Vol. 15, No. 3, Spring 2002
When Native Foods Were Left Behind:
Boarding School Nutrition and the Sherman Institute, 1902-1922
Boarding schools, particularly those located off the reservations, have greatly impacted Native American lives for more than one hundred and twenty years. One of the areas in which Indian lifeways changed was nutrition. Indian students learned dietary patterns at these schools that were often far different from those of their families. Eventually, the new foods became the norm. Children returning home no longer felt comfortable eating some of the more traditional Indian foods and often attempted to change their families eating habits to conform to those learned at school. Many Indian parents tried to accommodate their childrens wishes. When students graduated and started families of their own, they carried with them and taught their children the dietary patterns learned at school. Consequently, with each succeeding generation, Indian nutritional patterns moved further away from traditional lifeways and closer to those established in the nonreservation boarding schools by the Indian Office (now the Bureau of Indian Affairs).
During the early years of nonreservation boarding schools, food was seen merely as a necessary commodity. Little thought was given to foods nutritive value, taste, or freshness. Incorporation of traditional native foods into the students diets never received consideration, since it would have been antithetical to the assimilationist focus of the schools. Instead, cost was the critical factor. Farms attached to nonreservation boarding schools were supposed to supplement government commodities with fresh fruits, meats, dairy products, and vegetables. Unfortunately, farm production varied greatly and many schools depended primarily on government commodities to feed the students. Typically, such foods were often those that could be purchased in the greatest quantity for the least amount of money, such as white flour, white rice, beans, and bacon. Rapidly expanding school populations and minimal yearly financial appropriations often yielded diets inadequate in both quality and quantity. Student nutrition suffered greatly, and many students went hungry. The weakened physical condition of students led to increased illness and, sometimes, even to death.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the Indian Office exhibited a growing recognition that nutrition had a significant impact on student health. This is clearly evidenced in the 1898 "Rules for the Indian School Service," which advised nonreservation boarding school superintendents that "good, healthful, and well-cooked food should be supplied in abundance." This directive was based primarily on prevailing medical theories that increasingly emphasized the value of fresh, wholesome food in maintaining strong bodies, which could fight off disease. The rules also directed that meals be comprised of various foods "served regularly and neatly." To supplement commodities supplied by the Indian Office, nonreservation boarding school farms "should provide an ample supply of vegetables, fruits, milk, butter, cottage cheese, (cheese) curds, eggs, and poultry." The rules directed school superintendents to furnish coffee and tea only sparingly: "milk is preferable to either, and the children should be taught to use it." The latter was especially important because dairy products were considered to have great preventive value against tuberculosis, a disease present in nearly epidemic proportions throughout the Indian school system. The Indian Office felt that if students could be taught to drink milk, which was not part of traditional Native diets, the tide of tuberculosis could be stopped.
Interestingly and unfortunately, the insistence on more dairy products likely did more harm than good to Native American students. Over 75 percent of Native Americans are currently lactose intolerant, and there is no reason to believe that this percentage differed significantly a hundred years ago. This common food allergy manifests itself with lethargy, nausea, diarrhea, gas, and abdominal cramps. The diarrhea can be severe enough to purge other nutrients before they can be absorbed. Clearly, forcing lactose intolerant children to consume large quantities of dairy products would have resulted in a great deal of illness (inexplicable at the time), weakened constitutions, and resultant immunological vulnerability to numerous disease organisms. It is ironic that in their aggressive endeavor to save Indian students at nonreservation boarding schools from the scourge of tuberculosis, the Indian Office inadvertently created more illness and vulnerability to disease.
While the authorized subsistence rations still emphasized quantity and cost over quality, the Indian Office at least made a provision for the purchase of vegetables when they could not be grown on the school farm. After the rules were issued, Commissioner of Indian Affairs William Jones ordered that the established subsistence rations be changed, substantially decreasing the amount of meat-based protein. He based his rationale on the premise that a more varied diet would break Indian students of their predominantly meat diets, which in his opinion excluded a large number of nutritional items necessary for good health. Many criticized the new diet as inadequate for the needs of growing children, but Jones received strong support from experts at the Department of Agricultures Office of Experiment Stations. They concluded that while traditional diets contained more protein, both diets supplied the same amount of energy, as well as all the nutrients needed by the body in amounts that exceeded those found in the diet of "the average working American." What the report neglected to say is that the nutritional needs of growing children differ from those of adults. Both Jones and the experts failed to insure that important foods such as eggs, dairy products, and vegetables formed an integral and consistent part of the school diet. Theoretically, every nonreservation boarding school had a farm that could supply these foods; in reality, few did so adequately.
By the time that Sherman Institute opened in Riverside, California in 1902, medical professionals had recognized nutritions value in preventing disease. The Indian Office therefore stipulated that a schools curriculum include lessons discussing the connections between diet and health. One of Sherman Institutes strengths in the campaign to maintain student health lay in being able to provide an abundance and variety of nutritious foods for its students. Regardless of any other factor influencing their health, students at Sherman Institute ate well. While restricted to the subsistence rations mandated by the Indian Office, Sherman was fortunate in that its farm consistently provided supplemental foods such as dairy products, fresh fruit, and vegetables. These foods not only supplied the vitamins, minerals, and amino acids sorely lacking in the starch-rich commodity foods, but also offered a tangible link to dietary components familiar to the children from their days at home.
The Sherman Institute farm encompassed 100 acres, located approximately four miles from its 40-acre school site. In addition to providing food for the school, the farm served as a training ground for students. Students received classroom training in farming for half the day and then performed all the farming, gardening, animal husbandry, and dairy work for the other half. Compared with other nonreservation boarding school farms, such as that of Chilocco Indian School (Oklahoma) with 8,640 acres or Chemawa Indian School (Oregon) with 345 acres, Shermans farm was clearly minimal, especially since Sherman had a student population considerably larger than that of the other schools. Yet for the first ten years of operation, the farm was sufficiently large to produce an abundance of food for its students. In 1906, for example, students produced over a thousand gallons of tomatoes, which they canned for winter use, as well as large amounts of strawberries, loganberries, and blackberries. Milk, eggs, and vegetables came from the farm to the school twice a day throughout the year. In stark contrast, the 300-acre farm of the Rapid City Indian School (South Dakota) raised only potatoes for the direct consumption of students. Indian Office inspectors regularly reported that Sherman had a far greater amount of fresh fruit and vegetables than was commonly found at nonreservation boarding schools. Students such as Polingaysi Qoyawayma (Hopi) wrote home describing the "wagon loads of oranges, the fields of watermelon, the sweet potatoes and squash, the cheese and butter."
Despite such differences, the starch and fat laden diet learned at nonreservation boarding schools a century ago continues to predominate among many Native Americans to this day and may be partly responsible for a number of health problems that have persisted inexplicably. Fortunately, superintendents at some nonreservation boarding schools, such as Sherman Institute, recognized that good nutrition was integral to good health and made a concerted effort to provide well-balanced, nutritious food for their students. Nonreservation boarding schools with this orientation were few, however, and Sherman Institute was clearly an exception. Yet it is an exception worth noting, if for no other reason than to show that good dietary patterns and nutrition at non-reservation boarding schools were possible. This, of course, begs the question of, "Why was good nutrition the exception and not the rule?". Had the Indian Office not banned the protein-rich diet traditionally favored by Native peoples, and had more non-reservation boarding school superintendents followed the lead of Sherman Institute in making health a priority, good nutrition would most certainly have been the rule, not the exception.
Jean Keller is an adjunct professor in American Indian Studies at Palomar College. Her book, Empty Beds: Indian Student Health at Sherman Institute, 19021922, is forthcoming from Michigan State University Press. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.