionally changes policy to incentivize the economy.[14] Likewise, scrip bills resembled the American dollar, but with a design that echoed the views that white officials had of Indigenous cultures. Instead of presidents and eagles, scrip bills featured geometrical patterns and a caricature of an Indian in a feather headdress. The set-up of the scrip economy and the currency’s symbolism each underlined the desired outcomes of the system. School officials wanted young Native Americans to become familiar with a society based on Euro-American values by using scrip. From the school administration’s perspective, Indigenous cultures had a certain symbolic value, but should not influence everyday life in American society.

 

Sherman scrip (links) in een vitrine van het Sherman Indian Museum. Foto: Vincent Veerbeek.

One-sided economics

School officials created scrip not only to familiarize students with the rules of the American economy, but also to encourage the adoption of a new identity. The theory of possessive individualism, as identified by Adams, is inextricably linked to the scrip economy, in which life revolved around earning and spending money. Teachers did encourage students to save their earnings, but always with future spending in mind. This way of thinking was characteristic of the prevalent economic ideas of the 1930s: thrift was increasingly seen as a way to enable future spending.[15] The society that scrip was modeled after was a consumer society first and foremost. Within the scrip system, there was a clear distinction between necessities like clothes, and luxuries such as pedicures. This way, students learned to give certain expenses priority. Just as importantly, they learned to see private property as a source of happiness, and money as more than a means to an end. Despite the federal reforms of the early 1930s, the education program at Sherman Institute left little room for alternative ways of life.

 

Although it is difficult to determine to what extent students internalized these lessons, archival sources indicate that the scrip system had its limitations. Complaints by the superintendent about bad behavior for instance indicate that the system did not always work as intended. In a 1936 letter, Biery cited gambling and “sharing of income” as the two main disadvantages of the scrip system.[16] Gambling was a problem mostly from a moral standpoint, but the sharing of income hints at deeper cultural differences. Contrary to the individualism that the school preached, some students apparently gave scrip to their peers who earned less, just as they had learned to do growing up. In addition, these activities indicate that even within the constraints of a boarding school, an economy emerged in which capitalism was dominant, but other perspectives were not entirely out of the question.

 

All in all, scrip represented a continuation of the uncompromising government policy that characterized the boarding school system in the early decades of the twentieth century. Even as the government made limited attempts to chart a new course, school officials at Sherman Institute implemented a form of education that presented a one-sided view of American society. As with earlier assimilation policies, however, reality proved more complex, which is why scrip disappeared almost overnight in 1941. Still, American participation in the Second World War and additional policy changes undoubtedly contributed to scrip’s demise as well. Yet even after scrip disappeared, assimilationist education continued for another three decades.[17] Since 1970, Indigenous teachers at Sherman Institute – now the Sherman Indian High School – have led the school and begun the work of undoing the damage of a century of assimilation.

 

Editor: Renske van der Wal

Notes

This article uses “Native American” and “Indigenous” interchangeably to refer to the original inhabitants of the North American continent collectively, as is common practice in both academic and journalistic writing.

References

[1] Jacqueline Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club: Schools, Race, and the Struggle of Indian Acculturation (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2007); Jon Reyhner and Jeanne Eder, American Indian Education: A History (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004); David Wallace Adams, Education for Extinction (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1995).

[2] See, for instance, Andrew Woolford, This Benevolent Experiment: Indigenous Boarding Schools, Genocide, and Redress in Canada and the United States (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015), 6; K. Tsianina Lomawaima and Teresa L. McCarty, “To Remain an Indian”: Lessons in Democracy from a Century of Native American Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2006), 65-66.

[3] Fear-Segal, White Man’s Club, 99.

[4] Jacqueline Fear-Segal and Susan D. Rose, Carlisle Indian Industrial School: Indigenous Histories, Memories, and Reclamations (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

[5] Sherman Institute replaced a smaller off-reservation school in nearby Perris. See Clifford E. Trafzer and Leleua Loupe, “From Perris Indian School to Sherman Institute,” in The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue, eds. Trafzer, Sakiestewa Gilbert, and Sisquoc (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press), 19-34.

[6] Keith R. Burich, The Thomas Indian School and the “Irredeemable” Children of New York (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2016), 7-13; Adams, Education for Extinction, 330-333.

[7] Margaret D. Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009), 407.

[8] Lomawaima and McCarty, “To Remain an Indian, 73-74.

[9] Purple and Gold, 1935 yearbook, 58, Sherman Indian Museum, Series 16, Box 180.

[10] Adams, Education for Extinction, 22.

[11] What Indigenous children learned about labor in boarding schools is discussed in Kevin Whalen, Native Students at Work (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2016).

[12] Purple and Gold, 1935 yearbook, 58, Sherman Indian Museum, Series 16, Box 180.

[13] Whalen, Native Students at Work, 108.

[14] Donald Biery to Mrs. H. A. Atwood, February 21, 1934, General Correspondence, 1933-1948, Box 98, Records of Sherman Institute, Record Group 75, National Archives and Records Administration Pacific Region, Riverside.

[15] Alison Hulme, A Brief History of Thrift (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019), 79.

[16] Donald Biery to Robert King, March 30, 1936, General Correspondence, 1933-1948, Box 101, Records of Sherman Institute, Record Group 75, National Archives and Records Administration Pacific Region, Riverside.

[17] Diane Meyers Bahr, The Students of Sherman Indian School: Education and Native Identity Since 1892 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014).

Vincent Veerbeek

Vincent Veerbeek

Vincent Veerbeek (1997) is an Americanist and historian who graduated from the research master’s program in Historical, Literary & Cultural Studies at Radboud University at the end of 2020. In the fall of 2019, he spent a semester at the University of California, Riverside to research the music culture at Sherman Institute and its scrip system, on which he wrote his thesis. Beyond his studies, Vincent has worked as editor-in-chief at student magazine ANS and as copy editor for De Focus. At present, Vincent is exploring opportunities to continue his research on boarding schools in a PhD project.