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Morris Indian Boarding School
For 22 years, from 1887 to 1909, a Native American boarding school was located on the site of the current UMM campus. Morris residents can still see two of these early buildings, a dormitory and the Superintendent's House, which are still standing.
More than 2,000 children attended the school during its history. It was established in 1887 by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, who ran it under contract with the U.S. government. In 1896 the federal government began to operate the school. Called the Morris Industrial School for Indians, it was at times the largest Indian boarding school in Minnesota.
The Morris school was one of a series of government boarding schools nationwide. They were an important part of a national policy to "assimilate" or blend Indians into Euro-American society. It was believed this would not happen unless Native Americans left their own culture behind. A radical aspect of this strategy was to separate children from their homes for long periods of time and send them to boarding schools where they were "taught" to become Euro-American.
Children as young as kindergarten age attended the Morris school. The children were allowed to speak only English. They were required to dress and style their hair like Euro-Americans. Sometimes they were not allowed to return home over the summer, in part to keep them from being overly-influenced by their own cultures.
Many Indian parents resisted sending their children to boarding schools. Others sent their children to spare them from the severe poverty of reservations. While the choice was difficult, few educational alternatives were available.
The school taught typical subjects like reading and math, plus "practical" skills. The boys were taught farming, blacksmithing, and carpentry, and the girls were taught cleaning, cooking, sewing, and laundry. Some older students were placed at local farms and businesses as apprentices.
Some former students of federal Indian boarding schools have bad memories of the experience. Others recall their education as beneficial and remember warm interactions with fellow Indian students. In some cases, attending a boarding school started a family tradition of higher education.
Most students who came to Morris were Ojibwe, either from the Turtle Mountain reservation in North Dakota, or from Minnesota Ojibwe communities such as White Earth. Lakota and Dakota students from South Dakota also attended.
In 1909 the school was closed. The government was placing more emphasis on reservation schools. There was some improvement in Indian education in the 1930s, but it was not until the early 1970s that Native Americans began to succeed in the slow process of reforming schools so that children could be taught something about their own history, language, and culture.
When the school at Morris closed, the U.S. government gave the campus to the State of Minnesota for use as an agricultural school. Because the Indian school existed as part of treaty obligations, the federal government required that Native Americans be admitted to any future school on the grounds on terms of equity with white students and that their tuition be waived. This policy is maintained by Minnesota statute. Today there are about 125 Native American students studying at UMM.
The Indian school boys dormitory still stands. It is a two story brick building on the UMM campus that was built in 1899. It is now headquarters of UMM's Minority Student Program.
The Superintendent's House is also standing. It is a large woodframe house at 540 W. 5th Street in Morris. It was built on the campus in 1905 and moved to its current location about 1937.