Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Saint Kate's

 (Written in July, 2020.  Since that time U.S. Representative Debra Haaland has been nominated to be Secretary of the Interior by President Joe Biden.)

Connecticut has “the Kate,” officially known as the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center – named in honor of our old home state’s most renowned actress.  

Santa Fe has “Saint Kate’s,” aka St. Catherine’s Indian School – a former residential educational facility founded by Katherine Drexel, but named for St. Catherine of Siena.

We first heard about this Catholic educational institution in the short story “Hunger” – part of the anthology Santa Fe Noir published by Akashic Books, which also has collections set in New Haven, Cape Cod, and other places.   

We did not know of any Indian Schools in Connecticut’s history.*  So with no local lore to draw upon, our initial awareness of these learning centers, like that of many people, came from hearing about the exploits of Jim Thorpe – member of the Sac and Fox Nation, American athlete, Olympic gold medalist and student at the Carlisle (Pennsylvania) Indian Industrial School.  For a sports-minded blue-collar boy such as Jim whose understanding of higher education was basically limited to college football – Carlisle seemed a habitat of heroes, which anyone would aspire to attend.  

And that was pretty much our knowledge of such things until December 2013.  Two years previous Marsha had reconnected with J, her former high school BFF, who it turned out now lived in Albuquerque, and was a docent in that city’s Indian Pueblo Cultural Center – “dedicated to the preservation and perpetuation of Pueblo Indian Culture, History and Art.”  We linked up with J on our Christmas visit to NM, and she gave us a private tour of the museum’s then-current show “Albuquerque Indian School Retrospective With a Vision Forward.”  The multi-room exhibit featured artifacts and evidence of the attempts by Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA)  to “kill the Indian to save the man” through a system of forced boarding schools for Native American children,

The motto came from the school's founder, Colonel Richard Pratt, who declared in 1892, “A great general [Philip Sheridan] has said that the only good Indian is a dead one...I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Native American residential schools were established initially by Christian missionaries of various denominations.  The BIA began its own system of boarding schools in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation in Washington state.  After Carlisle’s establishment in 1879 BIA schools followed the “model” used at that Pennsylvania school. “Enrollments” increased under the 1891 “Compulsory Attendance” law, which empowered federal officers to forcibly take Native American children from their homes and reservations.  

These institutions were all part of a plan devised by eastern reformers Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast to use education as a tool to “assimilate” Indian tribes into the mainstream of the “American Way of Life,” a Protestant ideology of the mid-1800s.  

“By the mid-nineteenth century it has become commonplace for American Protestant historians and educators to insist upon the supposed historical and ideological link between Protestantism and American Exceptionalism...making Protestantism central to the evolution of American identity.  [They] saw Anglo-Saxon Protestants as the favored children of God because of their inherent ethnic superiority, greater ‘manliness’ and, most importantly, their Protestant faith [and] native people as both racially inferior and as unable conceptually to [adapt to] changing circumstances.  ‘The Indian is hewn out of a rock.  You can rarely change the form without destruction...he and his forest must perish together.’” (The Death and Afterlife of the North American Martyrs By Emma Anderson)

Natives were to be taught the importance of private property, material wealth and monogamous nuclear families. The guiding principle was that it was necessary to “civilize” Indian people – make them accept white men’s beliefs and value systems.  Conversion to Christianity was deemed essential to the cause.  Educational institutions where children were separated from their families and way of life were an ideal instrument for this acculturation.  Begun in 1881 Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) was one of hundreds of such places – at least six in New Mexico.   Students were stripped of all traces of their culture such as long hair, clothing, and native language.   One student ran away from AIS so many times that they sent him to Carlisle, and he never came home.  

Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School in Santa Fe was one of the non-BIA, NGO-established schools.  It was begun in 1894 by Mother Katharine Drexel – wealthy heiress, nun and founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians.  “Situated on a hill northwest of the Santa Fe Plaza [in] perhaps the largest adobe building in the Southwest,” SFIS was the first in a nationwide system of schools for the education of Native Americans and African Americans set up by that religious order.

Katherine Drexel (1858-1955) was born into one of the wealthiest families in America.  Her great-grandfather founded the firm Drexel Burnham Lambert. Her grandfather partnered with J. P. Morgan to establish the banking giant Drexel, Morgan & Co., renamed J. P. Morgan. Her uncle founded Drexel University. 

The French-Catholic family was also deeply religious and intensely philanthropic, giving about $11 million to charitable causes annually.   ($350 m today.)   Katherine’s mother died a month after her birth and doctors expected to lose the baby as well. But she grew stronger and eventually was sent, with her older sister, to live with relatives.  After her father’s remarriage to Emma Bouvier (great-great aunt of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis) the two girls returned home to be soon joined by a third sister.

Katherine enjoyed a pampered childhood – although at fourteen, she considered entering the religious life.  She was talked out of it by her spiritual adviser, Bishop James O’Connor. “I do not know how I could bear the privations of poverty of the religious life,” she herself confided in her journal. “I have never been deprived of luxuries.”  Later however, while on a family trip to the American West, Drexel was deeply moved by the poverty of Native Americans, who at that time were being forced from the rapidly shrinking frontier onto reservations.  She carried that memory into adulthood.

At the death of their parents, the Drexel sisters inherited the bulk of their estate. And Katharine began to devote a significant amount of her new personal fortune to missionary and charity work among American Indians – beginning in 1887 with SCIS – named for her patron saint, Catherine of Siena. 

Katherine visited Pope Leo XIII in the Vatican to ask him to send missionaries to staff the various missions she had financed.  The pontiff instead suggested that the missionary she needed was herself.  To the disbelief of Philadelphia society she decided to become a Catholic nun – initially joining the Sisters of Mercy and then founding the “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Negroes and Indians,” to which she devoted her inheritance and talents.

Most of the order’s efforts went into developing a network of 145 missions – plus twelve schools for Native Americans, and fifty for African Americans throughout the West and South offering vocational training and religious instruction.

In contrast to that of the BIA, the order’s schools’ mission explicitly renounced assimilation as a goal –  and students did not have to be, or become, Catholic to enroll.

Saint Catherine’s Industrial Indian School initially was meant to serve as a boarding school for Indian girls.  But two weeks after its April 1887 dedication the building received its first students – sixty boys from an Indian school in Bernalillo, NM.  From the beginning there was a chronic shortage of teachers. The Sisters of Loretto managed the school for two years, then members of the Benedictine Fathers of Kansas, followed by a series of lay instructors. 

Even with this outside help, the school continued to struggle, and in 1893 was forced to close due to a lack of water for its agriculture.  The BIA-run Santa Fe Indian School had also opened in 1890 and was drawing away students.  In 1894 Mother Katharine and the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament took direct control – bringing in teaching nuns from Philadelphia, and offering both academic instruction and “industrial” training in trades such as tailoring, carpentry, farming, blacksmithing and laundry.  Girls were admitted, and by 1898, a two-story adobe dormitory behind the main building had been erected to accommodate them. Other buildings, including a two-story structure holding the carpentry and shoe shops, and a red-brick chapel and convent were added to the campus.

Although New Mexico’s initial state constitution gave Spanish children the right to “enjoy perfect all public schools,” education of Native American children remained under the direction of the federal government or religious charities.  At the time of statehood (1912) enrollment at SCIS was about 150.  In the 1960s some non-Indian children from Santa Fe and small villages in Northern New Mexico were also admitted.  

Former pupils recalled their time at “Saint Kate’s” for a Santa Fe New Mexican article.

“Students slept in barracks-style dormitories and got up at about 6:30 a.m. After eating breakfast together, they had to complete individual ‘charges,’ chores that helped the sisters maintain the facility with little extra cost.  There was not real janitorial service such as nowadays.  It was the students.”

New Mexico District Judge Barbara Vigil remembered polishing a floor in the nun's quarters on her knees using Johnson Paste Wax. At the time she rebelled against the “absurd rule” barring students from wearing jeans.  But now says “hindsight paints a better picture of the institution.

And, while many government-run Indian schools aimed to mainstream Native American children into the Anglo-Christian culture, according to alumnae and former staff this Catholic boarding school was different – living up to Mother Katherine’s express renunciation of assimilation as a goal.

One graduate said he wished his seven-year-old daughter, who is half Navajo, could attend a school like St. Kate's.  "It would've given her the opportunity to explore her culture and the local tribal cultures, [Catholicism] wasn't shoved in your face. It was there if you wanted it, but you didn't have to do it.  Former teacher Sister Patrick Marie Dempsey concurred. "We taught the Catholic religion, but had a respect for the other life that the (Native American students) led. It is two lives in some ways. And some of them, when they leave...still practice their Native ways.”

However, Democrat U.S. Representative from New Mexico's 1st Congressional District Debra Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, sees it quite differently – conflating together the BIA and NGO centers of learning.   “As a Native American woman, my family has experienced the violence of government-enforced family separation.  My grandmother, grandfather, and my mother were all sent to boarding school under this policy.  Grandfather, [to] Carlisle Indian School in PA, Mom and Grandma sent to St. Catherine's in Santa Fe.”  (New Mexico Political Journal)

Haaland is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and spoke at the Opening Ceremony for Jim Thorpe Sports Days at The U.S. Army War College – since 1951 located in the former home of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

“Like many Native American children [Jim Thorpe] was sent to Indian boarding school in the hopes of obtaining an education that would serve to assimilate him into mainstream white society.  At the time the school’s motto was ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’

“In spite of this traumatic history...Thorpe couldn’t ignore the gifts he was born with and succeeded far beyond what anyone could imagine...overcoming obstacles and adversity that should inspire us all to work harder and be proud of where we come from because that is what true greatness is.”

Katherine Drexel likewise could not ignore the gifts she was born with – and later inherited.  She was proposed for sainthood in 1964 because of her “courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities.”  Thirty-six years later, Pope John Paul II decreed that a girl from Pennsylvania, had been cured of lifelong deafness by the nun’s intercession and she became the second American in history to be canonized.   Katherine died in 1955 – and, per the terms of her father's will, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament no longer had the Drexel fortune available to them.  Still, the order continues to pursue its religious mission, working with African-Americans and Native Americans in twenty-one states and Haiti.  
A 1920s investigation into Indian Boarding Schools by U.S. Secretary of the Interior Hubert Work concluded that children at federal boarding schools were malnourished, overworked, harshly punished and poorly educated.  A significant shift in Federal Native American policy began under President Franklin D. Roosevelt who established the Indian New Deal, with its centerpiece Indian Reorganization Act of 1934.
But it was not until 1978, with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act, that Native American parents gained the legal right to deny their children’s placement in off-reservation schools.  Today the Federal Bureau of Indian Education operates boarding schools in Anadarko, OK, Riverside, CA, Salem, OR and Flandreau, SD.  
Albuquerque Indian School closed in 1981.  The forty-six acres of land where the school once stood is being developed by a corporation owned by New Mexico's nineteen Indian Pueblos.  The first occupant is the only freestanding Starbucks licensed to a Native-owned company in the United States – and the largest of that chain’s coffeehouses in New Mexico.
With the passing of the SFIS Act in 2001, the Santa Fe Indian School took complete control of its educational curriculum, and ownership of the land under a trust held by the nineteen Pueblo Governors of New Mexico. Today the institution serves 700 Native American students in grades 7 – 12.  
In 1998 Saint Catherine’s Indian School became financially impossible to maintain, and closed its doors.  In 2016 the Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority took title to the property for $2 million with thoughts of a mixed-use Section 8, and market-rate housing units.  “It is a wonderful old property and it has some really important historic buildings.”  The hope is to “at least get our money back and save this property.”  In 2019 the site was used for some scenes in the film “Cliffs of Freedom,” starring Christopher Plummer and Billy Zane. 

History can be pretty complicated in this melting pot of Native Americans, Spanish, Anglos and combinations thereof – many of whom have family histories in New Mexico that go back to its very beginnings.  A cultural continent formed from the tectonic plates of three traditions, whose fissures are not totally totally healed.  Based on legends, stories, traditions, folklore, and oral traditions unique to each group, current-day descendants of those who lived through the events may have radically different versions of what actually happened – witness Saint Kate’s.   
For decades there have been disputes, disagreements, demonstrations and discussions about the celebrations, memorials and writings that compete to tell the story of the interactions between the three groups.  Plus the occasional rectification of some of the issues. 
E.g. in 2018 the annual Santa Fe Fiesta removed its century-old Entrada pageant, which celebrated the 1692 re-entry of conquistador Don Diego de Vargas into Santa Fe after the Spanish had been expelled by the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  The now-excised tableau depicted the “bloodless and peaceful” Reconquista of Nuevo México – never mentioning the overt threats of force, or the years of bloodshed and brutality that followed.   After decades of protests, and finally conversations, the performance has now been replaced by a series of Spanish and Native American events “to commemorate the negotiations of reconciliation.”
Comedian Trevor Noah ­is a child of a mixed race couple who grew up in South Africa during apartheid – and witnessed firsthand that country’s “negotiations of reconciliation.”  

Commenting on current ethnic issues on a recent CBS TV Sunday Morning program Noah ­said, “Americans are always told that there are only two sides to every story – [and] if you only have two choices, people are always gonna make one.  Which means people are automatically always going to be against each other.  Nuance means you can't just take a stand and fight the other person. Nuance means we have to talk a little bit more.”
This may be a particularly apt caution when considering New Mexico’s heritage.  Like the piece of fiction that inspired this essay, at least some of the history out here could also perhaps be considered “noir,”  (or noir-ish) – a narrative in which right and wrong are not clearly defined, with protagonists who are seriously and often tragically flawed.


* It turns out there was at least one Indian School in our old home state.  Since moving to Santa Fe, two different locals have mentioned Moor's Charity School – founded in 1754 in Lebanon, CT by Puritan Calvinist minister Eleazar Wheelock to provide education for Native Americans who wanted to become tribal missionaries.  In 1770 it was moved to Hanover New Hampshire where it was re-established as Dartmouth College.

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