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Indian Schools In Mendocino County

Ever heard of Indian Schools in Mendocino County? Why were they needed? Why were there a dozen of them around the County? Investigating this phenomenon from a century ago, please understand all natives were referred to as Indians so this column uses the same terminology.

Prejudice against Indians in Mendocino County deserves a little background. Though the government wished to keep Indians on reservations and rancherias there were native families scattered throughout the county on the fringes of white civilization. These folks were the ranch workers, farm hands, hop and fruit pickers, and many women were domestic servants. What Indians weren’t were property tax payers. So why should they be allowed in public schools? 

Going back to treaties signed between the federal government and the tribes, Indians were promised access to education at government expense and this seems to have been a national policy. It wasn’t until 1924 that public schools were required to enroll Indian children. So how did these kids get educated for 60 years prior to that?

Books, articles and Master’s theses have been written about the problems involved in educating native youth. This column just lightly touches the subject as it relates to Mendocino County. 

Often information is just a fleeting reference. Nannie Escola, a Coast historian, said Mendocino City had private schools, including an Indian School and a Chinese school, but never said more. Escola had taught on the Manchester reservation and thought Indians were smart and it was a “dirty shame” to destroy their culture.

In 1859 County public schools began and by 1866 reports to the County Superintendent of Schools were supposed to show the number of Indians in attendance. If Indians were not being educated on reservation schools like the one Escola taught at, local school districts were supposed to be able to claim anything from five cents to 50 cents a day for educating them. Also, if a one room school had low enrollment numbers and might need to close, Indian kids were valuable to increase the student body and stay open. A County document covering 1937 to 1949 listed every kid by name, age, degree of Indian blood, attendance, and “Indian Related Expenditures,” like school lunch, transportation to and from school, and medical and dental expenses.

The desire to turn Indians into hardworking Christian servants was the job of day schools and boarding schools on reservations. After minimal reading and math instruction at boarding schools, girls learned house care, sewing, baking and cooking while boys learned farm skills, ranching, poetry production and carpentry skills. Removed from parents involuntarily at age six, not allowed to speak native languages, segregated by sex, the kids were not happy and in Round Valley they burned down their boarding schools in 1883 and 1893.

For Indians in public school enrollment, kids might be under “white guardianship” which was a polite way of saying indentured servitude. A native child was “placed” with a white family and had to stay until adulthood. White man’s religion did contribute positively to education as Catholic and Methodist churches often had “missions” on reservations to attend to the spiritual education of children and regular schooling and adults at six places in the county. Round Valley had a Catholic mission school from 1860 to 1975.

Most of what is shared here came from the six volumes of “What Became of the Little Red Schoolhouse” written by retired Mendocino County teachers 40 years ago. Some volumes were statistics oriented, others focused on reminiscences. 

Here are some facts. Calpella had 24 whites and 10 Indians in school in 1866. Lima School five miles north of Hopland had six Indians in 1872 and many native faces in a 1933 photograph. In the 1910-1920 era there was a Minihaha and a Hiawatha school in the north county serving Indian kids. Dorrington Indian School on the Manchester Reservation ran from 1894 to 1904. The Pomo Indian School in Potter Valley had a photo with 18 Indians and two white students.

Want to see a white parent get livid? Be a teacher suggesting their child would have to sit next to a “dirty” Indian and parents would threaten to recall the school board. 

Nokomis School in East Hopland on the reservation had under 20 kids in 1913. It was feasible to take those kids to Hopland public school a few miles away but an administrator said, “In fairness to whites and Indians it is advisable to maintain separate schools” It was 1947 before Hopland schools were integrated.

Indian schools survived on hand-me-downs of old supplies, books and desks discarded by bigger schools. Round Valley, which had a 24 mile by 32 mile school district offered no school buses for Indian students until 1936. Many Indian parents heard about far away government boarding schools that were BIG and GOOD and considered them as an alternative.

“Family Matters: Round Valley Indian Families at Sherman Indian Institute 1900-1945” by William J. Bauer is an academic paper looking at why families would let Indian kids travel hundreds of miles for an education at schools like Chemawa in Salem Oregon, Sherman at Riverside, and Stewart school in Carson City, Nevada. Kids left home after fourth grade, signed up for multiple year terms, and if they were lucky got a high school diploma. Indian parents realized the local schools were not the greatest, prejudice was rampant, and there were few possibilities for kids in the future. So boarding schools far away provided some hope. Families had differing results, student experiences varied, native language and culture was lost to kids, but going away to school was an alternative. 


  1. Lew Chichester January 24, 2021

    Just a bit on William Bauer, mentioned in your article. From what I can recall, he is presently a professor at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. A Round Valley native and member of the tribe, William possessed academic abilities and secured a scholarship to Notre Dame after graduating Round Valley High. He has a number of quite informative publications focussing on the Native American experience in Mendocino County. Also regarding Indian schools, I know individuals here who were in the last class of eighth graders who graduated from the segregated school. That was in the 1960s, not that long ago. Brown v Board of Education may have put the final end to the Indian schools.

  2. Jim Armstrong January 24, 2021

    A subject that always saddens me,
    I wonder if other cultures were as egregious as US, Canada and Australia.

    Would that the “poetry production” typo may have actually been true.

  3. George Hollister January 25, 2021

    Indian schools were a double edged sward. Educating Indians so they could leave the reservation if they wanted to, and merge into American society was a worthy goal. I know many who benefited and went on to do well as a result. The founder of the AVA, I think his name was Jamison, is a good example of that. I believe the late Vernon Piver was another.

    The attack on Indian religion and culture is another matter all together. One successful beneficiary of an ancestor who went to an Indian School said the biggest challenge for his ancestors was having Christianity imposed on them. Religion is something that should not be impose on anyone. There was a student at Mendocino High School who came from a successful middle class family in the 1960s and returned to Oklahoma to his Indian roots, and became Chief to the Cherokee Nation. His name was Al Pile. Maintaining cultural roots should not interfere with success in America, and it doesn’t. Of course the culture naturally evolves, which is OK as well. Learning proper English, understanding the law, and how government works is essential.

    Nanie Escola had it right, too. Indian children are as capable as anybody. It has been my observation that substance abuse is the factor holding back Indians on reservations in America today, but that is another subject all together.

    China is currently implementing a version of the same in Western China with a problematic, to China, Muslim sect. I suspect the result will be similar. The Muslims will remain resentful, but learn to be successful in China.

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