The Fort Spokane Boarding School

Forced Assimilation for Native American Youth

By the late 1800’s, the frontier was gone and the West was dealing with what they called the "Indian problem." One of their solutions was the Indian Boarding School.

By the late 1800’s, the American government had run out places to put American Indians. The frontier was gone, and native people had been forced onto reservations. But soon enough, land-hungry whites began demanding even the reservations. What would become of the inhabitants? White reformers called this the “Indian problem” and boarding schools were thought to be an answer.

In his annual report to the War Department in 1891, Brigadier General A.V. Kautz, told of the “repeated troubles between Indians and white settlers” in the area. The Indians in “that section,” he said, “are unprovided with an agent and seem to have no one to look for aid or counsel.” Kautz soon reported the following warning to his supervisors: “In the near future a great increase in the number of settlers will succeed the building of the Great Northern Railroad, and trouble will follow unless some provision is made in anticipation.”

With the soldiers now gone from Fort Spokane following the Spanish American war, it became “the purpose of the government to establish the Indian agency and a large Indian school in the abandoned quarters and barracks” according to an 1889 article in the Spokesman-Review. The Fort Spokane Boarding School opened in 1900 and remained open officially until 1914. In a matter of a decade, “drill grounds became playgrounds” and the “Indian problem,” was thought to be well on its way to being subdued. But what was daily life really like for these children?

One native woman recalled a similar school: “Everything happened by bells, ‘triangles’ they were called. A triangle would ring in the morning and we would all run, line up, march in, get our little quota of tooth power, wash our teeth, brush our hair, wash our hands and faces, and then we all lined up and marched outside. Whether it was raining, snowing or blowing, we all went outside and did what was called ‘setting up exercises’ for twenty minutes.".

Uniformity was key to the success of boarding schools. Children were given a strict regimen of work, school and little else. At Fort Spokane, children also sustained the school itself; harvesting a garden, making clothing, repairing sheets and curtains, and working in the kitchen. Just a few years after the school opened, “the appearance of the old fort had begun to change. A community building was being remodeled for an assembly and auditorium, like those in public schools.”

One student at Fort Spokane, Lulu O’Hara, a Spokane Indian who attended the school around 1906 recalled that “everyone stood behind his place until a bell was rung for them to sit down. There was also a bell for grace and a bell for everyone to turn his plate over at the same time. If anyone misbehaved, at a table, they had to sit all by themselves, at a small table at the end of the room for all to see.”

Boarding school life was a sharp contrast to the traditional native childhood that Lulu was used to at home with her family in the Spokane tribe. At home, discipline and punishment were a collective experience for children, usually carried out by the child’s grandparents, not a stranger. If a child misbehaved in the tribe, all children as a group were punished together. Rarely were children ever hit, verbally abused or publicly shamed. Education was found every day working alongside relatives and performing the daily tasks of living and survival.

After the closing of the Fort Spokane Boarding school in 1914, children returned to their homes on the reservation where they attended what were called “day schools.” In 1960, the National Park Service took over the site where the Fort Spokane Boarding School once ran. There are four original buildings including a stable from 1884 and a guard house dating back to 1892 that remain on the site and are preserved as part of the Park Service’s Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area (Wikipedia, Fort Spokane). Additional stories of the Fort Spokane Boarding school can be found at an exhibit in the park.