Photo Book Offers In-Depth Look at Life in American Indian Boarding Schools

Co-written by UCR's Clifford Trafzer, “Shadows of Sherman Institute” features hundreds of never-before-seen images

Sherman Institute students

Schools like Riverside’s Sherman Institute, opened in 1902, were designed to speed the assimilation of Native American children. Photo credit: Sherman Indian Museum

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — Beginning in the late 19th century, hundreds of thousands of Native American children were separated from their families and funneled through a government-operated boarding school system designed to speed their assimilation.

Riverside’s Sherman Institute, opened in 1902, was the last of 25 off-reservation American Indian boarding schools established nationwide. Now known as Sherman Indian High School, its history is the basis of a new photographic book from Clifford Trafzer, a distinguished professor of history and Rupert Costo Chair in American Indian Affairs at the University of California, Riverside.

“Shadows of Sherman Institute” contains hundreds of never-before-seen photographs from the archives of the Sherman Indian Museum housed inside the school’s only remaining original structure. Working closely with the museum’s curator, Lorene Sisquoc; Jeffrey Smith of the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo; and the Pechanga Tribe of Southern California’s Great Oak Press, Trafzer drew from a collection of more than 10,000 images depicting everyday life for the school’s students.

“Sherman and other off-reservation federal boarding schools aimed at changing the lives of children forever, making them over to create a new ‘American Indian’ that spoke English, valued Christianity and served a useful purpose to the dominant society as productive laborers,” he wrote.

Sherman Institute students

Some students at Sherman Institute cared for domesticated animals or worked on poultry farms for less money than other laborers.
Photo credit: Sherman Indian Museum

The book is divided into seven chapters with headings such as “Student Life,” “Sports,” and “Religion and Health.” Inside, black-and-white photos portray students in classroom environments where they learned both traditional academic subjects and professional trades, such as sewing and blacksmithing. Students also provided farm and manual labor, served as health aides, and helped oversee an on-site childcare program.

“The school was teaching students to be laborers,” Trafzer said. “Sherman did not want them to become professors or lawyers – that certainly wasn’t the training provided – although there were a lot more opportunities for boys than girls, who were expected to become mothers or maids.”

Some images show participants in the school’s outing program, which encouraged students to live in the homes of non-Native American families as modestly paid domestic workers responsible for cooking, cleaning, and other household tasks.

Trafzer said a portion of the photos are clearly staged. Such photos typically were sold as postcards or sent to congressmen as a means of lobbying the federal government for additional funding.

“Another way the schools went about getting more money was by overenrolling,” he added. “If they took a number of students beyond their capacity, they could request more federal dollars for food and other resources.”

The federal government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs operated a network of as many as 100 boarding schools both on and off reservations. The first off-reservation boarding school, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa., was founded in 1879 by veteran Army officer Richard Henry Pratt.

“Rather than kill every Indian, reformers came along and decided they should be ‘kind’ to Native Americans,” Trafzer said. “The churches were involved, and most politicians were Christians, so they were involved, too. They decided Native Americans needed educations so they could become productive parts of society. They segregated children, in particular, to try to destroy everything that was Indian about them; the idea was that it was doing them good.”

Sherman Institute students

This staged photo depicts a participant in Sherman’s outing program.
Photo credit: Sherman Indian Museum

At schools like Sherman Institute, students were expected to change their names, cut their hair, speak only English, and become practicing Christians, among other requirements. While Trafzer admits the boarding school system provided long-term opportunities for a small subset of students, deep-rooted trauma and the loss of key cultural traditions – including languages, songs, and stories – are still felt by many Native Americans across North America.

“For the reformers, the boarding school system was a positive thing, but in recent years I started to use the term ‘cultural genocide’ to describe it,” he said. “One of the definitions of genocide is separating children from their parents and their people to change them. The boarding school system might have been well meaning, but can you imagine the heartache of having your children taken away, or of being separated from your family as a child?”

The advent of the American Indian movement of the late 1960s led to the end of Sherman Institute in 1970, when the Office of Indian Education renamed the property Sherman Indian High School and made attendance voluntary.

“Sherman Indian High School remains a significant resource for members of the Native American communities of the United States,” Trafzer wrote, adding the school is one of the few off-reservation American Indian boarding schools still in operation.

Additional books by Trafzer include “A Chemehuevi Song,” “Comanche Medicine Man: Kenneth Coosewoon’s Great Vision, Blue Medicine & Sweat Lodge Healings,” “The Snake River-Palouse and the Invasion of the Inland Northwest,” and “Death Stalks the Yakama: Epidemiological Transitions and Death on the Yakama Indian Reservation, 1888-1964.” He also edited “American Indian Medicine Ways” and co-edited “The Indian School on Magnolia Avenue: Voices and Images from Sherman Institute.”

Additional photos are available upon request.

Sherman Institute students

Sherman’s assimilation program emphasized the adoption of Christianity through holiday events like this Nativity presentation.
Photo credit: Sherman Indian Museum

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