After a week of travel that began on foot or on burrow from the depths of the reservation in Arizona, 234 Navajo children stepped off the bus at the Intermountain Indian Boarding School in Brigham City, Utah, on January 11, 1950. Many of the children had just completed their first ride in a motor vehicle and were attending school for the first time even though they were between 12 and 18 years old. Within a week the total enrollment was 500. Attendance increased gradually until it peaked at 2,300 in the 1960s
Experiences of Native American students, their teachers and other personnel until the school closed in May 1984 are documented in the historic exhibition Outside the Homeland: The Intermountain Indian School on display at the Brigham City Museum-Gallery May 10 through June 28. The exhibit features photos, art and a variety of artifacts.
The Intermountain Indian School was an attempt by the federal government to honor the Treaty of 1868 under which the United States guaranteed adequate schools for the education of children on the Navajo reservation. As of 1949, the few day schools that existed on the reservation had not been successful because the children had to walk great distances to school, and attendance was always poor in bad weather. Inadequate water was another problem. Also, for every student accepted at the schools, one had to be turned away.
The new school was formerly Bushnell General Hospital, a 60-building Army facility that closed in 1946 following World War ll. Some photographs of the hospital and patients are also in the exhibition. The conversion from hospital to school cost $4,250,000. New construction for the school was primarily for classroom buildings, housekeeping quarters, an auditorium and a gymnasium. The U.S. Department of the Interior and the Bureau of Indian Affairs shared the cost.
Dr. George A. Boyce, a 12-year veteran working with Native Americans, was appointed superintendent of the school. In statements to the press in 1949, Dr. Boyce said he had no doubt about the Navajo children’s ability to learn because a random group had been tested and their average I.Q. was 120. He added that the average I.Q. of children in the United States was 100.
The superintendent estimated the total staff required to operate the new school would be between 300 and 350 employees, including interpreters because most of the students did not speak English. Upon their arrival, the children were taken to the mess hall where they ate a breakfast of cocoa, cereal, eggs, toast and fruit, then were taken to their new quarters where each had a bed, a chair, a chest of drawers and a closet. Most of them had never slept in a bed. Dr. Boyce pointed out, “This is more than just the first day of school for them, it’s the first day of a new life.”
Instruction for the students was divided into three phases: elementary, intermediate and vocational. Younger children were given an academic education that would qualify them for college when they graduate. For the older students, emphasis was placed on developing one marketable skill such as carpentry and shoemaking.
Arlie Pittman, a Brigham City resident, joined the teaching staff at the school in July 1963 as a science teacher. Some of the units he taught were earth science, electricity, astronomy and weather. To pique the students’ interest, Pitman showed them how to build wind vanes, barometers and anemometers as well as dioramas and all the prehistoric animals. Pitman reminisces, “The Navajo kids loved to do artwork. They loved to work with their hands, so I just took what they loved to do and incorporated it into the program….”
Extra curricular activities at the school included a sports program. Hal Reeder, also a Brigham City resident, was the school’s coach for five years, then he transferred to the English Department where he taught until the school closed. He remembers, “The first year we played basketball, we didn’t win a game, probably because I didn’t have a player over 6 feet and because the Navajo kids didn’t come from Little League or junior high programs.” Reeder went on to say, “Our team eventually had a big win over Logan High. We were 0 and 9, and Logan High was 9 and 0. We beat them 66 to 61. I left the score board turned on in the gym for two weeks straight. The students were so excited I thought the building was going to fall down.”
Reeder also said the students excelled in chess and won three state championships with mentor Ed Necefer. Reeder added that the school’s cross country team won 7 out of 8 state championships with Coach Odell Rice. “Our kids came off the reservation where they walked miles and herded sheep on foot, and they were lean and built to run distances,” says Reeder.
The accomplishments of the Navajo children in and outside the classroom were reported in the school’s student newspaper Smoke Signals.
An activity that was not offered by the school but was popular in the summertime was relocating watermelon. Some of the students would invade the watermelon patches in Perry, cut the fruit off the vine, then float them down the cement Pineview Water Canal which flowed through the school. Boys and girls positioned themselves one-half mile downstream to retrieve the melons. Over the years, the Indian school received a lot of bills from the fruit growers.
The highlight of the school year was the annual Native American Friendship Days. The public and tribes throughout Utah and Idaho were invited. The powwow featured dancing, singing and “dining” on Native American food.
In 1974, enrollment was extended to approximately 100 different tribes until the school closed in 1984. There was a lot of speculation as to why the school was shut down. Economics, politics and parents’ desire to educate their children on the reservation were the reasons given.
Visitors can view Outside the Homeland: The Intermountain Indian School at the museum Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 1 to 5 p.m. The facility is located in the lower level of the Brigham City Community Center at 24 North 300 West. The entrance is on the west side. Admission is free. For further information, please phone (435) 226-1439 or visit www.brighamcitymuseum.org. The website will also have information about special events that will complement the exhibition.
Funds to support this exhibition and accompanying programs have been provided by the Utah Humanities Council in collaboration with the Utah Division of Arts and Museums. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this exhibition and accompanying programs do not necessarily represent the views of the National Endowment for the Humanities or the Utah Humanities Council.
The Brigham City Museum-Gallery is an art and history facility in Box Elder County that opened in 1970. Exhibitions include at least one national traveling show a year as well as a variety of temporary art and history exhibitions of four to eight weeks each. The museum’s dedicated history section includes activities for children. Guided group tours are available with two-weeks’ notice. The facility is a department of Brigham City Corporation.