This early twentieth century image features Native American students from the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. Based on what you see in this image, who attended this school? What clues do their clothes and haircuts provide to help us understand what the school was like? While we do not know who wrote on the picture, and when, what additional information does the writing provide to help us understand school life for Native students? Who would be the audience for this image? What does it tell us about the Sherman Indian School? What clues does this image provide that help explain the level of government that mattered most in students’ lives?
Founded in 1892 in Perris, California, the Perris Indian School was later replaced by the Sherman Institute. An Act of Congress (31 Stat. 244, approved May 31, 1900) established the Sherman Institute, which opened in 1902. The school was named for Representative James Schoolcraft Sherman of New York, later vice president of the United States (1909 – 1912). Sherman became one of the largest and best known of the non-reservation schools in the western United States. The school featured an industrial curriculum that included carpentry, blacksmithing, wagon making, harness making, tailoring, printing, agriculture, home economics, and home nursing. Academic subjects were taught as well. Some students lived in dormitories on campus and others lived off campus. The school operated according to the outing system, which sought to enhance employment prospects for students. Under this system, students lived and worked off campus, for pay, as part of their regular school program. By 1926, with enrollment at 1,000, Sherman offered a complete elementary and secondary curriculum. Graduates had the option of continuing their education at the local high school, college, or trade school, or of seeking employment. During the Great Depression enrollment declined. By then most California Indian children were integrated in the public school systems. Sherman drew an increasing portion of its enrollment from the Navajo Reservation. While we do not know the specific circumstances of who wrote on the photograph — especially who wrote “dead” on top of one of the students, and when — it helps students understand the level of school administrators in providing oversight to communities.