In the 1880s, virtually everyone agreed that the only way to educate Indian children was to take them away from their homes and cut them off from their families for at least four years. At first, Charles Lummis was a believer in that approach, exemplified by the famous Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. He wrote approvingly of the Carlisle School’s “kill the Indian, save the child” theory of Indian education when he toured two Indian schools during his tramp across the continent in 1884. But within a year of his move to the pueblo of Isleta, New Mexico, in late 1888, Lummis had changed his mind.
Surrounded by grief-stricken parents whose children were being held against their will at the Albuquerque Indian School, cut off from their families, prevented from returning home even during summer vacations, Lummis came to regard the U.S. government’s Indian education policies as an abomination.
Lummis Liberates ‘Captives’ From Albuquerque Indian School
The first newspaper article that Lummis wrote about Indian education policy ran in the Los Angeles Times in April 1890. It was entitled “Poor Pedro, the Fate of the Indian Who Was Educated,” and it began with an anecdote written in the style of a folk tale about an Isleta boy who had gone off to a government school for years and had returned to lead a tragic life as an outcast among his own people.
The damage inflicted on the students was just part of the problem with the government Indian schools, Lummis asserted. “Of course the fundamental objection is the very same one that we or any other decent people would have if a superior race (self-asserted) were to come from Mars, overrun the land and force us to send our children away from home to be rid of our silly superstitions, religion and customs, and instructed in the better ways of the people of Mars,” he wrote. “When I have the time and brains to do justice to so difficult a subject as this really is, you may hear from me about it.”
Over the next two years, Lummis got steadily more entangled in the issue. In the summer of 1891, when the pueblo council in Isleta approached Lummis for help in getting their children back, he leapt enthusiastically into their fight. The next summer, he hired a lawyer to file a writ of habeas corpus demanding the release of the Isleta children. At the same time, he helped lead a campaign in the press against the cruel policy of cutting children off from their parents.
Moments before the case was set to go to court, the superintendent of the Albuquerque Indian School capitulated and agreed to release the Isleta children. A year later, Congress repealed the policy that permitted government officials to remove Indian children from their reservations and send them to far-away boarding schools against the wishes of their parents. It was the first big victory for Charles Lummis in a crusade for Indian rights that he would carry on for the rest of his life.
Lummis’s Friend in the White House
In 1901, several months after his old Harvard acquaintance Theodore Roosevelt became president, Lummis formed the Sequoya League, an organization dedicated to promoting policies that “make better Indians by treating them better.” Lummis convinced many of the leading experts on Indians and the West to join the league’s board of directors and advisory board, and he regularly obtained timely assistance from Roosevelt to advance his objectives.
In one major initiative under league auspices, Lummis in 1902-1903 served as chairman of the Warners Ranch Commission. The three-man panel was appointed by the Department of the Interior, with some prodding from the president, to find a new home for an Indian tribe evicted from their village by a rancher. After an exhausting journey by wagon train through the arid back country of Southern California, the commission found a new homeland for the tribe that was better than their old village in the desert — though the bitter Indians never believed it.
The next year, Lummis and his league spearheaded an attack on a policy that called on U.S. government agents on each reservation to cut the long hair off all of the Indian men under their jurisdiction. The league focused its scrutiny on Charles Burton, the government agent at the Navajo-Hopi Agency in Keams Canyon, Arizona, accusing him of imposing a “reign of terror” on the Hopi pueblo of Oraibi in his implementation of the haircut order and other policies.
Ultimately, Lummis was accused of overstating his case against Burton, and was rebuked for it by President Roosevelt himself. But while Burton may not have been quite as tyrannical as the league alleged, he had tolerated sadistic behavior by teachers under his supervision. The league’s fierce fight against Burton contributed to the demise of the ludicrous haircut order.
In the final years of his life in the 1920s, Lummis plunged once again into the Indian policy war, this time playing a supporting role for a younger, more vigorous Indian rights activist named John Collier. One of the big battles in the 1920s concerned an attempt by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put a stop to Indian dancing. Collier, with help from Lummis, proved to be an effective advocate for the religious rights of Indians. Four years after Lummis’s death in 1928, Collier became commissioner of Indian affairs.