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    My Life in an Indian Boarding School

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    This research also stands as an attempt not only to understand and analyze boarding school history and how it fit a larger pattern of internal imperialism, but also how the subjects of such policy and practice fit themselves into the changing world thrust upon them. Recent scholarship in African American history, for example, has sought to view the history of the slave in such a way as to shore up chronically lagging perspectives that offer determinative agency to the subjects. In other words, rather than being viewed as passive victims, changing practices within the field have shaped a more holistic view that rounds out methods of resistance, day-to-day life, success in the face of oppression, and other factors that contributed to a rich history of contributions to history. It is a subsidiary goal of this research to shift native people away from such prescriptive victimhood and create a fuller picture of what boarding school life was, or at least could, be for some. This is not to suggest that the fundamental notion of boarding schools as a destructive institution falters, but recent trends in the practice of history have shown that there is definite value in rooting out alternative perspectives that expand the understanding of how agency has been exercised.

    To this end, an extremely useful (and rather refractory) perspective on boarding schools comes in the form of Pipestone: My Life in an Indian Boarding School by Adam Fortunate Eagle. Published in 2010, this autobiographical book provides a recent addition to the scholarship from the perspective of someone that lived both during the subject time, and also has been a native rights activist through the development of contemporary native history as a field of study. That is to say, Fortunate Eagle is the lived subject manifest. Unlike other testimonial works consulted during this research process, Fortunate Eagle offers a view of school life, and the effects on life post-school, that paints a much more positive picture. While he does acknowledge that boarding schools were problematic, Fortunate Eagle credits them for not only his successes as an adult, but provides anecdotal accounts describing the ways in which they proved beneficial to his community abroad. Told through a first hand, non-linear story-based narrative flow, his accounts provide a very valuable, albeit thorny, perspective within the scholarship of boarding schools that at least somewhat effectively contrasts much more common works in which the central argument revolves around horror, cultural loss, and degradation. Given the variety of native people they enrolled, wide geographic spread, and complex legal status of indigenous people across the county, is certainly makes sense that alternative perspectives are warranted to generate a clearer picture of school life and the lingering effects it may have had. In expressing his personal story, Fortunate Eagle does not shy away from an assertive, if not downright confrontational, presentation; his story is provided, and you can take it or leave it.

    Indeed, he closes the preface by remarking that he will not take criticism outside of those who were “over 70 years of age and who were boarding school children themselves.” While some may take issue with his confrontational approach, it does serve as both a challenge and reminder that experiences were not universal, and viewing the children that attended them as merely passive victims of oppression does a disservice to the subjects, the story, and the literature. The scholarship of boarding schools is important for understanding both the past and present condition of native people, but we must not subtract agency from that history through works that only analyze victimhood.

    Additionally, other agency-lending works have been consulted in an attempt to more fully round out where the current literature sits in its understanding of how indigenous subjects fit into the context of a colonial, imperial system that dramatically shifted native society and the trajectory of its growth. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences serves this purpose very well. This work is a collection of academic essays gathered for the purpose of taking accounts similar to those of Fortunate Eagle and melding them into a more complete understanding of the boarding school experience. The editors make it clear that their goal is to provide the reader with a better, more complete tool set for viewing the topic as a whole. The specific subject of the collected essays ranges widely, but each contributes to the underlying scholarship in such a way as to reframe focus away from normative judgements of wrong or right and into the realm of how people reacted and dealt with the conditions they lived through. Such literature is a compliment to boarding school research broadly, and this work specifically, as it inserts a strong supporting beam beneath the aforementioned issue of agency when discussing colonial subjects. Of particular note within this collection is “Beyond Bleakness” by David Wallace Adams. Complementary to the writing of Fortunate Eagle, and others, Adams sets out to examine reasons why some students did, in fact, view their time in the boarding school system as positive or beneficial. In a larger sense, Adams is attempting to give a glimpse into the broader question of why experiences were so varied to begin with, prodding the reader to think about how diverse and disparate native people could be, the problems they faced, and how schools could provide a proactive means of self determination and upward mobility. He also makes it clear that this is not a revisionist work, and that scholars do generally agree that boarding schools were fundamentally problematic. However, his contributions serve the literature, and this research, well in creating a richer tapestry of context.

    The scholarly responses to the approach by Fortunate Eagle, Adams, and others should also be expanded somewhat for purposes of this research. While both authors do acknowledge that boarding schools were destructive to at least some degree, and make clear not to be arguing on their behalf, it is useful to pivot yet further and appreciate how the field has responded to these works. In his essay “Finding the Balance: Student Voices and Cultural Loss at the Sherman Institute”, Kevin Whalen strikes a very balanced cord in incorporating native agency into a larger discussion about problematic practices and loss. The goal of his work is to ask how, as scholars, we can include native experience and response to boarding schools without overshadowing or downplaying the loss and damage which occurred. While not having the personal experience of writers such as Fortunate Eagle, Whalen does incorporate primary source documents to craft his analysis against a larger framework of secondary literature. He avoids the pitfalls of seeming apologistic or confrontational while also prodding the reader to consider cultural genocide conceptually, and to think deeply about the ways in which in can manifest outside of a “good/bad” dichotomy. Given the length and breadth of federal indian policy and the generations it has shaped, the conceptual approach allows for an effective picot into broader thinking about the nature of American imperialism and its goals when dealing with indigenous people.

    Overall, my exploration of the standing historiography presents a path forward for further research and discussion. The scholarship on native education policy and its effects has not so much shifted as it has expanded; older resources ask similar questions, but lack the inclusion of native voice and also the perspective of decades of modern policy implementation. My own contributions will do both, and serve to provide a comprehensive take on native education which incorporates a variety of disciplines into a single historic work, rather than requiring the reader to hunt through a great number of disparate essays and resources.

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