“An institution, founded to transform Indian youth was paradoxically given life by the very people whose tribal identities it was committed to erase”
-K. Tsianina Lomawaima “They call it Prairie Light”
Chilocco was founded in 1884 as an agricultural school for Native Americans. From 1884 until the early 1930s Chilocco operated according to a template devised by U.S. Army officer Richard H. Pratt at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The large off-reservation schools used rigorous military discipline and stressed instruction in trades and manual and domestic labor known as “actual work.” Alumni from these years remember twenty-two bugle calls a day, Government-issue uniforms, scanty meals, inadequate health care, and a lack of individual attention. Life at Chilocco was very difficult for many in its early years. The harsh regimen was the driving force to integrate, assimilate and civilize the Native Americans. They also remember the bonds of loyalty and love that knit students together, and the rivalries of tribe, degree of blood, age, and language difference that cross-cut school society.
Before reforms from the federal Indian Service in the 1930′s, Chilocco was under strict militarized rule. Every moment of the students lives was scheduled and controlled by staff members. Perfection was the only acceptable way of life. Beds were to be made every morning perfectly, much in the way the military does today. Alumni recall tests involving coins being dropped onto their beds. If it didn’t bounce, every bed in the often overcrowded dorms were overturned and each student was to begin again. While moving about the campus each student was lined up according to height. They marched in formation at all times. Any wavering from this was immediate punishment. Chilocco’s discipline plan was based on a system of demerits. These were to be “worked off”. One demerit equalled one hour of work. Girls often had to polish the terrazzo floors until they shined “so they could see their faces” or making pillowcases and mending the uniforms. (K. Tsianina Lomawaima-They Called it Prairie Light”) Boys were often required to work in what they called the rock pile. This involved taking huge limestone boulders and splitting them into smaller ones for construction projects at the school. Although this strict way of life was harsh, many students appreciate how it benefited them later in life. However some do not.
In 1928 an expose of federal Indian Service mismanagement scathingly critiqued conditions in the boarding schools, including Chilocco, and in the early 1930s some reforms were introduced. Boys and girls could sit together in the dining rooms, more attention was invested in academic work, and drudgery work devoted to school upkeep was cut back. Nonetheless, many aspects of student life endured: separation from home and family for years at a time, devotion to fellow students, strict discipline, and curricula that remained focused more on vocational than academic preparation. A copy of an older Chiloccoan yearly depicts this:
The institution was established and is maintained by the United States Government, not to give its students anything but to loan them each a few hundred dollar’s worth of Board, Clothing, and Tuition. The tuition is in the following lines:
Academic.-This course is the equivalent of the usual High School Course but not the same. Non-essentials are eliminated and one half of each day is given to industrial training and the other half to academic studies. All effort is directed toward training Indian boys and girls for efficient and useful lives under the conditions which they must meet after leaving school.
Vocational.- Special stress is placed upon the courses in Agriculture and Home Economics for these reasons:
1. The Indian has nine chances to earn a livelihood and establish a permanent home in a congenial environment as a farmer to every one in any other pursuit.
2. His capital is practically all in land, of which he must be taught the value, and which is appreciated as of any considerable value only when he has gained the skill and perseverance by means of which he can make it highly productive.
Our large farm of nearly 9,000 acres offers unusual facilities for giving practical instruction in Farming and Stock raising, Gardening, Dairying, and Horticulture.
The course in Mechanical Arts offers Instruction in Printing, Engineering, Carpentry, Blacksmithing, Masonry, Shoe and Harness Making and Painting.
The girls are furnished instruction in every department of home making including Domestic Science and Domestic Art and Nursing. Instruction in instrumental music is provided for those who manifest talent for it.
Vocation at Chilocco was heavily entrenched in the curriculum. The thought was that the Indian students would have a better chance of leading useful and productive lives if they were taught how to live and how to provide rather than be educated as a white student in a public school. “Life instruction” was also an aspect of students lives. Many could not speak English, could not use a telephone, or write. Enunciation was not only an exercise but a necessity as the soft accents of the Native American often came through in the English language they spoke. The development to bring the control of perfect diction was a way the children could come into the mainstream of the American lifestyle. Assimilating the Indians was very much about the limiting of ones cultural background in the pursuit of a civilized way of life. Girls were even instructed on how to make a home. As Donna depicts in her article -from Electricscotland.com
“Maybe five or six girls were plucked from the dormitory to spend a short training period by actually staying in the small house or cottage together. The purpose was a kind of living training for being prepared to care for our own homes. Meals were prepared and served at a table instead of at the sterile cafeteria where we normally took our food. The small number at the table created more of a family situation. Napkins, silverware, delicate water glasses made the table setting pleasant. The girls never tired of the ice in their glasses even though it was during the coldest time in the winter. This was a pleasure not normally enjoyed as each had walked through the chow line at Leupp Hall.”
Chilocco emphasized the individual. They taught that personal fulfillment and protection was the most important aspect of life. For many this was a difficult concept to comprehend. This ideal was a complete juxtaposition to what many students were raised to believe. Tribal life teaches the importance of the greater good of the group, as opposed to the later. Having been separated from their families, many students struggled to maintain this way of life and often, many ran away because of the difficulty this separation caused. As a resort many formed what the students called clans. Often they would immediately side with members of their tribe, which, often caused rifts among classmates and along tribal lines.
Religion was also an important lesson taught to students. All of the employees were heavily involved in their Christian faith. As a result Christianity was the only religion available to students. Each week a service would be held that featured a different faith, as one former student recalls. “ At Chilocco once a week the service was staccato like, orderly, reverent and with beautiful music. Another service the next week would be a speaker who reasoned with the students in a rather paternal like, manner. Still another speaker would be a podium pounding, energetic, fire-breathing-advocate for saving our souls from hell-fire. Mostly I kept my head down so as not to giggle at the thought of how sinful could we be? There we were almost, virtually prisoners in a rigid military regime. How much sinning could we do when we were scheduled so tightly to such a close timing that we actually had little time to make an error.”
Later though, the school and its employees began to respect the Native Americans cultural belief. Around 1955 the Indian Club was established. It allowed students to practice their beliefs and was open to any student who wished to join.
The campus of Chilocco is centered around a Main oval, with buildings having to do with the operating of the school extending out from its center. All of the original buildings on the campus are constructed out of limestone quarried from the property. They are very imposing structures, enduring, and lasting. Thus giving the campus an appearance of dominance and control. At the north end of the oval is Leupp Hall. This was where all meals were had. Vocations in weaving, cooking and baking, sewing, health and nursing classes, and family values were taught. Social training was taught here also for girls to learn how to put on banquets and parties. On the east side of the building was the bakery which served two purposes. It provided the bread and other pastries for the daily meals of the total student body and was training for boys who wished to work at this as a vocation after they graduated. The kitchen was located in this building and there was the latest equipment in use. A walk in cold storage stored produce from the school’s orchards and gardens. Great stainless steel vats cooked the food. Beef, mutton, and pork produced by the school was cooked here.
To the east and south of Leupp is one of the girls dormitories, Home 4, the Employees Club and more social training classrooms. These older dormitories usually held four girls in each room. Each was allowed a very small closet of their own in the room. There are several communal restrooms and showers on every floor of the three story building. A central entry hall and day room like area featured a beautifully carved mantel and fireplace.
Immediately south of of these buildings is the imposing structure on Hayworth Hall. It housed the auditorium, principals office, and vocational classes in the basement. The stage in the auditorium was where many different presentations were made for the students enjoyment. There was a projector room on top of of this room, and this is where movies were shown on a screen. These movies were where girls and boys were allowed to enjoy each other’s company as a kind of date.
Speeches, pageants, church services on Sunday, visiting dignitaries, all shared their moments in the limelight. The choir also presented their programs here. On the nights the choir performed, everyone, boys and girls, gathered in the basement. They were organized this way because they were required to march into the auditorium. The auditorium has a large balcony which encircles the lower area. Stunning balustrades round the balcony.This is one of many buildings that is in total disrepair. Most notably because the roof has completely caved in upon the once grand auditorium. The red stage curtain still hangs with the large gold cursive C. Hayworth Hall is named after the man who chose the site for Chilocco.
The gym and pool buildings are across the oval and behind Home 6. Chilocco was known for its award winning boxing team which held its practices here, along with the basketball,and the swim teams. Dances and socials as well as pageants took place in the gym. To the west is a newer building, a dormitory for boys. It was built in the 1960′s when Chilocco received federal funds to improve the campus. It has two large day areas at its front and a cafeteria. The dorm is three floors, with each room housing 4-6 boys. Students had their own dressing area with a small built in desk and closet. Although this building is the newest structure on the campus it too is in a serious state of disrepair. Broken windows are everywhere. Holes have been punched into the walls and plumbing was been salvaged. Although it is in a dire state, it is important to mention that small memories of past students are drawn on walls. Small drawings and messages to other classmates show the life that was once here.
To the west of this building is the vocational area. Buildings for studies in laundry, drafting, welding, and woodcraft. Here you can still find curriculum scrolled on blackboards and posters. The laundry still has its semester plan which involved classes on how to remove different stains from clothing, and dry cleaning. There are still large pressing machines here. A small gas station and auto shop are directly behind. The fire station and it’s fire truck are still intact also. The fire engine still gleams red. Emblazoned on its side “Chilocco Indian School Bureau of Indian Affairs”
Staff housing, and the school incinerator are to the west of this area, as well as the water tower that looms over the campus. To the north behind Leupp Hall and west are the dormitories that NARCANON refurbished. They have central courtyards and are larger then the girls dorm next to Hayworth Hall. The walls are painted pastel pink and dark green. What they assumed as Native American motifs are painted as borders throughout the buildings. These buildings have a large day room with a grand fireplace and a bowed window. However, furniture is strewn about the building and scientology paraphernalia is scattered about. North of this was additional staff housing as well as the practice cottage.
But the most beautiful part of Chilocco is the immense lake. A small foot bridge with white railings crosses the water. Ducks, and geese move through the gentle water. Being that this is the first thing you see after you come up the long drive from the entrance, the stage is set for a beautiful school, set alone on the Oklahoma prairie. Although the campus and school was impressive, lasting and well equipped to continue educating Native American youth well in the the future, it’s decline began.
During the 1960′s and 1970′s Chilocco was on a track to closure. Enrollment and funds began to dwindle. It was becoming more expensive to house and educate the students than if they were to attend public schools. Chilocco was now no longer serving it’s surrounding areas. In 1972, 158 students were from tribes in Oklahoma, 605 students were from elsewhere, mostly Alaska. Senator Bellman lobbied that the school be closed amid severe budget cuts. In their eyes, the school had served it’s purpose, it had brought the American Indian into the main stream of society. And with that there was no longer a need for the institution.
Chilocco also suffered from a series of scandals that plagued the school until it closed. In 1972 Carlton Grass beat a fellow student, Eugene Voight. Grass beat Voight to death in a dormitory. The national Youth Council sent out letters to parents regarding “unreasonable restraints on children, invasion of privacy, inadequate recreational activities, ineffective counseling, illegal detention of juveniles, and lack of parental and tribal control.” They cited the unlawful detention of several girls in the Newkirk jail. Also in 1972 the National Indian Youth Council staged a sit-in in the administration office. They demanded “an examination of all phases of education from curriculum to brutality” . Although, it is important to note, that a Daily Oklahoman article states that the students support the school and that the student council opposed the sitin and the letter. After this though enrollment dropped rapidly. When Chilocco opened it housed well over 800 to 1,000 students well into the 1950′s. Now it barely held 100. Chilocco was dying.
The last class to graduate from Chilocco had only 11 students. It’s dilapidated structures were no longer maintained and the campus was a shell of what it once used to be. At the last commencement ceremony held, Chilocco’s superintendent C.O. Tillman addressed the remaining students “Let’s go out of here smiling and proud if the school is closed. So we can look each other in the eye when we meet again and know we did our best” They were unsure if the school would re-open in the fall. However one attendant at the the event says “the OG&E trucks were there waiting to cut off the electricity, ONG was there to cut off the gas”. It is a very sullen moment to realize that a place that offered many so much hope and determination was no longer a reality. Chilocco closed and the gates were locked.
Chilocco is owned by five tribes: The Kaws, Tonkawas, Pawnees, Poncas, and Otoes. After its closure they sought ways to save the school. They attempted to turn the school into an Indian College but this never came to fruition. They had no other options until NARCANON arrived. NARCANON, which is a Scientology based drug and alcohol rehab center opened around 1990. In much fanfare Kirstie Alley opened the center as Chilocco New Life Center. Alley is a driving force in Narcanon and Scientology They hoped to encompass the entire campus of Chilocco to have the largest NARCANON center in the world.
Based on the teachings of L. Ron Hubbard, NARCANON’s treatments are based on sauna like exposure, where patients sweat the drugs out of their system with heavy doses of vitamins and rigorous exercise. These treatments are not approved in Oklahoma. Thus they never obtained an official license from the Oklahoma Department Health. They only recieved temporary liscenses. NARCANON argued that since they were on tribal lands they were exempt from state law. The surrounding areas also protested the arrival of NARCANON. They leased the land for 25 years but paid nothing to the tribes for the first two. And they also failed to pay the state in back taxes. Narcanon relocated to Lake Eufala in 2001, which is no longer open.
The story of Chilocco is one of bravery, heartache and perseverance. For many it represents the best years of their lives. For others it was their worst. It’s purpose to assimilate is controversial but realize that it was not alone. Many other Indian boarding schools across the country existed for the same purpose. Chilocco at times was hell and at others was heaven. Alumni look back and recall their memories. Their opportunity to better themselves. A school such as Chilocco is a monument to the hardships of the Native American people. Having been forced out of their homes to integrate into an “American” society is a hardship that most often fail to realize. Chilocco is still here though. It is a historic landmark and is apart of not only Native American’s history but ours as well. Chilocco was called “the light on the prairie”, Although its halls are dark and silent, it still shines as a part of every Native American.
“The smoke from the bowl of the peace pipe has died down, yet there is one bright ember still glowing. Keep it alight students of Chilocco”
-Chiloccoan graduating class of 1931
WARNING: Chilocco Is heavily guarded by both 24/7 security as well as a large pack of guard dogs. This is not a place for you to get in you car and go visit. This is for your online viewing pleasure only. Because this land is being used by law enforcement as practice and training grounds, it is governed by federal police; not local police. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO VISIT CHILOCCO INDIAN SCHOOL.
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