Haskell Indian Nations University turns 125 this year. The university is recognizing its historical anniversary with a yearlong series of events officials are referring to as a commemoration rather than a celebration. Leaders says they will not dodge the painful elements of the school’s history.
“These things happened. They can’t be ignored,” Barbara Hallum, director of Haskell’s extension, says, referring to the early days when Haskell functioned as a boarding school.
Haskell opened its doors in 1884 as the United States Industrial Training School to 22 elementary school students. Children as young as 4 years old were separated from their families for months at a time as they attended the school, which focused its training on domestic arts. In keeping with the thinking of the day, Indian culture and language were seen as the culprits that kept American Indians from becoming American citizens. Children were routinely punished for speaking their language or disobeying the military-style rules of the school. Punishment included incarceration in a jail on campus. The lock from the jail cell is on display today at the school’s cultural center.
Haskell is the longest continually running federal school for American Indians and in many ways is a mirror for the relationship between tribes and the U. S. government.
A 2002 exhibit at the university’s museum and cultural center honoring children who have died at Haskell was entitled, “Honoring Our Children Through Seasons of Sacrifice, Survival, Change and Celebration.” In many ways, this might be a fitting name for the schools 125th year commemoration. Haskell’s history is, indeed, a long journey from terrible sacrifice to celebration of culture and heritage.
From its early years of forcing American Indians to assimilate into American culture, Haskell has evolved into a beacon for tribal sovereignty, self-determination and cultural preservation.
By 1927, Haskell became an accredited high school, evolving into vocational-technical school in 1935. As American Indians learned more about Western-style education and were influenced by the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they began to demand more from their schools. Haskell began offering a junior college curriculum in 1970 and created its first baccalaureate degree program in 1993. Symbolizing its evolution into a center for Indian education, research and cultural programming, the school changed its name from Haskell Indian Junior College to Haskell Indian Nations University. The university offers four bachelor’s programs in elementary teacher education, American Indian studies, business administration and environmental science.
The recently created RED Center, or Research and Dissemination Center, is part of the school’s ambitious effort to serve as a clearinghouse for indigenous research and professional development. Created by university president Linda Sue Warner, the center’s goal is to enhance the role the indigenous researcher plays in self-determination.
Haskell’s average enrollment is over 1,000 students and is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools. Alums include Miss Indian America Mary Louis Defender (Dacotah Sioux), actor Steve Reevis (Blackfeet), president of the Flandreau Santee Tribe Chance Rush; chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission Ernie Stevens (Oneida), and many others.
Warner estimates that over 50,000 American Indian students have attended Haskell since its inception. One of two all-American Indian schools in the United States, the Haskell experience runs deeply throughout Indian country. Indeed, according to Warner, nearly every American Indian family seems to have some connection to the school.
“Whenever I travel, I hear so many stories about parents and grandparents meeting at Haskell,” says Warner.
According to Judith Gipp, director of the RED Center, many students are drawn, in part, by their families’ history of involvement in athletics at Haskell. Indeed, Haskell’s sports history is legendary. From the 1900s to the 1930s, Haskell’s football program was referred to as the “Powerhouse of the West,” playing teams from Harvard, Yale and Brown Universities, Gipp says. More recently, some of the greatest American Indian athletes of all time were students at Haskell. They include: Billy Mills, a member of the Lakota tribe who won an Olympic gold medal for the 10,000 meter run; Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), famous football and track star; John Levi (Arapaho), football and baseball player. American Indian Hall of Fame, founded in 1972 recognizes athletes of American Indian heritage by induction into its Hall of Heroes.
Twelve commemorative events are being held this year in recognition of Haskell’s anniversary. The remaining events include homecoming in September on the Haskell campus and culminate in a commemorative gala Dec. 12, 2009 recognizing Haskell’s 125 most influential Indian people of Indian Country. Haskell is accepting nominations for its 125 Most Influential People in Indian Country through Oct. 1, 2009. Find more information at
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