Oliver LaFarge, author of the novel Laughing Boy, is better known as an anthropologist than as a writer. Though he was born in New York in 1901 and raised in Rhode Island, La Farge became enamored with the Southwest after several Harvard archeological expeditions (McNickle 6, 32-3). He was well-known by administrators of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the early twentieth century, as well as by various tribes of native Americans in the Southwest: “He felt that he knew Navajo life, not just as a tourist… but in historical depth and with some insight into Navajo values and goals” (45).
La Farge was an unrelenting critic of the Indian assimilation policies of his time. Of all his creative works, none present a more scathing indictment of the failures of the Indian educational system than Laughing Boy and his 1935 short story “Higher Education.” In each of these works, a young Indian woman’s education at a government boarding school contributes to her demoralization and eventual death. Though these works are fictional, Lucille (in “Higher Education”) and Slim Girl (in Laughing Boy) are representative of many Indian children who, between 1870 and 1930, were stripped of their native languages and traditions in exchange for a cursory introduction to the English language, years of manual labor, and a deliberately cultivated desire to take part in American consumerist culture.
In a 1935 New Republic article, La Farge refers to Indian boarding schools as “penal institutions-where little children were sentenced to hard labor for a term of years to expiate the crime of being born of their mothers” (Szasz 22-3). Though this statement may seem exaggerated, the truth was not far off in some cases. Nearly every off-reservation school followed a “half-and-half pattern” in which “the pupils spent part of each day in the classroom, and part working at manual labor” (Coleman 105). Their work included domestic chores such as laundering clothes and cleaning the school grounds; at some schools their labor might include “various vocational pursuits such as … carpentry, tailoring, tinsmithing” and other trades that ostensibly would help them find jobs in white society after leaving the school (43).
But many former students have noted that manual labor often left them too tired to function in the classroom. One Navajo girl at Fort Defiance wrote, I have never forgotten how the steam in the laundry made me sick; how standing and ironing for hours made my legs ache late into the night. … I think this was why the boys and girls ran away from school; why some became ill; why it was so hard to learn. We were too tired to study. (Coleman 112-13)
In addition to fatigue resulting from overwork, other physical factors affected the Indian students’ ability to concentrate on schoolwork. Historian Michael C. Coleman remarks that boarding schools were breeding houses for disease (163). Because of regular epidemics of tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, mumps, and influenza, each boarding school separate from the reservations “had its own graveyard” (124-5).
Furthermore, many children were undernourished. One boy who worked as a meat cutter in the school kitchen “recalls that the best cuts went to employees, while the children got only the necks and ribs”; a girl who attended a different school remembers always being hungry and complains: “They didn’t give second helpings, and I thought I would just starve” (115). Kent Nerburn relates an Indian woman’s description of her grandfather’s experience at boarding school, including the extraction of teeth without the use of painkillers and a bedwetting treatment that involved tying the skin of his penis closed with fishing line (86).
There were psychological factors at work, too. Some factors were incidental to cultural disparity; one example is the fact that boarding schools were built using European architectural principles that center around rectangles and straight lines, while many Indian children had grown up in an environment characterized by circles (Adams 113). But some psychological factors were purposely implemented by school administrators to help acculturate Indian children. For example, a heavily regimented schedule, regulating every moment of the school day by the clock, was adapted in order to break the children of “Indian time,” which was governed by natural events such as the sun rising and setting (117-19). Another method involved cutting off the children’s long hair, despite the fact that, as one boy put it, “If I am to learn the ways of the white people, I can do it just as well with my hair on” (102).
In addition to cutting students’ hair short, teachers replaced the Indian clothes of the new arrivals with standard issue school uniforms. David Wallace Adams notes that on some occasions, new arrivals relinquished clothes of better quality than the uniforms they received in return (106). The cutting of long hair and wearing of school uniforms were standard ways of taking away students’ Indian identities, but perhaps the most effective means of doing so was the practice of renaming them. Some children were allowed to go by the English translations of their Indian names, while others were simply given new names, usually those of historical figures (109).
A primary reason the boarding school environment was not conducive to true education was that in many cases the children were motivated primarily by fear. Those who broke the rules could face severe punishments. At one school in New Mexico, a child who was late for dinner might be forced to run through a gauntlet of his fellow students, who were instructed to swing their belts at the offender; a student who wet the bed would be required to carry around the stained bedding all day. Some schools locked up runaways in small rooms for a period of days. Girls often suffered less severe but equally humiliating punishments, such as cutting grass in the schoolyard with a pair of scissors (Coleman 89-90). But fear, in many cases, was the motivation even for those who followed the rules. One former student states, “I didn’t like the jobs they gave me. But I knew that if I did them all right they wouldn’t bother me. But if I didn’t they might whip me” (115).
Even when a student was not maladjusted or too tired to study, he or she could experience great frustration in the process of learning. Coleman notes that in many native cultures, parents educated their children by means of a kind of “on-the-job training,” in which the child learned new skills by observation, imitation, and trial-and-error (15, 23). In contrast, many teachers at Indian schools taught English using pronunciation drills and memory work. One student states that after months of practice his class “could pronounce all the words in the Fifth and Sixth McGuffey readers” but did not understand the meaning of the words (106).
In the area of mathematics, students at most schools were taught only simple computation skills that would aid them in keeping track of money. Great emphasis was put on teaching the significance of property ownership and economic ambition. A contemporary politician wrote of the typical Indian student,
We need to awaken in him wants. In his dull savagery he must be touched by the wings of the divine angel of discontent … to get the Indian out of the blanket and into trousers-and trousers with a pocket in them, and with a pocket that aches to be filled with dollars! (Adams 22-3) Thus were Indian children trained to become consumers taking part in white economy.
The inevitable return to the reservations from which they came was always traumatic to students of Indian boarding schools. Coleman notes that many of them unintentionally brought along “a sense of cultural and indeed personal superiority” resulting from their schooling that caused their families to react with resentment (180). Their discomfort was not only psychological but physical, as a Navajo woman explains: “[H]aving gotten used to living where there are hygienic facilities, it is very hard to live again in the old hogan life” (179). Students also found economic hardship awaiting them after graduation. Adams states that the only paying jobs to be found on the reservation were at agencies and that employment off the reservation was often seasonal and did not pay well. Furthermore, the “training” given Indian children at school was often useless on the reservation (280-1).
An Indian girl’s return to the reservation after six years of boarding school is the subject of La Farge’s 1935 short story “Higher Education.” When the girl left the Arizona reservation at age 10 to go to a school in California, she was a lively child named Running Girl; now, returning unwillingly to her Navajo family, she goes by the Christian name of Lucille and shies away from “whites and Indians alike” (La Farge 84). The story’s narrator (who bears a striking resemblance to La Farge himself) is “shocked” by Lucille’s attire. Navajo women, he says, “mov[e] like queens, free-striding, with a swing of long skirts… [They are] more perfectly at ease than most men … in the saddle, and majestic on the ground.” In contrast, Lucille is wearing a “pseudo-smart, tacky dress… Short skirts, and high-heeled shoes, and a stilted walk with pocket-book in hand” (83).
The words “cheap,” “showy,” and “unsuitable,” used by the narrator to describe Lucille’s luggage (82), also aptly depict the education Lucille has received at school. One character refers to Lucille’s stay at boarding school as “[s]ix years in California learnin’ to stick her little finger out when she drinks tea” (La Farge 82). Though not literally true, this statement certainly indicates the value of Lucille’s education. The young woman complains to the story’s narrator that she has learned skills at school that are now useless to her: “I spent five years learnin’ to cook real good, on a stove. What can I do here?” (99).
Lucille indicates that she has returned home only because school authorities failed to find a job for her near the school. “I had to come,” she says. “Now I can’t get away” (98). When the narrator suggests to Lucille that “[w]ith your education, you could do great things for your people,” her morose reply is simply, “I can’t even talk to dem” (98). Indeed, her six years at school have eradicated her ability to converse in her native language, and her only other means of communicating is “the bad English of her under-educated teachers” (98).
After six years of adapting to white hygienic standards, Lucille is disgusted by the conditions she must endure on the reservation; she complains that her family is dirty, crude, and poor. The narrator tells her, “You’re thinking about the things your people haven’t got yet-fixed houses, beds, baths. … You forget what your people have-strength, intelligence, pride, skill, beauty, character, and a magnificent religion” (La Farge 99). But Lucille’s immersion in white culture has left a deep imprint, and she can no longer see her family through Indian eyes.
The reader may conjecture that during her first lonely months at school, the young woman daydreamed about her return to her family; gradually, however, Lucille evidently began to dream of taking a productive place in white society, the position for which her education was intended to prepare her. Realizing that no place exists for her outside the reservation, she seeks solace in daydreams about women and men she has seen in the movies.
Lucille’s fascination with cinematic characters is perhaps the most significant and pathetic of her connections to white culture. She expresses a desire to have lace underwear, “like you see in de movies”(99), and she becomes involved in an affair with an immoral white trader because he buys her movie-star clothes (106) and resembles a famous actor (100). Attempts to assimilate Lucille into white culture have succeeded only in the sense that she perceives the value of acting white and indeed wishes that she herself were white; she resents having “to live like a savage” (98). Because there is no room for her in white society and because she cannot return to her carefree childhood on the reservation, Lucille throws herself over a canyon (109). Suicide is the only way she can “get away.”
Lucille’s death saddens and angers the story’s narrator, and it is clear that La Farge uses the narrator’s thoughts to express his own feelings about the government’s unsuccessful attempts to assimilate Indian children. Biographer D’Arcy McNickle remarks, “What is notable in [“Higher Education”] and other early stories is not characterization or plot or story art generally, but La Farge’s blistering anger” (96). This passage from the beginning of the story best illustrates this anger:
The girl … ought to have plenty to think about; every mile of desert, every jounce, was a warning of the completeness of this, the second shattering change of her life. The first was years ago when she received whatever name L stood for, dressed in a dowdy uniform and her young wildness was broken to the machine-like routine of an institution half penitentiary, half orphanage. How many times can the substance be shattered and yet re-create itself? (La Farge 84)
The story ends with the narrator vowing to leave Indian country because he is ashamed of being a white man in a world where white men can drive a young woman to suicide (109-10). McNickle remarks that La Farge himself held the same sentiment as his story’s narrator: “In the Navajo world he encountered his own world in a different light and found it repugnant” (37).
A similar viewpoint can be found in La Farge’s novel Laughing Boy, which is “a sustained indictment of the society that produced the writer and would, unless tempered, destroy the Navajo world” (McNickle 56). According to McNickle, some of La Farge’s early stories were constructed from unused material left over from the novel. The character of Lucille in “Higher Education” is, he suggests, “a faded copy of Slim Girl,” the female protagonist of Laughing Boy (96). Slim Girl is stronger than Lucille; instead of being driven to suicide by her incomplete assimilation into white culture, Slim Girl assumes control of the situation and attempts to manipulate and profit from white society.
As a result of her experiences in school, Slim Girl knows “the best and the worst types of people in both red and white races,” and to her, “the Navajo way of life had become an eddy in the stream she drifted in, not the main current” (Pearce 69). Whereas Lucille in “Higher Education” has been crippled by her education, Slim Girl adapts to her new view of the world and decides to take advantage of it. She entices two men to fall in love with her, one Navajo and one white; the young brave Laughing Boy provides her with an unknowing partner in her dream, while George, the white man, provides her with the money that will make her dream possible:
Now from the Americans she took means, and in the Indians would achieve her end… a home in the Northern desert, and children, in a place where the agent’s men never came to snatch little children from their parents and send them off to school… This was her revenge, that all the efforts of those very different Americans to drag her up or to drag her down into the American way, in the end would be only tools to serve a Navajo end. (La Farge 46)
Unlike the character of Lucille, who is unable to retain any clear identity because of her schooling, Slim Girl becomes stronger as a result of her education; she is “emerging from the struggle not American, not Indian, mistress of herself” (46).
Slim Girl’s desire to control her fate proves to be her downfall, however. In order to ensure that circumstances will go according to plan, she resorts to needless manipulation and trickery. Because she will not allow herself to trust anyone, she introduces Laughing Boy to whiskey as a means of controlling him (La Farge 99) and tells him she is working for a missionary’s wife in town when in actuality she is having an affair with the trader who supplies her with money (60-1). When Laughing Boy rides into town one day and discovers his wife in bed with the trader, Slim Girl is forced to tell him about her past (158-68). Laughing Boy is able to forgive her, however, and together they plan their move to the North: “‘[S]oon we shall be where there are few Americans, very few. And we shall see that our children never go to school'” (172). But the dream is cut short when another Navajo man, feeling betrayed by Slim Girl’s long-term refusal to be his woman, recognizes Laughing Boy from a fight months before and shoots Slim Girl in a fit of anger (176). Slim Girl dies as an indirect result of her desire to have complete control over her fate. Thus, though education by whites has different psychological effects on Slim Girl and Lucille, in both cases their deaths are caused indirectly by their experiences at school.
In his introductory note to the original edition of Laughing Boy, La Farge writes, “This story is meant neither to instruct nor to prove a point, but to amuse. It is not propaganda, nor an indictment of anything.” This disclaimer contradicts the clear message of both Laughing Boy and “Higher Education” that the American policy of assimilation has destroyed the Navajo way of life. As one historian writes, “Their education forced them to choose either the culture of the white man or the culture of the Indian; there was no compromise” (Szasz 10). Though Lucille prefers white culture and Slim Girl chooses to “return to the blanket,” both women are destroyed by the effects of forced education. The Oglala medicine man Lame Deer may have stated it best when he wrote, “The schools leave a scar. … We enter them confused and bewildered and we leave them the same way” (Coleman 189).
Works Cited Adams, David Wallace. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience, 1875-1928. Lawrence, Kansas: U. Press of Kansas, 1995. Coleman, Michael C. American Indian Children at School, 1850-1930. Jackson, Miss.: U. Press of Mississippi, 1993. La Farge, Oliver. “Higher Education.” All the Young Men. New York: AMS Press, 1976. 82-109. – -. Laughing Boy. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1929. McNickle, D’Arcy. Indian Man: A Life of Oliver La Farge. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana U., 1971. Nerburn, Kent. Neither Wolf nor Dog: On Forgotten Roads with an Indian Elder. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 1994. Pearce, T. M. Oliver La Farge. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1972. Szasz, Margaret. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination, 1928-1973. Albuquerque: U. of New Mexico, 1974.