1882: Methods in an Indian School

skokomish school 1888

Skokomish Indian School, 1888 (image credit: Pinterest)

A late-frontier Washington coast Indian reservation schoolteacher writes to tell of his experiences…

…including teaching kids who know Chinuk Wawa better than English.

Arthur T. Burnell was clearly a skilled teacher as well as a clear observer; his preconceptions about Indigenous people do get in his way to some extent, though.

His Jargon examples appear to come from George Gibbs’s 1863 dictionary, although he leaves out a word in his Lord’s Prayer snippet. (Gibbs has “Nesika Papa klaksta mitlite kopa Saghalie“.)

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Though born on the east bank of the Mississippi, I was reared in Colorado, where, as on this northwest coast since completing my education in Ohio, my experience in frontier life and observation of the Indian had partly trained me for a work like this of which I write. Yet closer contact with Indian youth, and certain phases of the government system of their education, have taught me certain lessons. Some of these experiences, new to most teachers, may be of interest to your readers.

The school is mixed and ungraded, having an attendance of about thirty youth, from nine to sixteen years of age, the girls and boys numbering about the same. They have been taught from six months to two years, and are pursuing the common branches only. Except a class of four pupils who began the Primer four months ago and now are in the Second Reader, all are in arithmetic, and the entire school pursues writing. They are, as a race, very apt penmen; even the youngest imitating letters readily, and soon writing without a copy before them, while many have a strong love for pen-drawing. All this greatly helps in class-instruction, as will appear in what follows. The tendency to copy something, if properly encouraged, feeds and quickens the mind. Particularly in arithmetic, each result needs to be labeled and each process fully explained and reiterated, as the Indian never stops to reason unless urged to it. The blackboard, therefore, comes into requisition not merely with classes in penmanship and figures, but in spelling, explaining words in reading, and in illustrating terms in geography. That there may not be a blind dependence upon what is seen, work is sometimes put on the board incorrectly and disjointedly, or maps are turned upside down that the class may locate the parts and rearrange the whole.


are strongly marked in the Indian, while he has little imagination. He will memorize a rule or list of words, not to say commit verse after verse, when the meaning is faintly understood, and yet he seems unable to tell you definitely anything passing through his mind. It is therefore very difficult to get him to talk, to answer questions, or even to ask them. I have tried to overcome this by reading an interesting story before a class, to arouse curiosity enough for hands to be raised. With very young or raw pupils it has been necessary to recast the verse read, changing every other word and simplifying the construction or idiom. Older pupils do this for themselves in different ways,— just now by copying from the board ten words of the lesson, for which they bring definitions next day. which are then revised and then given to he learned as part of the next recitation.

Examples of their thought are sometimes curious, and yet not essentially different from any child’s thought: Teeth,- 1st, “grinders of the mouth”; 2d, “to chew with.” Hereafter, “by and by.” Animal, “a creecher that moves.” Implicit, “comepleate.” Failing,— 1st, “trying ”; 2d, “after trying awhile”; 3d, “giving up after trial.”

In reading, while quite prompt, they are sure to slur hard words, and very apt to slide, making no distinction between imagine and imagined, or even calling both “imag.” There is the usual difficulty in securing careful utterance of [-]ing-words and prod’-uce as noun, or pro-duce’, verb; also such words as every, government, and picture. Saw is called was; felt, left; and so forth. For months beginners pronounce the article a as e, the as de, they and their as day, and as ant, giving a protracted drawl, ugh. This results from the frequent guttural in their own language. Still these children readily learn to speak English, while being masters also of their mother-tongue, and of


at an age when such attainment is remarkable. This Chinook is a loosely-constructed jargon, serving as a medium between the several tribes as well as between Indian and white man. Some of its anomalies are Boston-man for white man, and cloochman, his wife; muck-a-muck, food; okoke sun, (this sun) to-day. In this Chinook the Lord’s Prayer begins thus: “Nesika Papa klaksta kopa Saghalie”; and the song, “Hebrew Children,” “Kah, O kah, mitlite Daniel alta?

In their own language their songs are almost hideous, but the children learn the Sankey hymns readily, as well as the Chinook translations, which latter are taught to the older Indians. Music is very attractive to these tribes, as with most simple people, and they are apt imitators. Several of our girls play upon the organ almost any common tune. after hearing it sung. Thus, after dismissing school, when we had sung the multiplication-tables, and then marched out during chorus, I found a girl at the organ, during recess, playing the same while others sang. Thus any study loses its severe aspect for them if put to music, as in singing the capitals, and partly so if facts are tabulated to please the eye.

I have found information given in short talks is quite apt to lodge, whether historical and upon forms of government, or upon the human system and general interests. Surely no class of students ever in my care needed such talks more, with plentiful suggestions on manners and common principles of business honor, not to say of morality and religion. During the first reading of history, the teacher, chalk in hand, syllabifies, with hyphen and accent, words which the pupil hesitates to pronounce; and at the end of his paragraph the child is required to pronounce again his list from the board, the teacher adding definitions. Thus it is our constant study how to present in simple forms the common school tasks, and so to vary them that the impatient, unreasoning Indian may grasp and retain as much as possible. Nor is it an ungrateful work, as a few months in the boarding-school place the child upon grounds of communication, partly in English, while the primer and domestic training has been going on, and a gradual progress is manifest in both the home and the school. Very early the boys graduate into the shops, where, as apprentices, they earn wages and share in the community interests, alike in support of our pastor and in leading the social prayer-meeting.


One is impressed by the low stature of these Indians, — the women being much shorter proportionally, — their flesh being slightly tinted and having an unclean look. The head, from being artificially flattened from eyebrows to crown, is unsbapely; features angular, eyes dark, hair black, coarse, and hanging over a forehead low at the best. The half-breed youth have a good complexion, and are often fine-featured even to great beauty, — all greatly aided by winsome grace of motion. But usually these children are weaker, often consumptive, and are remarked as possessing the vices of both parents.

The older Indians at their homes near by are constant observers of the changes wrought in their children, and seldom oppose anything for the amelioration of the race, one girl confessing, “Mother wants me to be a good girl, and to think of God.”

Much might be written of the Indian in his own abode of semi-civilized comforts, where the living in permanent houses of squalor causes greater mortality than when inured to hardship by blankets in a rude tent, moved when cleanliness required; of the after-effect of the school-training upon those who have been a few years out from our influence, and of the effect of so close relation as exists between school and parent-home. I had intended to speak more of this and of the contrasts between the English and their idioms, which cause trouble in conversation. The Government treatment of these Indians, by partial supply of their wants in real necessity, and by the gift of books, clothes, and board for compulsory education of the children, has a wide, beneficial influence. It is, indeed, an open question whether the tribal influence upon the child does not too much neutralize the leaven we can set at work in their homes. At best, but few could be sent away for education, while the mere presence of a school among them vitalizes an agency nad commands influence with the tribe.


Skokomish Reservation, Wash. Terr., 1882

— from the Journal of Education, volume XV, number 9, March 9, 1882, page 157

Arthur T. Burnell, Skokomish Reservation, W.T., 1882