Review of They Called It Prairie Light

They Called It Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School, by K. Tsianina Lomawaima (University of Nebraska Press, 1994)

When Muscogee citizen Curtis Carr entered Chilocco Indian School as a nine-year-old boy in 1927, he probably never imagined that his own daughter would later write an award-winning history of the school.

Carr’s experiences figure prominently in They Called It Prairie Light by K. Tsianina Lomawaima, a professor of American Indian Studies at the University of Arizona. Her book was winner of the 1993 North American Indian Prose Award.

Mvskoke authors have made a good impression on the judges for this important literary prize. Since the annual competition began in 1991, two of the seven recipients have been Muscogee individuals. Vincent Mendoza won the award in 1995 for his autobiography Son of Two Bloods (see the May 1997 issue of Muscogee Nation News for a review of Mendoza’s book).

Chilocco Indian School, located on Cherokee Outlet lands south of Arkansas City, Kansas, opened for students in 1884. It was one of the first off-reservation boarding schools established by the U. S. government, marking the beginning of a new era in the effort to break up tribal communities and assimilate Indian children to Anglo-American life. The allotment of tribal lands and Oklahoma statehood were just around the corner.

The book’s title refers to the first building constructed on campus, an imposing limestone edifice nicknamed “the Light on the Prairie.”

More buildings followed and attendance grew during the first five decades of Chilocco’s life. Annual enrollment reached eight hundred by the early 1920s and varied from this level up to twelve hundred through the 1950s. Students were recruited from tribal communities throughout the continental United States and Alaska.

Mvskokes and Yuchis began attending Chilocco after 1910 and for many years remained one of the largest tribal delegations at the school.

Until reforms were introduced in the 1930s, students were subjected to an intense regimen of academic and vocational education as well as strenuous work details, with discipline modeled after military traditions. Enrollment declined after World War II as federal policy shifted to supporting day schools and public schools closer to tribal families. Chilocco Indian School closed in 1980.

The author provides a brief overview of Chilocco’s history, then focuses on the period between 1920 and 1940, the heyday of the off-reservation boarding school system.

Lomawaima conducted interviews with fifty-three Chilocco alumni and several former employees who were at the school during these years. She calls these survivors “living archives,” and their recollections are the basis for her book. This oral history approach is one of the real strengths of Lomawaima’s work.

Federal policy and administrative practices created an institutional climate intended to control every aspect of the lives of boarding school students. One of the most important features of school life was the segregation of students according to gender, with female students subjected to especially close supervision.

Lomawaima examines the educational and personal experiences of male and female students in two chapters organized by gender. Her analysis of Chilocco’s “domestic training for girls” is particularly insightful and impassioned.

But military regimentation is only part of the story of Chilocco Indian School. Lomawaima shows how students also contributed to the creation of a unique “school culture” that allowed many of them to survive–and even thrive–in this harsh environment. How individual students responded to the boarding school experience depended on a wide range of factors including tribal affiliation, family background, and individual personality as well as their age when entering Chilocco and the historical period during which they attended.

When Lomawaima writes that “Chilocco was an Indian school,” she means not only that it was a school intended for Indians, but also that Indian students found ways to make it their own. A concluding chapter on the “private moments” controlled by Chilocco students sheds light on how this took place.

“Indian people at boarding schools were not passive consumers of an ideology or lifestyle imparted from above by federal administrators. They actively created an ongoing educational and social process. They marshaled personal and shared skills and resources to create a world within the confines of boarding school life, and they occasionally stretched and penetrated school boundaries. In the process, an institution founded and controlled by the federal government was inhabited and possessed by those whose identities the institution was committed to erase.” (167)

Annual alumni gatherings that continue today are testimony to the enduring bonds of intertribal friendship and solidarity that many Chilocco students formed decades ago.

Mvskoke and Yuchi students made up twelve percent of the student body in 1925 and eighteen percent in 1938, and Mvskoke and Yuchi narrators appear throughout the book.

Lomawaima includes detailed information about her interview methodology, making this a useful resource for anyone interested in conducting their own oral history project. A number of archival photographs add a visual dimension to this fine book.

Muscogee Nation News, January 1998

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