Ft. Shaw Indian School

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Fort Shaw Industrial Indian Boarding School
Established 1881
Opened 1882
Closed 1910
Location Poplar, MT
Peak Patient Population 320
Alternate Names
  • Fort Shaw Indian Boarding School


The Fort Shaw school came into existence after the government boarding school on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation suffered severe fires in November 1891 and the fall of 1892. The school was modeled on Indian schools in Carlisle, Pennsylvania; Lawrence, Kansas; and Newkirk, Oklahoma, and was named the Fort Shaw Government Industrial Indian Boarding School. The school officially opened on December 27, 1892, with Dr. William Winslow as the school's superintendent, first teacher, and physician. It had 52 students, but by the end of 1893 enrollment had climbed to 176. Administrators and faculty were housed in the old officers' quarters, which students boarded in the former soldiers' barracks. Students ranged in age from 5 to 18, and came from tribes in Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming.

Half of each day was spent learning English and in academic study. The rest of the day was spent working in the school's garden, stables, and pastures raising the meat and vegetables which supplied the school with food; in making uniforms and shoes for the children to wear; and in maintaining and repairing the school's buildings and furniture. The vocational curriculum was gender-specific. Girls learned to cook "white" food the "white" way, sew, clean house, make dairy products (butter, cream, skim milk) from raw milk, and engage in crocheting, lace-making, and other needlework. Boys were taught the essentials of farming and ranching, as well as skills such as blacksmithing, carpentry, construction, masonry, and woodworking. Sports were taught to both boys and girls. Girls played double ball, lacrosse, and shinny (informal ice hockey). Boys were taught baseball, football, and track.

Students at Fort Shaw usually spent their first two years at the school learning English and "white" cultural norms. Children were grouped in grades according to their skill levels, which meant that both very young children and young adults could be found in the same class. Students advanced to the next grade based on achievement, and there was no social stigma for students who stayed for a two or more years in the same grade. Fort Shaw's curriculum ended at the eighth grade, but students in their late teens (indeed, some as old as 25 years of age) could be found studying there.

Dr. Winslow resigned his position on September 9, 1898,[64] and Frederick C. Campbell became Fort Shaw School's superintendent. At that time, the school had 300 students from every tribe in Montana as well as the Bannock, Colville, Kalispel, Paiute, and Shoshone tribes of neighboring Idaho, Washington, and Wyoming. Most students had a white father and Native American mother, and another many were there voluntarily a large number had been forcibly taken from their parents by government agents and forced to attend the "white" school against their wishes.

Senator Paris Gibson visited the school in 1901, at which time it had 30 administrators and teachers and 316 students. A girls' basketball team was organized at Fort Shaw School in 1902. Campbell became the girls' basketball coach, and the girls' team began interscholastic play in November 1902 (defeating Butte Parochial High School). The Fort Shaw girls defeated nearly every high school and college girls' basketball team in the state, as well as several high school boys' teams. The team ended its first year as undisputed (if unofficial) state champion. It was unable to reproduce that record in the 1903–04 season, as the team could not secure appointments for games with any other high school in the state that year.

In 1904, school superintendent Fred Campbell agreed to send his girls' basketball team to the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (better known as the St. Louis World's Fair) in St. Louis, Missouri. To fund their trip, the team stopped at numerous points along the way to play exhibition games against other high school and college girls' teams. After each game, the girls donned traditional native ceremonial garb and charged a fee (50 cents) for a program of dance, music, and recitations. Part of the United States' pavilion at the world's fair was a Model Indian School. The girls would live and take classes at the school, and twice a week would hold intra-squad exhibitions. The girls also agreed to take on all challengers. The girls departed from Fort Shaw on June 1, 1904. The 11 girls defeated every single team they played over the next five months, earning themselves the title "world champions".

The Fort Shaw Indian school closed in 1910 due to low attendance. After its closure as an Indian school, Fort Shaw was turned over to the Fort Shaw Public School District, and the buildings were used as a public school. Today, most of the existing buildings and grounds of Fort Shaw, with the exception of the school and playground are under a long term lease by the Sun River Valley Historical Society.