The Navajo Language: A Blessing In Disguise
Back                                                                                                              Home                                                                                                      Next

Missionary Schools Prohibit Navajo Language

Navajo children were shipped off to boarding schools that prohibited the Navajo language.  If they spoke Navajo, they were grounded: the teachers would humiliate them by making them write lines in English for a long time and washing their mouths out with soap. The teachers changed the children’s Navajo names to Christian names.  “They’d line us up, march us around,” said Wilford Buck, 73, who attended a school near Shiprock, NM. “You missed your parents.  You wanted to see them real bad.”

Carl Gorman was one of many Navajo children sent to these reform schools. His mother had chosen the Protestant Dutch Reform Movement school at the Rehoboth Mission, miles east of Gallup, NM.  “They didn’t care about me.  They were trying to make white people out of us,” said Code Talker Carl Gorman. “I learned, so early, how terrible and cruel prejudice can be.”  Carl’s father, Nelson Gorman, took the children to school in his not-so-sturdy truck the whole one hundred plus miles from their home in Chinle.

The principal, Mr. Bosscher, was described by Carl in a letter home as “he looked horrible” and the women teachers “were mean as scorpions.”  The students would wake up every morning at six o’clock.  They would clean up and listen to the matron read from the Bible, after which they would pray.  They went to breakfast, which was usually was bread and oatmeal, they prayed and listened to a reading from the Bible.  Before every class, the teacher prayed.  After each class the teacher would read from the Bible and pray again.  Carl referred to this as a “religious bombardment.” He said that the only way he could protect himself was by ignoring it.

Another Navajo Code Talker who went to one of these schools is Keith Morrison Little, Jr. “I had a hard time learning English,” he remembers. “We were restricted from talking Navajo with each other at school. In class they taught you to write English and recognize letters and words, and then you’d try to talk. It was really hard to communicate with another student because if you really wanted to tell him something or tell her something, you didn’t know how to do it in English. If you spoke out in Navajo, even secretly, there were people watching you all the time and tattling on you, You would get whipped or punished for it. That’s how the Christian mission was. The mission was to get the ‘savages’ civilized and fit them in with American society.”

The children wore jeans, shirts and, boots.  On Sundays, though, they wore tightly fitted clothes and listened to the preacher rant “interminably” for many long hours, as Carl Gorman remembers it. The sermon was always strongly against sinful doings.  Saturday was a free day for the children.  They would go outside and play ball.  After the nine-month school year, they would go home and see their parents again.
Missionary school students dressed for church
This is a picture of three Navajo children posing next to an adobe church.

By A. M. Neal, May 13, 1908, from Photographs of the American West at the National Archives.
Back                                                                                     Home                                                                                       Next