By Lora Mendenhall, Ph.D.
Teaching in the English Department at Indiana University Northwest for the past two years has been a great joy. The student body, faculty, and staff are committed, amazing, and inspiring in so many ways. There is one thing I am sure of: Indiana University Northwest is a collaborative family, and I am proud to be part of it. This past year, I also had the pleasure of receiving a Diversity Fellows Grant through the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Multicultural Affairs, and I express my heartfelt thanks to both James Wallace, Ph.D., Director of ODEMA, for issuing the award, and to Ellen Szarleta, Ph.D., J.D., Director of the Center for Urban and Regional Excellence (CURE), for making me aware of the opportunity. This grant, in tandem with the honor of being invited to participate in Partners – In Conversation, provides me with not only the unique prospect of funding and promoting a new and timely Native American Ecocomposition course at IUN based upon service-learning/hands-on engagement to write for environmental advocacy, but also to feature a connected historical thread just to the south of IUN in Jasper County, Indiana1.
From 1888-1896, St. Joseph’s Indian Normal School in Rensselaer, Indiana operated as one of many (with two in Indiana) Catholic, Protestant, and U.S. Government-run boarding schools focused on assimilating Indigenous peoples of North American into the mainstream society of immigrants to the continent. This past fall, I published a condensed book on its history—125 years after the school closed its doors2. The book will be one of the many texts I use in my course, with additional texts written by Native American authors, interspersed with Native scholars and tribal members as special speakers. During the same years that St. Joe’s was in existence, ecological destruction in the territory surrounding the school was rampant. Much of this land alteration and development, resulting from the draining of what was once the Grand Kankakee Marsh, was featured in a documentary, Everglades of the North, directed by Patricia Wisniewski, an IUN graduate3. My own personal family history is an ecological dichotomy of those who actively helped drain the marsh, and those who revered the natural landscape.
My interest in St. Joseph’s Indian Normal School began, as stated in the book, when I was around four years old, then continuously drawn to the structure over a span of decades. During my English and linguistics doctoral studies in 2013, I researched how the English language curriculum was taught at the school to students who were in attendance from various tribal nations. However, with repeated requests, I was not granted access to the school’s more expansive historic archival records. Serendipitously, in 2015 I applied to lead a group of students on a service-learning trip over Spring Break at the university where I taught at the time, and my students and I were sent to a Lakota Sioux reservation in South Dakota. I was immediately riveted by the Lakota people and culture. Upon returning from that trip, I wondered if students at St. Joe’s may have attended from the Dakota territories. I was able to confirm this information later, when in 2016, I was given access to the remainder of the school’s archival records, much damaged by mold and fire.
I have continued to return to the reservation in South Dakota since 2015, learning from Lakota scholars and community members. Where St. Joe’s was modeled as “a sort of Catholic counterpart to the Carlisle Indian Industrial School,” founded by Col. Richard Henry Pratt, it too operated by the same culturally genocidal philosophy of “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”4. While this mantra, along with the ideology of Manifest Destiny in colonizing North America and claiming its lands was used as justification for the boarding school era, one does not often hear such history taught in public schools. Any Native American history or teachings I experienced as a young person were either through my paternal grandmother who had a connection to a Native healer or were introduced later in my education at the university level. Hence, I have a personal passion for education not simply focusing on Native American history including the boarding school era, but more so bringing to the forefront an awareness and respect for the tireless efforts of those in Native communities today involved in decolonization, decolonized teachings, and the revitalization of traditional cultures, practices, ceremonies, languages, and authentic identities. Moreover, many of these same individuals are very patiently teaching me much of their worldview(s), despite often profound intergenerational trauma resulting from the boarding school era—in concurrence with the racism which is unfortunately still so rampant in our world. There is an intense amount of fortitude and survivance in Native communities, as voiced by the creed: “We Are Still Here.”
Native peoples and their way(s) of life should have been respected from the first footsteps of settlers onto North American soil. They (and Indigenous peoples worldwide; as we all originally are) have been the residents and caretakers of Mother Earth from the beginning. Sadly, the majority has forgotten that the “earth will take care of us as we take care of it”5. As with Indigenous knowledge, this fact as always been so. It is time we examine how to live in reciprocity with this fact for present and future generations. We cannot change the past, but we can begin to learn from not only our mistakes, but from a legacy of genocide and land theft that never should have taken place; a devaluing of both people and the planet. As we heed Native voices in viewing Mother Earth as a relative, we have much to learn. Much of that knowledge can be applied (and is beginning to be applied) right here in Northwest Indiana and beyond; ecological restoration, driven by guidance from Native peoples—for the future of all people.
Thus begins my CURE three-part video series, “Partners – In Conversation,” starting with historic information about St. Joseph’s Indian Normal School; followed by why it is important to discuss U.S. Indian boarding schools; and ultimately, how equitable racial, social, and ecological restorative justice are gaining momentum at a crucial juncture.
- This twofold subject matter was the focus of my 2019 doctoral dissertation. ↩
- Mendenhall, Lora. St. Joseph’s Indian Normal School: A Condensed Narrative History. CSJ King Publishing, 2021. ↩
- Wisniewski, Pat, director. Everglades of the North: The Story of the Grand Kankakee Marsh. For Goodness Sake Productions, 2012. ↩
- Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. University of Nebraska Press, 1986. P. 226. ↩
- As I remember quoted by my Grandmother. ↩