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Art Education at the Albuquerque Indian School 1889-1917

By Marinella Lentis

At the end of the nineteenth century, Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas J. Morgan (1889-1893) and Superintendent of Indian schools Estelle Reel (1898-1910) introduced art instruction in the curriculum of federal boarding schools as an optimal means to reach the goals of assimilation. Morgan mandated the teaching of elementary art, while Reel called for the inclusion of American Indian crafts such as weaving, pottery, and basketry and recommended native women as instructors. Elementary art would teach the proper disposition of the mind and improve manual skills while native crafts, particularly for Indian girls, would impart values of self-sufficiency, manual labor, and industriousness. Art education was the instrument through which Indian children would learn a new morality, way of seeing, and the proper manner of working. Teachings in art and native industries would thus contribute to the transformation from ‘savage’ to ‘civilized’ and would render Indian children docile, submissive, and useful for American society.

Art education at the Albuquerque Indian School, particularly drawing, existed since the establishment of that institution under the management of the Board of Home Missions of the Presbyterian Church in 1881. A teacher, for example, told the Albuquerque Journal in 1883 that she gave her pupils “every encouragement to draw” and that the students’ favorite subjects were “ships and American girls in elaborately-trimmed skirts."[1]  Another local newspaper, the Albuquerque Evening Democrat, informs us of the existence of drawing in the school when a reporter writes that “the school hours are from 9 to 12 in the forenoon, 2 to 5 in the afternoon and one hour after supper devoted to music and drawing.”[2] While these articles do not suggest that drawing was formally taught as other subjects, but simply something students were encouraged to do in class or after their class work was over, another newspaper article informs us that “reading, arithmetic, writing, drawing, spelling, geography, and lessons in the use of language are daily taught.”[3] This evidence is corroborated by a report card found among Superintendent Richard W. D. Bryan Family Papers, which shows that students’ advancement was evaluated also in drawing.

Was drawing only a good activity to have children involved with or was its instruction an actual policy of the school? Great progress was made under the direction of Superintendent Bryan, who was head of the institution from 1882 to 1886. Because of his recognized role in the shaping of the Albuquerque Indian school, it is not unlikely to think that the curriculum was improved during his tenure and that drawing, from a mere creative activity was formally recognized as a subject of instruction.  It is also not unlikely to think that Bryan’s decision to include drawing was not estranged from the national debate on the value of art education and might have been the result of mandates from the Indian Office, since the school was managed by the Presbyterian Church, under contract with the federal government.

Students’ drawings were often exhibited at the annual New Mexico Territorial Fair either in the educational exhibits or on parade floats.  An undated picture found in the Cobb collection at the Center for Southwest Research shows an exhibit area filled with a variety of objects on display; in addition to photographs and specimen of Indian baskets and traditional clothing, there seems to be items from the domestic science department and the “boys’ department.”  On the left side of the exhibit we can see a wall covered with numerous drawing papers. While the content is not clear, we can speculate that they demonstrated the students’ progress in drawing.  Other sources such as newspapers and governors’ reports inform us that students were instructed in drawing and that their training proceeded from simple studies to more elaborate illustrations.[4]

After 1900 drawing seems to have lost its importance in the curriculum in favor of more systematic attention to industrial work. The 1900 annual report of Superintendent Collins to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs actually confirms that “most time is given over to practical and useful work. Only enough attention is given to music and so-called accomplishments to serve as a diversion.”[5]  It is hard to quantify in terms of hours what Collins meant by ‘enough attention’ but it seems clear that drawing, after he assumed charge of the school, would not be a subject of instruction, but occupy students’ leisure time. It persisted as a school activity, but there was clearly more interest in emphasizing manual training and demonstrating to the outside world what Indian students could “achieve” if properly prepared. While drawing had been considered significant in the development of basic skills and in the formation of character, it could not enable Native students to become self-sufficient and eventually came to be seen as marginal to their education.

Native crafts were included in the curriculum of the Albuquerque Indian School as a result of the 1901 Uniform Course of Study introduced by Estelle Reel. In his 1904 annual report Superintendent Allen wrote that “pottery work among the Pueblo girls was very good” and that “many of the girls who had been taught weaving were so anxious to weave blankets that they frequently used the legs of an ordinary chair for a loom.”[6] In 1905 Mr. Allen announced through the pages of the newly found school magazine, the Albuquerque Indian, that the school would venture into “some additional lines of industry hitherto untried and make them self-sustaining industries.”[7]

The first was “the manufacture of hand-made mission furniture” by boys, while the second was “the weaving of Navajo rugs and blankets by the children of that tribe alone, and under the tutelage of a Navajo woman, herself adept in the art.” The Superintendent stated that this instruction was to “occupy but a period of the daily domestic or manual duties of the child” and that “the administration has no sympathy with perpetuation of any except the most substantial of Indian handicraft, so that the idea of maintaining this industry is entirely utilitarian in its object.”[8] The introduction of Navajo weaving as a minor part of the domestic training of girls clearly shows that the purpose of this training was not the preservation of the craft or the promotion of an aspect of native culture, but rather the development of girls’ skills in the making of utilitarian objects, that is, items that were useful and economically valuable. Girls could have thus spent their free time in making good objects that could have been sold.

The identity of the native woman hired and the kind of work she taught to Navajo girls is not known. Subsequent issues of The Albuquerque Indian published under Superintendent Allen’s administration, a total of twelve; do not contain any other reference to Indian arts and crafts at the school. The Indian school continued to take part in the annual Territorial Fair and put up exhibits of the work done by the students, but whether this work included native industries we do not know. Local newspapers never report of weaving, pottery, or other Indian crafts. Evidence that native industries continued to be made in the school after 1905 is scant as well as the evidence that students’ handicrafts were sold to outsiders.

A 1932 hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs of the United States Senate might reveal something of the school’s marketing practices. In the hearing, Mr. Reuben Perry, Superintendent of the Albuquerque Indian School testified that the rugs made by the students at the time were used around the building as well as donated to the Junior Red Cross or sold. When the rugs were sold, the money was kept by the school, applied it as proceeds of student labor, and used for the benefit of the school. Students did not keep the money, because what they made at the school was a “matter of education.”[9] Since Perry was superintendent from 1908 to the time of the hearing, it can be supposed that he acted in the same manner in regards to the sale of students’ work throughout his superintendence. Until further evidence is found, however, this remains only speculation.

During the fiscal year 1910-1911 the Albuquerque Indian School adopted the New Mexico course of study used by public schools “for the purpose of fitting Indian pupils to enroll in the regular school system when the time arrived for them to do so.”[10] What happened to art and native industries? As emphasis shifted from drawing to ‘manual arts,’ Native American students needed to be trained in skills that would have made them good carpenters, blacksmiths, shoe and harness makers, tailors, wagon makers, steam engineers, farmers, house workers, cooks, laundresses, seamstresses and nurses. Drawing and native industries did not contribute to the acquisition of these skills, and while they were likely maintained as diversion activities, they were probably not given much attention otherwise in the curriculum. 

When Estelle Reel retired in 1910 and the new schools supervisor took office, emphasis on Native industries strongly decreased as the 1916 course of study for Native schools demonstrates: domestic science and manual training were retained as core teachings, while weaving, pottery, basketry and other Indian crafts were not considered at all. These would have had to wait until the late 1920s to be reinstated back in the curricula. If art was originally incorporated in the curriculum of federal institutions like the Albuquerque Indian School to uplift the children, develop their minds and cultivate the eyes, from the mid-1910s, there was no place for art in schools; younger generations were needed in the labor force and thus training in the appropriate industrial skills was required. The arts could have not contributed to America’s progress and therefore were not essential in its educational institutions for Native Americans.


[1] “The Savage at the School,” Albuquerque Journal, Sept. 1883. Richard W. D. Bryan Family Papers, Box 2, Folder 4, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

[2] “Our Young Savages,” Albuquerque Evening Democrat, January 22, 1885. Richard W. D. Bryan Family Papers, Box 2, Folder 4, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

[3] “The Albuquerque Indian School,” New Year’s Journal, n.d. Richard W. D. Bryan Family Papers, box 2, folder 4, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

[4] See for example the Albuquerque Daily Citizen, October 14, 1903, p. 5 or Miguel Otero’s Report of the Governor of New Mexico, 1902, TANM, Roll 149, Frame 2, p. 71, New Mexico State Records Center and Archives, Santa Fe.

[5] McKinney, Lillie. 1945. “History of the Albuquerque Indian School,” MA Thesis, University of New Mexico, p. 130.

[6] Ibid. pp.134-135.

[7] “Future of Our School,” Albuquerque Indian, Vol. I, no, 1, p. 13.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Survey on the Conditions of the Indians in the United States. Hearing before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Indian Affairs. United Stated Senate. Seventy-first Congress. Second Session, p. 9893.

[10] McKinney, 1945, p. 212.