‘Plopped Down in the Middle of That’: Indian Board School Life Documented in the Warm Valley Historical Project

The Warm Valley Historical Project, funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, was conducted from 1990 to 1991 in coordination with the Shoshone Episcopal Mission to interview residents about Wind River Reservation life during the early 1900s. Research material focused on turn-of-the-century reservation life, experiences during the Great Depression, boarding school life, traditional crafts and therapies, employment opportunities, ranching, farming, language, etc. Though the project focused on Eastern Shoshone perspectives and memories, interviews were also conducted with Arapaho tribal members.

Shoshone Mission School with male students, ca. 1900. On the far left is Sherman Coolidge (1862-1932), an Episcopal priest and educator who spent 26 years preaching and teaching on the Wind River Reservation. He helped found and lead the Society of American Indians, the first American Indian rights organizations run by and for American Indians.
John Roberts papers, Box 3, Folder 3, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Eva Enos (1915-2003) was interviewed in 1991. She talked mainly of the government schools, or boarding schools. At six years of age, Enos began attending the Shoshone-Episcopal Mission School for Shoshone Girls, which had been built from 1889 to 1890 on the reservation under the direction of Reverend John Roberts, an Episcopal priest. Previously only a boy’s school existed. The girl’s school was made possible when Shoshone Chief Washakie made a personal gift of 160 acres as a school site, with the idea that all his people should receive an education so that they would be prepared to live within the quickly encroaching white society.

In her interview, Eva said that they “took ‘em from home when they were about six” and that they “stayed there all from one school year,” from September to May, and returned home for the summer and for the holiday season. Enos remembered living in “cottages” with fifteen other girls, the boys living the same way, and that the older students had to look after the younger students, even with housemothers around. The housemothers, and all the other teachers and staff, were white, all of whom were strangers to the children. The children were expected to get up, make their beds, bathe, etc. mostly on their own.

Shoshone Mission School with female students, ca. 1900. Reverend John Roberts is shown on the far right with two of his five children. John Roberts papers, Box 3, Folder 3, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Enos explained that classes were Monday through Friday in the morning and afternoon on topics such as history, geography, and math. The girls also learned how to sew and cook while the boys were taught woodworking, metal work, and farming. Sundays were spent largely at church with services twice a day. She remembers that on Sunday afternoons between services, the older girls would do beadwork – belts, buckskins, etc. – with materials provided by the school.

Nearly six years was spent at the mission school before Enos and other students were sent to Rapid City Indian School, located in South Dakota. It was a particularly strict off-reservation school, 28 of which were found throughout the United States. The main purpose of these schools was to compel mastery of English and to assimilate American Indian children into white society. Enos recalls that the students were kept on strict time schedules, regimented like the military, which was a huge change from freedom of life at home. She remembers having to refamiliarize herself as she navigated between school and reservation life. Headlice was a big problem, she explains, especially after students had returned to the reservation. They had to get checked every time they returned to school from their summer break. Eva also remembers the painful separation from her brothers while at school as boys were segregated to their own dormitories, dining halls, and classrooms.

Dormitory at the Rapid City Indian School. This setting would have been wholly unlike what the children were accustomed to at home. Photo courtesy the South Dakota State Historical Society.

Eva explained that many students tried to run away and return to the reservation or just away from the schools, but that an Indian cop or sheriff would bring them back or their parents would do so if they made it home. Indeed, according to Scott Riner, author of the 2014 book The Rapid City Indian School, 1898–1933, not only did the harsh regimen drive students away but so did hunger from measly meals that lacked nutrition or variety.

Yet, Enos found life at the South Dakota school freer than the mission school nearer her home in Wyoming. The Rapid City school had town days when students with money could go into town to shop. Eva was able to buy makeup. She also remembers school dances, particularly one at which she tried for the first time a popular dance step of the mid-1920s called the “Charleston.” Enos actually grew to like the school, which she attended for nearly four years before it was closed in 1933. Students were then sent back to school at Wind River.

From 1929, the girls’ Rapid City basketball team are in the top two rows. This photo was taken while Eva Enos attended the school, although it’s not known if she is pictured. Photo courtesy the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Eva Enos was just one of many former students and American Indians who contributed to the Warm Valley Historical Project. Other interviewees also offered their memories of school life. Also discussed were traders who visited the reservation, the dwindling of the Arapaho language, the Great Depression, and a variety of other subjects relating to their lives. The most prevalent topic, however, was the schools. Whether it was the mission schools, the Rapid City Indian School, or other schools, all the interviewees had something to say about their experiences. The collection contains an exhibit catalog titled From Trout Creek to Gravy High: The Boarding School Experience at Wind River. The complete guide to the collection can be found at https://archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:80444/xv653121.

Post contributed by AHC Archives Intern Brittany Heye.

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