Editor's note: the term “Indian boarding school” is used in this piece because this is the term that was used to describe these schools historically. However, when referring to people of Native American descent, we aim to name the specific nation, use the terms Native American or Indigenous, and defer to individual or community naming preferences.
The Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Newkirk, Oklahoma operated from 1883 to 1980 and was part of a broader plan to assimilate Indigenous children through Western education. Located near the Kansas border, Chilocco was one of more than 400 Indian boarding schools inspired by the ideas of Carlisle Boarding School founder, Richard Henry Pratt.
During its nearly 100-year run, Chilocco was home to thousands of Indigenous children from tribes including the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Wichita, Comanche, and Pawnee.
Life in the boarding schools was not easy for these students, who were far from home in an institution that was dead set on stripping every vestige of their culture from them. That life, or a sanitized version of it, is presented to the world in the pages of The Indian School Journal, a bi-monthly publication that was published at the school since around the turn of the 20th century.
Denver Public Library’s Special Collections and Archives (SCA) recently acquired a set of Indian School Journals, covering the years 1961-1971, for its Western History Collection. These items will join a previously acquired run of the publication covering the years 1918-1937.
While the world changed significantly over the course of the 20th century, the curriculum at Chilocco changed, too. In 1928 an exposé revealed major failings with Pratt's military-based education model, which was heavy on menial labor and low on classroom, and change was on its way. The Pratt education model was replaced with a newer curriculum that looked more like the rest of America's public schools. What didn’t change, however, was the relentless drive to take the Native American out of every child who attended Chilocco.
The Indian School Journal presents a heavily curated version of life at Chilocco that is nonetheless extremely useful to a wide range of researchers. Historical researchers will certainly benefit from comparing how the school presented itself before the reforms of 1928 and afterwards.
A cursory glance at the two runs of The Indian School Journal reveals some pretty drastic differences between the two eras. In particular, the later journals are packed with photos of students and administrators. While the later issues contain less overt paternalistic lectures – a regular feature in the papers of the 1920s – the general attitude towards the children clearly didn’t change much over time.
Oddly, the series DPL purchased contains a gap from May 1969 to October 1970, a significant period in the school’s history. According to a Denver Post article that appeared on April 6, 1969, the school was the subject of a scathing report from a team of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) investigators. The team had been sent to investigate allegations of abuse by Chilocco staff members and found plenty to report back to Washington.
Among their findings was that staff regularly restrained children with handcuffs for extended periods, and used a counseling room to “work over” students who were deemed unruly.
When the BIA threatened to turn the school over to a private contractor, students protested the move with a letter-writing campaign and a series of demonstrations. A front-page Indian School Journal article that appeared in the April 11, 1969, edition of the paper blames the allegations on several new students, deemed troublemakers, in an attempt to rally support for the school.
Reverberations from the scandal haunted the school for years, and in 1972, American Indian Movement activists staged a sit-in at the school to protest the children’s treatment.
The Chilocco Indian School shuttered its doors for good in 1980 as enrollment had declined to less than 100 students. In a cruel catch-22, the federal government stopped funding Indian boarding schools in the late 20th century, in violation of treaty obligations to provide schools to many of the displaced tribes. In his 2010 book, Chilocco: Memories of a Native American Boarding School, author Kim Brumley wrote, "Chilocco is another in a long list of broken promises."
Even the sanitized, official record of an institution like Chilocco is packed with data such as organizational charts, sports team rosters, activities schedules, and other seemingly mundane data points that are spun into gold by historical researchers.
Genealogical researchers will find The Indian School Journal particularly useful as they offer up a huge amount of information on individual students and include many student photos as well. Though The Indian School Journal is not indexed, a database of Chilocco students is available through the Oklahoma Historical Society, which also offers digitized copies of Chilocco yearbooks.
The grounds that once housed the Chilocco Indian School are now in the hands of a conglomeration of local tribes and are leased to various private ranchers.
The Indian School Journal is available to researchers in the Special Collections and Archives department at the Central Library.
For more information on the legacy of boarding schools visit these websites:
- Bureau of Indian Affairs List of Federal Indian Boarding Schools - This master list of Indigenous boarding schools is a valuable tool for boarding school researchers of all levels.
- National Boarding School Healing Coalition - This organization works to “develop and implement a national strategy that increases public awareness and cultivates healing” to address the trauma that the Boarding School Policy of 1869 has caused Native nations to experience.
- Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center - A massive collection of digitized records relating to the infamous Pennsylvania boarding school including materials on individual students.
- Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project - Digitized materials related to the Indian boarding school in Genoa, Nebraska.