Located just 30 miles from Cal State Fullerton, Sherman Indian High School (SIHS) was the flagship of 25 federal, off-reservation American Indian boarding schools.
Today, it is one of only four remaining, according to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Though the school was originally known for its cultural assimilation practices, it now celebrates native cultures through on-campus groups like the White Rose Singers club, which travels to different conferences, events, powwows and colleges like CSUF to perform, said club sponsor Josephine Montes.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, the club visited campus on Thursday to take part in a festival hosted by the campus’ Inter-Tribal Student Council and Movimiento Estudiantil [email protected] de Aztlán de CSUF.
“They’ve come a long way just to come out here and show students that this is what Native Americans look like and what they do,” said Rosalina Camacho, advisor for Inter-Tribal Student Council. “This is just one aspect, because there are so many different nations and tribes out there.”
SIHS originally opened in 1892 in Perris, California as the Perris Indian School. In 1903, the school was relocated to its current home in Riverside, where it became known as the Sherman Institute. After accreditation by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges in 1971, it became known as it is today, Sherman Indian High School, according to its website.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Native American children were removed from their reservations and brought to different boarding schools across the United States. The purpose was to assimilate the native children into white U.S. culture and society.
According to the the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), the children were not allowed to speak their language, practice their religion or wear their traditional clothing, and were forced to cut their hair and give up their cultural ways.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs instituted strict policies that didn’t allow the children to go home and kept them from their families for four years or more at times, according to NMAI.
From 1904-55, children died at what was then called the Sherman Institute. Due to certain religious practices, and the fact that some were orphans, the children were buried in the school’s cemetery.
Today, the graves remain and serve as a stark reminder of the past.
Aside from the many negative aspects of the school, like the forceful removal of native traditions, the children learned useful skills. They were taught practical trades in addition to academics like math, science and art, according to NMAI.
Assimilation is no longer the goal at SIHS. In fact, native culture and traditions are not only formally taught, but celebrated as well.
Many students now see the school as a safe place away from the often difficult life their reservations bring, Montes said.
SIHS teaches cultural appreciation for the many diverse Native American nations found at the high school, more than 76 different tribes from across the U.S. represented by the student body, according to the SIHS website.
One of the many ways native culture is celebrated is through the White Rose Singers school club.
“The club started in 2009 with 13 girls … We were the very first hand drum club at Sherman Indian High School,” Montes said.
Participation in the club comes with high standards. Montes said the girls must “walk in a good way” and that no drugs or alcohol are allowed. Members are also required to keep their grades up. However, they also practice forgiveness.
“If they falter and things happen, they are out of the club for a little bit and then we always let them come back in, because everybody makes that one mistake sometimes,” Montes said.
The White Rose Singers have an opportunity to heal those who listen, Montes said.
“The drum is the heartbeat of our people, and we want to share that heartbeat with everyone and to feel that medicine that does come up from that drum,” Montes said. “It’s like we just gave you a natural aspirin to feel good and that’s what it’s about.”
Members of the all-female club, like senior Skylene Denny, show pride in what they do and enjoy the opportunity to positively affect others.
“We just let people know who we are and why we sing, because we sing for medicine,” Denny said. “It’s kind of great that we are helping people – especially those who aren’t feeling like themselves lately.”
The young women of the White Rose Singers value their community and use their talents to support those around them.
“The most important part about being a White Rose Singer is that we give back, and that is the most important thing with native people,” Montes said. “We are always giving. It’s not about receiving or getting from people, it’s about giving.”