Boarding Schools in the Early 1900s: Analysis of Chemawa Indian School and Eleanor Houk

By Mystie Johnson

*Note: The off-reservation schools were known as Indian or Native American Boarding Schools. Despite the official names for the schools and the terms used in articles during this time period, I will be using Indigenous as my term of choice, except when referencing school names or quotes from a newspaper article.

Throughout the United States history, the government has continuously tried to oppress the Indigenous population, through various laws, and social structures. The aim was to discriminate against Indigenous people and strip away their culture. Ever since Europeans stepped onto North American soil, Whites have attempted to commit genocide and mass oppression upon Indigenous communities. One individual that was affected by this mistreatment was an Indigenous woman named Eleanor Houk. Despite the anti-Indigenous environment in the 1920s, Houk was determined to study and learn as much as she could from her time at various schools in order to benefit Indigenous Oregonians.

Although the United States first attempted to wipe out Indigenous people through mass killings and wars, they eventually changed their tactics to legislation and social structures. One place the government targeted cultural genocide of the Indigenous population was through schooling. Ever since colonial times, the American government has established schools to try to assimilate Indigenous people into European American culture. SuAnn Reddick and Eva Guggemos’s Oregon Encyclopedia article states that “…various forms… were instituted by Christian missionaries. They brought Bible stories and elementary education to Indian communities and erected church schools nearby.” As the years went on, federal officials established a school system for Indigenous people and began establishing schools on- and off-reservations, but they rarely met the needs of the Indigenous students.

According to the “Indian Boarding Schools” article, the schools were established by the government as another method of Indigenous assimilation into mainstream American culture. The new approach would target the Indigenous youth instead of older adults or the tribes as a whole. Through the boarding schools, the government could educate them in a specific way, away from their homeland and culture, that would strip their Indigenous culture and make the students an “American.” Despite attempting to assimilate Indigenous people into American society through education, most of American culture in the 1920s only included the White, the male, and the rich. The Indigenous tribes and students were discriminated against, similarly to other minorities. 

The on-reservation Indigenous schools were first established in the late 1850s. The government signed treaties with Indigenous tribes, promising to provide teachers and schools for the Indigenous children. However, according to Melissa Mejia’s article, the efforts started back in 1819 with the federal Civilization Fund Act, which encouraged American education to be provided to Indigenous communities to enforce the “civilization process.” The act eventually led to the federally funded boarding schools, which ran from around 1860 to 1978, establishing around 357 boarding schools operated across 30 states.

In late 1879, the first off-reservation boarding school in the United States was established in Pennsylvania, which was known as the Carlisle Indian School. A few months later, Oregon established their own school in 1880 called the Forest Grove Indian Industrial and Training School. Due to lack of land, the Forest Grove school moved in 1885 to north Salem, where it would become the Chemawa Indian School. Despite having to move locations, the Chemawa Indian School is one of the four remaining off-reservation boarding schools funded by the Federal Bureau of Indian Education and the last Indigenous boarding school in Oregon (Collins; Reddick & Guggemos).

The Indigenous boarding schools were focused heavily on trading and occupational training to make students more marketable for American society. According to Mejia, this often-included manual labor like blacksmithing, shoemaking, and farming for boys and cooking, cleaning, sewing, and other domestic tasks for girls. Chemawa Indian School was no exception to this, with their occupational training classes lasting into the 1920s. A publication titled “Chemawa Institute” lists an example of class schedules and an alphabetical list of classes offered in 1916. There were some average classes one would see in many schools, even today, like arithmetic, English, reading, and music classes. However, there were many more that focused on occupational training. For males these included blacksmithing, canning, harness repairing, horticulture, physical training, shoe repairing, and more, while for females this was mostly domestic art and science classes. There was one class that caught my eye however, and that is the hygiene and sanitation class. Although I am unsure that non-boarding schools also had this class, the concept of an Indigenous boarding school offering the class makes it seem like the school administration believed that Indigenous people were unclean


“Alphabetical Lists of Subjects Taught, Showing Names of Instructors, Location of Class-rooms, Etc.” Chemawa Institute, 1916, 1-3. Courtesy of Willamette University Archives and Special Collections, Salem Oregon, Chemawa Indian School Research Collection.

Another assimilation-focused system that was put in place within the boarding schools was the outing system. The outing system was in short, an apprenticeship program aimed to promote Indigenous people assimilating by placing the children in contact with “civilized” Americans. The outing system first started at Carlisle Indian School by the founder, Richard Henry Pratt, because he believed that “contact with a white environment was the “supreme Americanizer’” (Trennert). The success of the program at Carlisle allowed it to expand to other schools, including Chemawa.

“The Outing System- An Educational Experiment at Chemawa.” Chemawa American, March 3, 1923, 1, 3-6.

An article in The Chemawa American from 1928, titled “The Outing System- An Educational Experiment at Chemawa,” describes the outing system at Chemawa and the purposes of the program. The writers describe the experiment as a way for Indigenous people to have “intimate and friendly contact with the better class of white people… [and acquire] courage and self-confidence necessary to enable him to get out into the world… and forget that he is Indian” (1). They then explain all the rules and regulations all Chemawa students must follow, especially the women. For example, girls were to be punctual for school, attend church, not be required to do heavy work not suitable for young girls, 2/3 of their monthly wage was sent to the school, the girls were not allowed to spend Sundays or holidays in public parks without a chaperon, and were expected to be “courteous and “obedient” (2). Lastly, they also put in quotes from both patrons and outing system students discussing all the positive aspects of the system. However, none of them discuss the cons the outing system had on Indigenous students and the dangers of it (4-6).

According to Trennert, despite the intentions of the program, some Indigenous people were happy for the employment and extended freedom while others were abused and overworked by the Whites. However, many people from both parties did not believe in the assimilation of Indigenous students with society. This increase in disbelief in the outing system led to its phase out in Western schools by the end of the 1920s.  

Other Indigenous people at boarding schools tried to use it as an opportunity to build an Indigenous community outside the reservations. During the late 1910s and going into the 1920s, the boarding schools in Oregon began to loosen up on their restriction of Indigenous culture. One way we see this is in Chemawa’s newspaper The Chemawa American. Around the 1910s, they began to use the Chemawa American as a way to express Indigenous culture with various articles discussing Indigenous culture, experiences, and political agenda. In the 1920s, they began to feature famous Indigenous people on the front page of each publication. For example two articles, one by Hogberg and the other by Sookum (both students at Chemawa), discuss Osceola and King Philip.

During the late 1910s and early 1920s, there were three different superintendents: Harwood Hall (1916-1926), James H. McGregory (1926-1927), and Oscar Lipps (1927-1931). Not much is known about McGregory or Lipps, but there are numerous newspaper articles about Hall because he was popular and respected because of his involvement at boarding schools. The students and faculty also respected Hall, even before he was superintendent at the school. In a 1901 article from The Chemawa American titled “A New Indian School” says that Hall was “an experienced and successful worker in the Indian school service…” Due to the respect Hall had for Indigenous people, he was able to treat them well throughout his time working with Indigenous tribes. This led Hall to establish a positive reputation from the Indigenous population in Oregon, including administration and students at Chemawa.

There are various newspaper articles discussing Hall’s nvolvement in the Indigenous communities. In one article by Fred Lockley, he discusses his impressions on Hall and his wife after he visited them in 1920. In one paragraph, he describes that their house is filled with appreciation for Indigenous culture. However, without the opinions of Indigenous people we cannot say for sure whether Hall’s decorations were appreciation or appropriationNonetheless, due to articles written by Chemawa students, we can see that they thought highly of him. Chemawa students in the early 1920s might have been lucky enough to be at Chemawa while there was a well-known and supported superintendent, but it is important to know one never knows what happens behind the scenes. Although Chemawa had high enrollment of Indigenous children in the early 1900s, many were poorly treated or neglected before Hall arrived.

We see this in a letter written by a parent to the superintendent Thomas Potter in 1901. In the letter, Mr. Waydelich discusses that the school lied to him about the health of his son in previous letters, saying that both his children were healthy. However, during this time the son had begun getting sick and the parents were not informed until he was sent home dying less than a year later. As soon as he returned home, they learned the sickness was from neglect and poor conditions and the boy soon began to recover.

There was one particular student, who happened to attend both Carlisle and Chemawa, who would become the hope for Indigenous Oregon tribes. Eleanor Houk was a member of the Blackfoot tribe, who mostly reside in Montana state and Alberta, Canada. Houk first attended Carlisle Indian School and was there for a few years until it shut down. She then transferred to Chemawa Indian School and was there until she graduated from high school around 1922. At the school, Houk had to battle to keep her culture against the government’s attempts to assimilate Indigenous people into American culture.

Despite the situation, Indigenous people tried to make the best out of the situation. Houk saw her time at Carlisle and Chemawa as an opportunity to learn as much as she could to gain knowledge to aid Oregon tribes. She eventually hit the grade max at Chemawa Indian School and was given the “privilege” to attend Salem High School for 11th and 12th grade (“Privilege of Added Grades Given Indians”). After Houk graduated high school, she went on to become the first Indigenous women to attend the University of Oregon, although she never graduated. Once Houk dropped out of college, she went back to Chemawa to teach, showing that she is keeping her promise to give back to her community. She stayed at Chemawa for a couple of years before she got married to William Grant in 1927 and soon after moved to Oklahoma (Oregon, U.S., 1927).

After Houk went back to Oklahoma, the boarding schools in Oregon began to shift away from assimilation. The classes offered began to mirror the same kinds of classes offered in White schools. Over the next century, the U.S federal control on Indigenous schools and affairs decreased, especially after the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Indigenous leaders began to take back control over the schools, allowing them to focus more on traditional arts, sovereignty, Indigenous tribe cultures, and community. According to Collins and Reddick and Guggemos, there are only a few off-reservation boarding schools still operating and 7 schools that are federally funded (as of 2020), 3 of which are controlled by Indigenous community leaders. Although there has been a lot of progress towards improving the respect for Indigenous tribes and communities, there are many improvements that still need to be made.

About the Author

Mystie Johnson is a third year student in the Honors Program at Western Oregon University majoring in Psychology. As a psychology student, Mystie is passionate about mental health advocation and hopes to become a researcher, social justice advocate, or social worker in the future. Mystie also has a double minor in American Sign Language (ASL) and International Studies. The two minors represent her deep interest in other cultures and languages. Mystie desires to know as many languages and cultures as possible.

Further Reading

Primary Sources

“A New Indian School.” Weekly Chemawa American, August 6, 1901, 5.

“Alphabetical Lists of Subjects Taught, Showing Names of Instructors, Location of Class-rooms, Etc.” Chemawa Institute, 1916, 1-3. Chemawa Indian School Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.

Hogberg, Andrew. “Famous American Indians- Osceola.” Chemawa American, March 14, 1928. Chemawa Indian School Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.

“Lo and the Automobile.” Sunday Oregonian, January 1, 1922, 4.

Lockley, Fred. “Impressions and Observations on the Journal Man.” Oregon Daily Journal, June 8, 1920, 10.

Oregon, U.S., State Marriages, 1906-1968 for Eleanor Houk and William Bernard Grant, April 2, 1927 Da-Sm,

Potter, Thomas. W. Thomas W. Potter to John W. Waydelich, June 21, 1901. Chemawa Indian School Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.

“Privilege of Added Grades Given Indians,” Oregon Statesman, September 6, 1922, 1.

Sookum, Aaron. “Famous American Indians- King Philip.” Chemawa American, March 28, 1928.

“The Outing System- An Educational Experiment at Chemawa.” Chemawa American, March 3, 1923, 1-6. Chemawa Indian School Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.

United States Department of the Interior Office of Indian Affairs. Temporary in Charge- Salem Indian School, Chemawa Oregon. Chemawa, Oregon. Chemawa Indian School Research Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Mark O. Hatfield Library, Willamette University.

Secondary Sources

Collins, Cary. “Indian Boarding Schools.” Oregon Encyclopedia.

Graetz, Rick & Graetz, Susie. “The Blackfeet Nation Has Long, Epic History.” University of Montana. columns/stories/blackfeet.php

Mejia, Melissa. “The U.S. history of Native American Boarding Schools Written.” The Indigenous Foundation.

Reddick, SuAnn M. and Eva Guggemos, “Chemawa Indian School.” Oregon Encyclopedia

Trennert, Robert A. “From Carlisle to Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of the Indian Outing System, 1878-1930.” Pacific Historical Review, 52, no. 3 (1983): 267–91.