Chemawa Indian School and Ideas about Native Women in Historic Oregon Newspapers
by Kristin Bewersdorff
The Chemawa Indian School is an off-reservation boarding school for Native American youth and according to SuAnn M. Reddick in “The Chemawa Indian School” is one of four remaining schools now funded and operated by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE). Over the years schools like Chemawa have had mixed reviews about their effectiveness and other issues.
As Reddick noted, Chemawa began in Forest Grove, Oregon in 1880 as the United States Indian Industrial and Training School. Reddick notes this formal name only hid the true nature of the founding of the school, which was to have a “legal” means of converting Native Americans to Christianity or “Americanizing Indians.” Students were forced to drop their beliefs, language, forced into Christianity and had to speak English “In the early years [of these schools], children were forcibly removed from their families to be sent to boarding schools.” As Carolyn J. Marr noted in Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest: “Estelle Reel, who served as Superintendent of Indian Education from 1898 to 1910, was a strong advocate of a curriculum which gave primary importance to learning manual skills. No amount of book learning, she felt, could result in economic independence for Indian people.” Reddick’s article indicates the local Forest Grove community “did not welcome the students and their visiting families,” and “did not support expansion of the school.” As a result, the school moved to its present location in the Mid-Willamette valley just North of Salem Oregon renamed as The Chemawa Indian School. Native American women at Chemawa were held to a different standard than White women and men, and struggled to find equality not only with them, but with the rest of the nation. Historic newspapers demonstrated this divide between the two aforementioned types of women.
The following historic newspaper articles were published between the years 1902 and 1921, and came from three sources. The Chemawa American was published by the administration of the Chemawa Indian school roughly, once a month. The Salem Capital Journal and the Oregon Statesman Journal were published in Salem the closest city to Chemawa. The wide range of dates in these publications helps demonstrate the transition of the girls and young women at Chemawa and how the public viewed the women at the school.
Most Anglo Americans in the early 20th century felt that attempting to educate Native Americans was a waste of government resources. In an editorial titled “False and Foolish” from the Chemawa American on December 12, 1902, the editors noted; “A story republished in [a Portland Evening] Telegram [editorial] from the Pendleton Tribune is one of many that might be told showing how difficult, if not entirely vain, is the attainment of the desired result of the work being carried on by the Government of education Indian youth in schools.” The editors described how the Pendleton paper said a supposed “graduate” from Chemawa named Jennie Peo of Umatilla was unable to use the education she received at the school.The Pendleton Tribune described Peo as “relaps[ing] into a mere Indian squaw again, marr[ying] an ordinary buck Indian, and not being satisfied with him, [and that she] ‘estranged the affections of another squaw’s husband, and the two women had a rough-and-tumble. . . What good did the ‘education’ do?” The racist remarks are troubling to readers today and this was an all too harsh reality for the Native people at the time. The Chemawa administrators who edited the Chemawa American had two responses that emphasized their goal of “assimilation.” First, they distanced themselves from Jennie Peo, stating that she never graduated from Chemawa, but was a student for a few months while the school was still located in Forest Grove. The editors quoted from the the Oregon Statesman, which also discussed the case: “All Indians are not ambitious, nor are all of them capable of taking an education. Neither are all of their Caucasian brothers. But many of the Indian students at Chemawa are ambitious , and most of them receive great benefit from their education and training there.There are discouraging features in Indian character, to be sure. But they are vastly outnumbered by the encouraging features.”
The Chemawa American’s notice and advertisement for the school on July 9, 1909 emphasized vocational education. “The Girls, first of all are taught to be good-housekeepers, to which is added special Instruction in Dressmaking, Tailoring and Nursing. The School has a Domestic Science Department. The Boys are also taught Farming, Dairying, Gardening Carpentering, Wagon making, Blacksmithing, Shoe and Harness Making, Tailoring, Baking, Steam and Electrical Engineering, Plumbing.” As one can clearly see, there was more diversity in the school taught for the boys than the girls. Reddick noted the school added a nursing program in 1911. There was clearly little desire by the school board to teach the girls and a young women skills that could get them jobs outside of nursing and being a housewife or servant. During the 1920s the curriculum stayed roughly the same as it was during its previous decades. White women were advancing in their abilities to work in dramatic strides while education for Native women emphasized the stereotypical role of being a housewife, caring for children, and raining for work as a servant in White households.
Other newspaper articles mixed some praise with racist undertones. The Oregon Statesman Journal article “Indian Youths Conquer Arts” on June 5, 1921 read this way: “If Pocahontas had been clad in the fairy garments shown in the domestic arts department of the Chemawa Indian training school, or if she had been the peer of the Chemawa maidens who make them, Capt. John Smith wouldn’t have waited for impecunious John Rolfe to marry her — he’d have waded in fore up to his neck to marry her himself as the most wonderful maiden in America or Europe or anywhere in the whole world. Which would have been true; for in his time — and many other times since- there wasn’t a girl on earth who could have made such garments for as little money.” It was common at the time to use “Pocahontas” as a racial slur. The differences between this article and “False and Foolish” are striking. The Portland Evening Telegram used racist terms like “squaw” and “buck” to paint Native Americans in a poor light and like “savages.” Then, nineteen years later, “Indian Youths Conquer Arts” compared Chemawa female students to Pocahontas in an attempt to paint them in an appreciative light. The author of this article, Charles J. Lisle, was trying to compliment these Chemawa students on their impeccable work and praise their craftsmanship. However, in his attempt to compliment he used racist remarks. This suggests that the general public was trying to makeup for not believing that these students could succeed in their schooling attempts by demonstrating a grand appreciation for their talent and work in the kinds of tasks needed for assimilation. Similarly White women were met with the same awe when they started showing their passion for politics in trying to achieve the vote. The students of Chemawa were painted as unable to achieve an education like White women were viewed as incapable to act politically. As time passed the students of Chemawa were praised for their work like the suffragists were later praised for their achievements in attaining the right to vote.
“Chemawa to Graduate 23 Students” in the Salem Capital Journal for May 30, 1922 continues this theme. The article features a report on the end of the year exhibit done by the female students at Chemawa and was divided into two primary parts the “Domestic Science” and the “Domestic Arts.” The noted that the students showed a “quantity of fancy work suitable for home decoration” which included fancy pillows, towels and other such niceties. The author’s tone exhibited his surprise and awe by the students’ work. It is great that the girls exceeded in their areas of learning; however, there were few options available to them outside of home-making and domestic service. White women were advancing tremendously with achieving the right to vote and entering with great numbers into the white-collar workforce while Native American women, although advancing, were not reaching the level of equality of their White sisters. White women were able to enter the white-collar workforce while native women were left to either tend to their own houses and children or tend to the houses of White women and their children in the only profession made available to them, servanthood.
The girls and young women of the Chemawa Indian School were able to make great strides with how the public viewed them, and what the public thought they were capable of in under twenty years. They went from being “unable to be educated” to showing try craftsmanship and professional handiwork in the areas of schooling available to them. Although these great strides were made they still lacked the level of equality being achieved by White women of the time and the strides were within the limited view of assimilation into White culture. It was only a matter of time before they took a stand and demanded the equality of their White sisters.
“Chemawa to Graduate 23 Students,” Capital Journal, May 30, 1922, 3.
“False and Foolish,” Chemawa American, December 12, 1902, 2.
Charles L. Lisle “Indian Youths Conquer Arts,” Oregon Statesman Journal, June 5, 1921, 6.
“Notice!” Chemawa American, July 9, 1909, 11.
Marr, Carolyn J. “Assimilation Through Education: Indian Boarding Schools in the Pacific Northwest” University of Washington, University libraries. https://content.lib.washington.edu/aipnw/marr.html#positives
Jensen, Kimberly. Oregon’s Doctor to the World: Esther Pohl Lovejoy and a Life in Activism. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.
Reddick, SuAnn M. “The Chemawa Indian School” The Oregon Encyclopedia. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/chemawa_indian_boarding_school/#.WprVDujwbIV
About the Author
Kristin Bewersdorff is currently a sophomore at Western Oregon University, and has a love for History. Her major is Mathematics Education, and hopes to work alongside her former teachers at Glencoe High School.