Primary Source

Christmas Poem, Pima Indian School, 1917 [Object]

Annotation

The poem and photographic collage is the work of students at the Pima Indian School boarding school near Phoenix, Arizona, and is part of an album probably owned by the school matron. The school was one of some 150 institutions for Indian wards of the U.S. Government. The boys' poem was dedicated to their Matron, a female official who was responsible for supervision and discipline of the students on a day-to-day basis. The school's mission was to "civilize" and assimilate the Indians to American society through a process of education that sought to obliterate their native cultures. The model of organization and discipline was military. Student life was highly regimented, with little free time, uniforms and marching drills. Boys and girls were subject to whipping and jailing. It is notable that the matron herself would not actually carry out the punishments she ordered; older students selected as "officers" often did so. Students at the Pima Indian School performed school maintenance, cleaning, cooking, laundering, and caring for the animals and crops that provided students and teachers with food. Students were also put out to work as domestics and farm laborers, for further acculturation and to provide work experience. School officials did not envision preparing them for higher education.

The decorated poem as an object is notable for its penmanship and skill in use of language. The photographs of the boys' heads pasted around the poem indicate that students had access to copies of group photographs, since they are all wearing uniform caps. The poem's tone is both ironic and affectionate toward the matron and the school, incorporating language that indicates exposure to American customs and domestic habits, such as the Christmas holiday, mention of loafing, castor oil and germs. The language is revealing of the tension between the boys' obedience to the matron and assertion of individuality and group solidarity, and their perception of the social context of the school expressed in recognition of the matron's “worry of the whole red race.”

Source

Photograph courtesy of Jeremy Rowe. Cited in Eric Margolis and Jeremy Rowe, "Images of assimilation: photographs of Indian schools in Arizona," History of Education 33, no. 2 (March 2004) 199–230.

Primary Source Text

"Who is the lady of Lofty mein
Who walks about with the air of a queen
And movement as steady as a Ford machine
Why sonny that's our matron

Who is busy as a big bumble bee
Getting us up promptly at reveille
And calling us down in a stinging hey
Why laddie that's our matron

Who is high mistress of this whole works
Sees that no loafer his duty shirks
And about the place no deadly germ lurks
You're right lad that's our matron

Who sends us out to do the chores
And makes us stop to close the doors
And downs our necks the castor oil flows
Why sure son that's our matron.

Who carries the worry of the whole red race
written in lines of care on her face
And smooths out troubles in every place
Right my son that's our matron

Merry Christmas 1917, Dedicated to Mrs. G by One of the Boys"

How to Cite This Source

"Christmas Poem, Pima Indian School, 1917 [Object]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #278, http://chnm.gmu.edu/cyh/primary-sources/278 (accessed April 21, 2014). Annotated by Susan Douglass