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The Indian Academies

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Armstrong Academy, built for Choctaw boys, educated many Choctaw nationals before the Civil War (Durant Democrat).


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End of the Trail

Indian Academies

Not much remains of the many day and boarding schools that dotted the landscape around Oklahoma's Red River Valley. Just like with everything else in our standardized world, education has become a national, rather than a community, affair. The Choctaw and Chickasaw communities in the middle 19th century, however, invested a great deal in localized education, knowing fully well what could happen if they didn't.

Forced "Assimilation"
Throughout American history, Indians were given two "options:" assimilate, or be annihilated. While early tribes fought to the bitter end against the European invaders, other tribes learned that the only way to preserve themselves was by becoming more like the whites. Churches established missionary schools to teach Indians how to be more "Christian" and "American." Often, schools were placed not within tribal communities, but in far off locations, thus forcing children to live apart from their families. This strategy had an intended effect: the schools rid the Indians of their culture, all under the guise of "education."

Tactic of War?
This forced assimilation became a well-used tactic after the Plains Indian Wars of the 1870s. Hundreds of children from the Sioux, Dakota, Blackfeet, and Cheyenne tribes (the Comanches and Kiowas to a far lesser degree*) were sent to boarding schools in far-away states like Pennsylvania, where they could be "Americanized." However, while this idea gained wide acceptance in the late 19th century, these kinds of programs had already been initiated under during the Early Republic.

That's why it became very important for the Five Civilized Tribes, who had been forced to Indian Territory by the Jackson government, to initiate what I'd call a "preemptive strike." They quickly established schools over which their nations could maintain some control. They did this with the support of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist missionary groups, who worked in tandem with the nations to ensure their education.

All On-Board
The Choctaw Nation's first school was established within a decade of their forced ouster into today's Oklahoma. Wheelock Academy, founded in 1842 as a joint effort by Choctaw leaders, Presbyterian missionaries, and Indian Bureau agents, at first operated as a day school for both boys and girls. Girls education, which previously had been neglected, was championed by Choctaw Reverend Israel Folsom.

Religious education was emphasized, though missionaries lamented that the Native Americans were not very receptive to their "Americanization" efforts. Located just east of Fort Towson, Wheelock later became a boarding school for girls, with nearby Norwalk Academy serving boys. Armstrong Academy, founded in 1845, became the premier Choctaw school. It was self-sustaining, with corn fields and vegetable gardens. Adults attended the school on Saturdays to learn how to read and write, and students learned algebra, classical literature, and geography as well as mechanical and domestic skills. In 1862, Armstrong Academy became the seat of the Choctaw confederacy, and continued to serve as the Choctaw Nation capitol until the 1880s.

Other academies along the eastern Red River in Indian Territory included the Spencer Academy for boys, founded in 1844 north of Doaksville, which served as a Confederate hospital. The 1850's Bloomfield Academy for girls near the Colbert's Ferry landing also became a hospital during the war. Wapanucka Academy for girls (it was co-educational for a time) opened northeast of Boggy Depot. These schools operated as day schools, with more local control, and boarding schools, which fell under the governance and church boards and federal agencies. Often, a school that had once been under local control would gradually become a boarding school as population centers shifted away from the schools. After the Chickasaws restored their nationhood in the 1850s, both Bloomfield and Wapanucka Academies came under their sole jurisdiction.

After freedom, academies opened for the people who had been enslaved by the Chickasaws and Choctaws. The most prominent one in the Red River Valley was Oak Hill, located in McCurtain County along the old military road east of Fort Towson. Founded in 1869, this school emphasized manual labor, not academic instruction. At first, black men taught at the school, but they were replaced by white teachers recruited from northern states, and the school acted as a farm demonstration place.


Nefarious Schemes

The academies were targeted by unscrupulous white men, though. Non-native men sought to marry Choctaw or Chickasaw women for access to the lands in Indian Territory since the first removals; that's how Anglos like Ike Cloud, who used his brother's wife's Chickasaw ancestry as an in-road to land in today's Love County, became a large land-owner in Indian Territory and received tribal voting rights. After the Dawes Act of 1887 forced nationals to accept individual allotments of land, white men began an all-out land grab. They used the academies as orphanages, where their "adopted" charges would then sign over the allotments to them.

The academies lasted into the early 20th century. The nations preferred local, public schools within their jurisdictions and did not want to cede authority to other parties anymore; the academies for blacks closed too, and the students were placed in segregated public schools. As attendance waned, most of the old school buildings were consumed by fire. The wooden buildings of the Bloomfield Academy burned down at least three times before the decision was made to abandon the school. Armstrong Academy was mostly brick built, but it, too, experienced fires. A young woman from Doaksville recounted her visits to the destroyed Armstrong Academy in the 1930s, where she remembered "piles of bones" laying about in what used to be the anatomy lab. Armstrong was never rebuilt, either. Spencer Academy also succumbed to a fiery death. Exception werethe Wapanucka Academy, which slowly crumbled away after it closed in 1911, and Oak Hill Academy, which closed in 1936 and the buildings were torn down.

Two academies still exist along the Red River. Wheelock Academy is now a National Historic Landmark, and the grounds are open every day. While many of the outbuildings are in ruins, the wooden and white-washed administration building, built in the 1880s, stands in the center. A free museum is housed inside a wooden dormitory building. Nearby is the Wheelock Presbyterian Church, built of solid stone and dedicated in 1847. The adjacent graveyard includes many burials of children who succumbed to Scarlett fever.

The most impressive of these academies is Goodland, but not because of its architecture. Of all the academies I've mentioned (and a few I didn't), Goodland is the only one still in operation. Established in the 1850s as a mission school for orphaned Indians near Grant, Goodland is now a Presbyterian boarding school, taking care of children regardless of religious, national, sexual, familial, socio-economic, or racial affiliation.

Except for Goodland and Wheelock, these historic schools only exist as entries in history books. Often, archaeological surveys are needed just to pinpoint their locations. The only evidence of Armstrong, Bloomfield, Wapanucka, Oak Hill, and Spencer Academies consist of inaccessible cemeteries on private property. Other academies I did not mention have not even received National Register status because nothing remains of them. These school are, without a doubt, incredibly important to Oklahoma history.

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