1 – Native American Boarding Schools, Passing & Institutions


This picture shows the ‘before’ and ‘after’ of a Native American man who has been sent away to boarding school. This practice was something that started in 1879 with the invention of Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It was thought that by taking these children away from their Native American home environment and having them re-educated meant that they could be ‘Americanized’ and assimilate to white American life, possibly ‘passing’ as white American people through matching their customs, dress and cultural/religious traditions.

In Nobody Passes Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore states that the book was conceived with the wish to ‘examine passing as a means through which the violence of assimilation takes place’ (p. 8). I believe this picture and the idea of the Native American Boarding Schools as a whole really reflects this concept. The schools were specifically created with the idea of assimilation in mind. This not only reiterates the idea of force and violence in a mandatory situation wherein traditions, religion and ways of living were stripped away, but it also brings to light the systems of power behind the ideas of passing and assimilation. The Native American boarding schools are a direct example of a form of social control to force someone into ‘passing’ as something that they are not.

This situation also showcases how institutions function and work somewhat on a basis, as Geoffrey M. Hodgson states in What Are Institutions?, of norms that are subject to ‘approval or disapproval’ (p.5). Here, the norm was considered to be the white American person, and their cultural traditions and ways of being, and the schools were their attempt to make all those considered ‘other’  fit into this box. This is problematic on many levels and relates directly to this ‘notion of belonging’ that Sycamore brings up in the Introduction of Nobody Passes. Sycamore states that the concept of passing or not passing relates to ‘confronting the perilous intersections of identity, categorization, and community in order to challenge the very notion of belonging.’. (p.9) This idea of belonging and community is something that passing could be argued to be slightly at odds with, as, in one sense, passing as something creates a community and categorises people, and while Sycamore and others are wishing to move away from labels and categorisation, this may also result in a lack of communities. This concept is something that the Native American children who were sent to the boarding schools dealt with after they were over. Many found that they were not fully accepted into white American life and when they returned home to their Native American families that they could not fully fit in there either. This left them with a mixed or lost sense of belonging and a lack of solid community to aid them as they could then neither ‘pass’ as white or Native American.