Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Research: Further Reflections

meerajay's picture

I currently have a three-pronged approach toward my research project. My interest lies in the education and incarceration of the indigenous peoples of America, more specifically those entrenched in the systems of the US government. For the purposes of this reflection, I will be referring to them as Indians. The three-pronged approach begins chronologically, with the founding of the Carlisle boarding schools for the forced assimilation of Indians. I would like to paint an accurate picture of what happened within these boarding schools, comparing and contrasting them with the current prison system, and reflecting on whether these schools were meant to be for reform or rehabilitation, or perhaps even punishment. The forced assimilation and cultural/physical genocide of the Indians, especially through the Indian schools, caused a great deal of trauma that was passed generationally, which is where the second, connecting area of my research comes in.

Secondly, I would like to hone in on the current educational system and where it serves Indians, more specifically within the reservations. I am researching about the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which still has control over the budgeting and operations of reservation schools, and I would like to compare reservation schooling to both the Carlisle boarding schools and the current inner-city public school system.

This is what leads me to the third aspect of research: how do all of these historical and current factors lead to the high levels of incarceration for Indians? In connecting all three areas of research, I want to explore the trauma that comes from forced assimilation, and how it can affect bodies through generations. I would also like to explore the erasure of Indian identity in America through incarceration. By putting Indians on reservations and in prison, how do we effectively treat them as ghosts and things of the past, in order to reconcile our ownership to this country? (See more with Bergland citation below)

My second area of study is broader, and it has been harder to find sources that are not just statistics. I am trying to figure out whether or not to even include this, and whether I should just move directly into incarceration rates of Indians as influenced by the violent history of Carlisle boarding schools. But I feel like it may be better to have a “middle” piece that more effectively connects the past and the present.

Since I last wrote about the topic, I have found more sources that will help frame it:

Bergland, Renée L. "Indian Ghosts and American Subjects." The National Uncanny: Indian Ghosts and American Subjects. Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College, 2000. 1-22. Print.

I read this first chapter of Bergland’s book in a class last semester. The central theme of this chapter is that in order for Americans to reconcile their own ownership of this land, we treat Indians as ghosts. This means that we truly believe that they are a relic of the past, but also require their images constantly in pop-culture to keep up a memory of an ideal America (for example, as mascots for sports teams and on packs of cigarettes). We romanticize their deaths and idealize them while turning away from their current struggles. I want to connect this idea to why we place Indians in prisons in such large numbers and refuse to acknowledge their ancestry and culture as legitimate.

Grobsmith, Elizabeth S. Indians in Prison: Incarcerated Native Americans in Nebraska. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1994. Print.

This book is a detailed study of prisons in Nebraska and the increasingly high numbers of Indians incarcerated in that state. It explores drug and alcohol consumption, the rising of crime rates, and more. Most importantly, it traces a historical understanding of this massive rise, and takes into account how prisons have changed to accommodate Indian heritage and legal status. The entire case study was conducted in an anthropological approach, where Grobsmith visited prisons to observe routines and rituals among the inmates. This way of study had its benefits and pitfalls.  

Nielsen, Marianne O., and Robert A. Silverman. Native Americans, Crime, and Justice. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996. Print.

In this book, I am especially focused on Part 3, titled “Crime”. It traces the higher rates of Indian youth joining gangs and their delinquency, and also their drug and alcohol use. I will also look at Part 4: “Police” to better understand the treatment of Indians by law enforcement, and Part 7: “Corrections” which contextualizes the discipline and punishment of Indians in prison, and the maintenance of their religious practices within prison.

Trafzer, Clifford E., Jean A. Keller, and Lorene Sisquoc. Boarding School Blues: Revisiting American Indian Educational Experiences. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 2006. Print.

This source is a detailed history of the Indian boarding schools, with interviews and case studies. I hope to learn more about the general development of the Indian boarding school system through it and the system that built them. I am especially interested in Chapter 8: “Through a Wide-Angle Lens: Acquiring and Maintaining Power, Position, and Knowledge through the Boarding Schools” and Chapter 10: “The Place of American Indian Boarding Schools in Contemporary Society”.

Finally, I have also found this site that I have not been able to look at more closely yet, but it contains statistics for prisons and jails in Indian country, published by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Other possible sources that haven't examined in detail yet:

Fixico, Donald Lee. Bureau of Indian Affairs. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2012. Print.

Stout, Mary. Native American Boarding Schools. Santa Barbara: Greenwood, 2012. Print.


meerajay's picture

I came across some more enlightening details for my research, specifically in the Nielsen and Silverman reading. I found out that many incarcerated Indians are rediscovering their religion and cultural practices WHILE in prison. There are nonprofits such as the Navajo Nations Corrections Project that work with prisoners to build community and educate them about their histories and religious practices, trying to keep them alive. The NNCP particularly actually worked to build a sweat lodge in one Nebraska prison, which served as a place to build community bonds and grew to be exclusive to the prisoners who have some kind of Indian heritage. The sweat lodge served as a powerful safe space. One prisoner said "entering the sweat lodge relieves andxieties and helps keep a spiritual attitude" (Nielsen, Silverman 223). There are also publications with the specific audience of incarcerated Indian folks, such as the Iron Horse Drum, a newsletter meant to spread information through different facilities that have Indian prisoners, allowing them to open communication even when physically apart. There have been projections that show that prisons will become even more tolerant of Indian religions in the next ten years (Nielsen, Silverman 226). 

I find this especially interesting to contrast prisons with the Carlisle Boarding Schools. It is important to note that not all prisons offer these kinds of religious resources, but the few that do are a powerful contradiction to Carlisle, which were built for the specific purpose of cultural/religious cleansing, and assimilation. Most narratives center around Indian childrens' hair being forcibly shaved off (which was akin to a loss of honor, nearly equivalent to rape in many Indian cultures) and their being forbidden to speak their native languages, disciplined and punished when they did. However, a book that I have been reading called "Boarding School Blues" which speaks specifically of the Sherman Indian schools, points out moments at the schools where Indian culture burst out. One way that religious and cultural practices were preserved was by telling stories at night, out of the reach of supervisors. 

This is one very specific direction that my research could take (there are still other directions I could take this whole idea, but that's one). I still feel unsure about how to translate that into art, but I would like to do some kind of display, something emotionally stirring, to be shown to the public that reveals the truth about these issues. Jody suggested something that could be interactive and then displayed afterwards.