Thursday, January 3, 2013

Interview with Mary Stout, Author of Native American Boarding Schools

What prompted you to write Native American Boarding Schools? What "message" do you want to communicate?

I was interested in writing Native American Boarding Schools because it was a topic that had been largely ignored until recently; it didn’t seem as if there was a lot of information available for non-Natives, and it didn’t appear as though it was a part of the national conversation, even though it was such a critically important policy historically, with an impact that still reverberates today.

In writing the book, I was hoping to make the existing research about Native American boarding schools more easily accessible to everyone, and to bring it into the national conversation.  It is a controversial topic which needs to be studied and discussed.

What was the highlight of your research? In the course of your research, what discovery surprised you the most? What surprises readers/others the most about your research?

Most of the published research on this topic consists of either scholarly surveys of the history of Native American education, or biographies and autobiographies of Native Americans who recount their boarding school years in the first person.  Probably the most fascinating part of the research was reading the autobiographies, and being given a glimpse of their lives in boarding school by the people who lived it.  

The biggest surprise for me, since today it is generally accepted that the policy of forced assimilation in boarding schools for Native American youth was tantamount to cultural genocide, and was one of the most ill-conceived, longstanding social policies in this country, was that the individual responses to boarding schools varied so broadly.  Some students hated boarding school, but some students loved it, and still others were ambivalent.  Also, the fact that today, some of the Native American boarding schools still exist, but have been completely transformed by the Native American community into schools which celebrate and promote Native American language and culture, which is the exact opposite of what they were originally designed to accomplish, just delights me.  It feels like the boarding schools have come full circle.

How did your research change your outlook on Native American boarding schools?

My research showed me that boarding school experiences were not all the same, and the issues surrounding boarding schools were complex and long-lasting.  Boarding school life is a huge part of the collective Native American history, and the social ills of some Native American communities can be traced to that experience.  The rise of pan-Indian political and social groups which act as strong advocates for the Native American community also have their roots in the boarding school experience.  For me, the boarding school experience cannot simply be labeled “good” or “bad.”  It is way too complex for labels.

How have people reacted to your book and/or the ideas you set forth? Is it what you hoped for, or is there more work to be done?

It became clear to me that there was much more work to be done on this topic.  Although several of the boarding schools have histories that have been published; more of them do not, and we need a history of each boarding school.  Also, we need more first-person accounts of boarding school life, particularly boarding school life after 1950.  The long-term effects of boarding schools on the Native American communities, both positive and negative, still need to be studied.

Mary A. Stout is a recently retired academic librarian and freelance writer. She holds an MA in American Indian studies from the University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. Her published works include Geronimo: A Biography and Cree from the Native American Peoples series.

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