Native American Boarding Schools: Total Assimilation

By Sidney Wegener

In 1892 Richard Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, famously stated that his goal was to “kill the Indian and save the man.” Native American boarding schools were first established in the United States during the mid-1800s in an effort to continue genocide against Native people under the guise of education. Children were often taken from their families and away from f reservations by missionaries or militiamen, either by force or through manipulation. When children (aged from four years old to teenagers) were taken to a boarding school, they were subjected to violent processes of total institutionalization. They were stripped of their clothes, their hair was cut, and any use of native language resulted in brutal beatings. Sexual abuse was all too common. Next to every prison-like school there was always a graveyard. The generational trauma caused by United States boarding schools greatly contributed to the breakdown and erasure of Native American tribes.

The education that these children received was initially geared specifically towards producing domestic and unskilled laborers to serve white, capitalist purposes. Very few boarding school students graduated with an education comparable to the wealthy, white men in charge of these institutions. In the early years, a handful of Native Americans – always men – travelled with school officials as examples of successfully civilized Indians to gain support for boarding schools. Later, the institutions claimed that children would learn skills in boarding schools that they could bring back to their communities to bolster the civilization of their tribes. The white, colonial United States’ idea of civilization was (and still is) destruction of Native American culture. However, the children who survived and returned to their families were equipped with basic math knowledge and Eurocentric cooking skills which were inapplicable to the needs of their communities. The real purpose was to prevent the reproduction of Native American culture and assimilate younger generations into white, colonial culture. Thinly veiled as an education, genocide was the name of the game.

Children were taken away from hundreds of different tribes and imprisoned in boarding schools where they spoke different languages, came from different cultures, and had experienced a vast number of traumas. Despite the abuse, these children often remained resistant. As they were beaten into speaking English, they discovered a way to communicate with one another. In response to the violent process of erasing indigenous languages, Native children created pan-tribal solidarity and undermined the United States’s goal of total assimilation. The loss of languages may be one of the most devastating effects of the Native boarding school legacy. Too often, children returned home after years of living behind the brick walls of their educational institution and could not communicate with their families. They no longer spoke a common language, younger generations lost their Native tongue. The death of Native languages directly impacted tribal cultures by disrupting the generational passing of knowledge and tradition which was taught through oral storytelling and histories. 

In many ways, the boarding schools set up by the United States achieved their genocidal goals  by continuing to kill thousands of Native Americans, physically and sexually abusing children, and destroying their tribal identities. However, the resistance that arose from pan-tribal unification within boarding schools created a new mode of mobilization for Native child survivors. While colonial domestic and vocational labor skills were not beneficial to the communities that the students returned to, English literacy provided them with a tool that could be used to disarm the oppressor. Native American boarding school graduates were generally able to read treaties and legal documents. These were frequently used by colonial powers to deceive Indigenous people in order to take their property or consent to relinquishing other rights they had to livelihood. In addition to defending and protecting their communities, some Natives became writers and educators themselves. People such as Esther Belin, Lee Maracle, Steven Heape, and Gayle Ross have become storytellers who speak against Native American oppression and retell history. 

Films, poetry, autobiographies, scholarly papers, novels, oral, and written histories are now widely published in North America. Yet, Native American history continues to be taught in American public schools through false narratives which ignore the roughly four hundred years of genocide. The truth behind Native American boarding schools sheds light on the horrific legacy of the United States’ treatment of Native people. Although reeducating oneself on Native American history should be a year-round endeavor, November is the designated month which we are to pay attention to Native American Heritage. I urge you to read, watch, or listen to at least one story from a Native boarding school survivor. Below are some sources.

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Poetry: From the Belly of My Beauty, by Esther Belin

Literature: I Am Woman, by Lee Maracle

Film: Our Spirits Don’t Speak English, produced by Rich-Heape Films, narrated by Gayle Ross

Website: Native Hope (https://www.nativehope.org)Online archive: Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center

Dismantling the Thanksgiving Myth with Children’s and YA Literature

By Rebecca Hopman

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

It’s that time of year when many elementary school kids across the United States don capotains, buckle boots, headdresses, and moccasins to celebrate Thanksgiving. Cue the romanticized and often derogatory imagery of Native Americans, the tidy and tired story of the Pilgrims and Indians where “everyone gets along [and] everyone gets to eat.” [1]

painting of pilgrims and indians sitting down to eat at the first Thanksgiving

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) Source: Wikimedia Commons (Jennie Augusta Brownscombe [Public domain])

Earlier this month, Sidney Wegener wrote about “Why We Should be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving.” She points out that the kids learning the “Pilgrims and Indians” story grow up to be adults who perpetuate this false narrative, instead of coming to terms with the much more complicated reality. “While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations,” Wegener writes, “everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday.”

So how can parents responsibly talk with their kids about the Thanksgiving story and Native Americans, without falling back on the “Pilgrims and Indians” myth or homogenized and romanticized depictions of Native peoples? One way is to read books about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

How do you find those books? Thankfully, there are many resources online for just that purpose. (I have included a selection of websites and articles below.) But while there are a growing number of children’s and YA books by and about Native American/First Nation peoples, they are still vastly underrepresented in the publishing world.

In 2002, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison analyzed 3,150 children’s books published that year. Sixty-four of those books (or 2%) featured a main character or significant secondary character who was identified as a Native American or a member of the First Nations. Only six books (or 0.2%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. Last year, out of 3,653 books, 55 (1%) featured a main or significant Native American/First Nations character. Thirty-eight books (1.5%) were written by Native American/First Nations authors. [2]

In 2014, the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign – and later the We Need Diverse Books nonprofit organization – was launched to support diversity in children’s literature. [3] They, along with many authors, scholars, critics, editors, and readers, have increasingly called on the publishing industry to produce and promote books for children and young adults that respect and reflect a broader range of identities and experiences. Critically, this effort must include publishing more books written by diverse authors and hiring diverse editorial staff. [4] Publishers, of course, respond to what sells, so you can join this effort by buying books by and about diverse people or by checking out books from your local library (you can often request or recommend books for purchase if the library doesn’t have them in their collection).

So, this Thanksgiving, whether you have children or teens in your life or you appreciate a good children’s or YA book, take the opportunity to choose a story that is about Native characters, written by Native American/First Nations authors.

Woman reading to two children

Source: Wikimedia Commons (San Jose Library [CC BY-SA 2.0])

November, in addition to being Native American Heritage Month in the United States, is also Picture Book Month. Celebrate both by reading and sharing picture books written by and about Native Americans and First Nations peoples. Find some suggestions in the resources shared below.


Resources

Native American children’s and YA book recommendations and resources:

Diversity in children’s and YA books:


Notes

[1] Klem-Marí Cajigas, “Tackling Racism in Children’s Classics: The Thanksgiving Story,” Nashville Public Library. Accessed on November 9, 2019. See also “Do American Indians Celebrate Thanksgiving?” by Dennis Zotigh, National Museum of the American Indian, November 23, 2016.
[2] Data on books by and about people of color and from First/Native Nations published for children and teens is compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. More information can be found on their website. Accessed on November 9, 2019.
[3] The We Need Diverse Books organization defines diversity as “including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities*, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities.” I use this definition when referring to “diverse” people in this piece.
[4] Kacen Callender, “We Need Diverse Editors,” Publishers Weekly, November 1, 2019.

Appropriating Indigenous Culture through Body Modification

By Marian Phillips

Marian Phillips is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s and Gender History department at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include LGBT History, Horror, Gay Liberation Movements, and 18th Century Literature.

We’ve all seen the image of a young white woman in a traditional Native American headdress prancing around Coachella. Every year, the image grows increasingly distasteful and racist. Despite the internet’s call for festival goers to abandon this appropriation of a culture that is not theirs, they have not. Recently, it was brought to my attention that a cast member of the television show Love Island (2015-), Chris Taylor, has a tattoo of a woman in a Native American headdress. Understandably so, Native American groups have criticized the permanent piece that features symbols of Indigenous cultures that this man does not identify with. 

The Native American Rights Fund group stated that the piece is not only inappropriate and offensive, it is damaging to their community. The popular culture website, Heart, interviewed the group to comment on the situation. They resonded with, ““The use of these images was often rooted in an extensive history of abuse, discrimination, and conquest. The growing body of research around the use of these images shows that they have a harmful impact on our youth, and the youth of non-native people as well.” [1] This made my wheels turn. I am a heavily tattooed individual who has been deeply invested in the body modification community for nearly ten years. The conversation on the negative impact of permanently displaying a symbol of someone else’s culture, identity, or trauma is constantly happening and being argued over. 

For instance, in the early 2010s, the popularity of tattoos of dream catchers or Native American headdresses was at an all time high. One google search of either will show you an overabundance of these images, almost always on individuals that do not identify with or belong to the tribes these images are derived from. Even worse, it is not uncommon for a tattoo featuring any Native American imagery to be a gross amalgamation of multiple tribes, completely disregarding the importance of a specific symbol to a specific tribe’s identity. When a white person takes a symbol that does not belong to them and permanently places it on their body, it is another form of cultural appropriation and conquest. 

The ownership of Native cultures has been torn from them through the violent processes of colonization. Murder, rape, and the forced removal of Native peoples from their land was how white colonizers stole their culture (via Native bodies). To speak of Native cultural symbols as belonging to Native people, is to acknowledge the continual act of reclaiming their culture from white colonizers. There is no single Native American culture; however, all of them have experienced the violence of colonization. Therefore, when white people tattoo their bodies with unspecified indigenous cultural symbols, such as the dream catcher, the body modification represents white colonial power, not respect for Native culture.

While there is a strong debate within the tattoo community over appreciation versus appropriation, we must turn to the model of the Coachella incidents of white women wearing headdresses. These festival goers did not take into account the deeply symbolic meaning of the headdress, the purposes of eagle feathers, and who receives the honor of wearing it. Therefore, they appropriated Native American culture and heritage. This is just the same when one considers tattooing this symbol on their body permanently. Yes, some people may do their research and gain some semblance of knowledge on it, but ultimately, they have no ownership over these symbols. When non-Native people put a Native American headdress or dreamcatcher on their body, they are staking a claim of ownership, which is inherently disrespectful towards Native people.   

This piece does not serve the intention of trash-talking someone who already has these symbols tattooed on them or tattoo artists that specialize in them either. Rather, I would like to assert that we reconsider what we place on our bodies, what it actually means, what it can perpetuate, and our position when we actively participate in damaging a Native American community by asserting that we can own their cultural symbols. 


Notes

[1] Alice Dear, “Native American Group Slams Love Island Star Chris Taylor’s ‘Offensive’ Tattoos,” Heart, Heart, 12 July 2019, http://www.heart.co.uk/showbiz/tv-movies/love-island/chris-taylor-native-american-tattoo/.

Federal Policies Negatively Effecting Indigenous Food Sovereignty

By Hannah McCandless

Hannah is a second year graduate student in the Women’s History Program at Sarah Lawrence College. Hannah is writing her thesis on Matilda Hamilton Fee and women in higher education administration in the south during the 19th century. 

From July 2017 to June 2018, I had the privilege of working as a fellow at the National Farm to School Network in Washington, D.C. During my time there, I learned about the federal policies and acts that are driving our federal food aid policies, such as The Farm Bill, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as Food Stamps), and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In learning about these policies, I became familiar with the programming and grants that my organization used to support Native Communities in food production and consumption. 

In relation to that, last year, this blog published a piece about the Farm Bill’s effects on Native Communities, linked here. I encourage you to read that post in addition to this post as this is a multi-faceted problem. This post is focused first, on how displacement of Native Communities has adversely affected the long term health of Indigenous Communities and second, how SNAP and past federal food policies have affected the health of those communities. 

First, it is important to define food sovereignty. According to Devon Mihesuah, a researcher and coauthor of “Indigenous Food Sovereignty in the United States: Restoring Cultural Knowledge, Protecting Environments, and Regaining Health,” food sovereignty is defined as the “healthy and culturally appropriate food generated by a community that oversees the entire process, from production to trade to sustainability.” [1] It is important in understanding what this looks like in order to be able to understand how federal policies have negated Native people’s ability to feed themselves with their own autonomy. 

At the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues held in 2014, the issue of food rights were brought up by those in attendance. An issue they spoke of specifically was the phenomenon they called “nutrition transition.” Nutrition Transition can be defined as when Indigenous or Native Communities are forced to relocate to reservations by western forces, which caused them to change how they consume food. [2] One example of this would be to think about communities who previously ate bison and buffalo. When Europeans invaded native land, they killed several of those animals, forcing those communities to shift their eating habits. Later, when the US government began forcing Native Communities away from their original native lands, they were often moved to different temperate climates, changing the types of food they could produce. [3] This forced shift has created devastating effects on the health of Indigenous Communities. 

Since 1977, the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations program has existed for people living too far away from SNAP approved grocery stores on their reservations. This is one of the alternatives to SNAP for qualifying Indigenous people. Though this program can be a helpful supplement to food sources, some 60% of Native Americans who are on it use the program as their number one resource for food, rather than a supplement. Comparatively, only 37% of Native Americans on SNAP benefits use that program as their number one source for food. The foods provided by these programs are primarily processed staples with long shelf lives, meaning that fresh fruits, vegetables, and unsalted meats are not a part of many Native American’s lives if they rely on these programs for sustenance. [4]

Before Europeans invaded and either destroyed people’s food sources or forced them to change, Indigenous Communities consumed foods such as “elk, white-tailed deer, turkeys, corn, squash, beans and bison.” Once Europeans invaded, they brought in animals such as cows, goats, and chickens, introducing poultry and dairy to the diets of native communities. [1] This initially shifted the diets of many Native Americans in a drastic way. Once federal food assistance programs began providing food to Native Communities, the rate of Native people with Type 2 Diabetes skyrocketed, and Native Americans became twice as likely to have diabetes compared to white Americans. Because SNAP benefits include the types of foods that are extremely salted in order to have a longer shelf life, the foods consumed created long term health issues. 

The ways in which the US federal and state governments have wronged Native Communities are innumerable, but the ways in which the federal food programs have affected their health are long lasting. Food sovereignty is just one of the rights that Native Communities are fighting for, and one that is complicated and multifaceted in its causes and solutions. I encourage you to find more information on this topic to better understand how to be an ally in creating local, state, and federal policy changes.

For more information on this topic, see: 

  1. Farm to School in Native Communities
  2. National Native Network: Traditional Foods Resource Guide  

Sources: 

[1] INDIGENOUS FOOD SOVEREIGNTY EXAMINED IN NEW BOOK

[2] United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (2014) 

[3] Native American Food   

[4] How Might Trump’s Food Box Plan Affect Health? Native Americans Know All Too Well

Why We Should Be Anti-Celebrating Thanksgiving

By Sidney Wegener

Sidney is a first year Master’s Candidate studying Women’s History at Sarah Lawrence College. Their academic interests include lesbianism and lesbian history in American from the 1920s to the 1930s. They are currently pursuing many different avenues for research in U.S. history pertaining to women’s and queer studies and looking forward to working on a thesis related to the linguistic and social evolution of female sexuality.

Often, on the last Thursday of November, American families gather around the dinner table to eat and appreciate the blessings in their lives. For many, Thanksgiving is a favorite “holiday.” In the twenty-first century, it may be depicted as a happy family eating lots of food and soon rushing off for Black Friday sales. However, this picture is painted for those who have the money to afford a supermarket turkey, a home to gather in, and the privilege of blissfully living on stolen land. For hundreds of Native American nations and tribes, this holiday is a reminder of the genocide committed against them by European colonizers, which began almost four hundred years ago. A new tradition of anti-celebrating Thanksgiving is long overdue. Here’s why.

Thanksgiving is an American holiday. Not a Native American holiday. This means that participating in traditional American festivities constitutes a celebration of the English settler invasion of North America. European immigration directly resulted in the murder and rape of thousands upon thousands of Native people, pillaging their homes and resources, and eventually forcing them to live on, what are now known, as “reservations.” While you might be grateful for the food on your table, you may be forgetting how it got there. Twenty-first century American traditions of celebrating Thanksgiving and getting ready for Black Friday sales are ultimately due to a long chain of events caused by European settlers and white American corruption.

For nearly fifty years, the United American Indians of New England have mobilized a rally and day of mourning on November twenty-second. They explain the significance of this day by stating:

“Thanksgiving day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of Native people, the theft of Native lands, and the relentless assault on Native culture. Participants in National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native peoples to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.” (Native Hope)

Those of us who are not native to North America are generally unaware of the flip side of this Thanksgiving coin. Children in schools are taught that the pilgrims and the Native people met harmoniously and offered each other new resources and mutual support. Many even celebrate the idealized generosity of Native people by making paper headdresses and reenacting the romanticized relations. It is probably not appropriate to tell elementary-aged children about the numerous massacres which white immigrants waged against tribes such as the Pequot, or the disease epidemics which nearly wiped out whole native populations. However, teaching a false history is devastating to how the majority of American children understand Thanksgiving. These children grow up to be adults. Adults who buy supermarket turkeys, decorate their homes with pumpkins, and go Black Friday shopping. While not all families have the economic resources to participate in traditional American Thanksgiving celebrations, everyone has the capability to change the way they think about this national holiday. For many tribal nations within the United States, this is a day of solemn remembrance. 

This is Native American Heritage Month. November 23rd is Native American Heritage Day. And Thanksgiving, which falls on November 28th this year, is an opportunity to change the way that non-Native Americans honor the history of English settlers’ immigration and invasion of North America. Native Hope is an organization built upon preserving the pan-tribal histories, stories, and traditions, while spreading awareness of the misconceptions many Americans are taught. This organization suggests ways Native and non-Native people can celebrate (or anti-celebrate) Thanksgiving:

“We remember the generosity of the Wampanoag tribe to the helpless settlers.

We remember the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who lost their lives at the hands of colonialists and the genocide of whole tribes.

We remember the vibrant and powerful Native descendants, families, and communities that persist to this day throughout the culture and the country.

We remember people like Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland who just became the first Native American women elected to Congress.” (Native Hope).

I urge all Americans to take further steps to educate ourselves and seek out new ways in which we can honor a collective American history. Those who have the means to participate in American Thanksgiving traditions will hopefully consider ways in which they can anti-celebrate in awareness and spirit, without giving up the family time and food. If you are lacking inspiration or want more information, a few sources to get started are listed below.

Native Hope. “What Does Thanksgiving Mean to Native Americans?”

United Native Americans of New England“Native American Girls Describe the REAL History Behind Thanksgiving.” YouTube. November 23, 2016.

It’s Just NOT that Easy…

By Madison Filzer

Madison is a second year Master’s Candidate in the Women’s History program at Sarah Lawrence College. Her research interests include Civil Rights activism in Cleveland, Ohio, and Black women’s activism in the United States.

When someone tells us they are experiencing domestic violence or any type of abuse for that matter, many people are quick to ask the question, “Well, why don’t you just leave?” and I think we need to talk about that.

Let’s talk about the vast range of reasons why an individual might not be able to just pack up and leave their abusers. In my opinion, if we start the conversation with this in mind, then we force those who ask these questions to think about why it might not be realistic to chuck the deuces and bounce. Also, with a comprehensive understanding of why individuals can’t just leave, we can brainstorm ways to counteract the institutions and structures that place this undue burden on the survivor. 

I spent the majority of my undergraduate career working with agencies that provided services to survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking, among many other things. Working with survivors from all walks of life made me start thinking of the “what ifs” when it came to domestic violence. It seemed as if the more time I spent thinking about the “what ifs,” the more I realized that those what-if situations were a reality for many individuals seeking out services from the organizations I worked with. Most statistics state that it takes, on average, seven attempts to leave an abuser before actually being able to end the circle of violence. Since seven seems to be the magic number, I want to propose seven random scenarios off the top of my head for readers to think about in regards to asking, or telling, a survivor to “just leave.” 

  1. What if you live with a physical disability and are dependent upon your abuser for mobility. How can you get up and walk away from your abuse if you’re unable to walk? By default, you cannot leave the vicinity of violence if you’re physically unable to move.
  2. What if you live in a community that has been traumatized by police brutality. Would you call the police if you’re stuck in a catch-22 between police violence and violence at the hands of your abuser? In this situation, who could you look to for protection?
  3. What if English is not your native language, but the 9-1-1 operator doesn’t speak your language? Who do you call? 
  4. What if you are hearing impaired or nonverbal? How do you communicate to anyone, let alone authorities, that you are in a violent situation? 
  5. What if you are financially dependent upon your abuser? If you leave, how will you afford to put a roof over your head or food on the table? 
  6. What if you’re married to your abuser and are dependent upon them for health insurance? If you leave, how will you get access to healthcare? 
  7. What if you’re undocumented? Do you call the police and risk deportation, or do you endure the violence? 

Now, these examples might seem far-fetched for some, but every one of these situations resonates with me. I can put a name, a face, a family, and a story to those “what if” situations because I know that is the reality for some. So when we talk about domestic violence we need to start with an understanding that not all people can “just leave.” 

Lydia’s Diaries: Uncovering Women’s History in the Archives

By Rebecca Hopman

Rebecca Hopman is a first-year student in the Women’s History graduate program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is the Project Archivist at the Sarah Lawrence College Archives and works as an editor for the Re/Visionist. Her research interests include the history of itinerant performers, gender dynamics in artistic communities, women’s life writing, and women’s collegiate experiences.

“Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

So begins Lydia Olsson’s diary. Olsson was an early female student at Augustana College in Rock Island, IL, and the five diaries now held by Augustana Special Collections document her life on campus. I encountered Olsson’s diaries in the archives nearly a decade ago, and reading them changed my path in life.

Five notebooks with different cover designs arrayed on a black background

Lydia Olsson’s diaries. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

In the summer of 2010, I was a rising senior at Augustana College. Built near the banks of the Mississippi River, Augustana is a typical liberal arts college. And I was a typical liberal arts student. Majoring in history, English, and German, I planned to become an archivist, and was preparing to apply to library science graduate programs that fall. In the meantime, I worked in Augustana Special Collections, processing archives and exploring the stacks.

Over the summer I worked longer hours, and during my lunch breaks I liked to browse the collections for something interesting, like a cache of love letters or a salacious diary (being an archivist means you are basically a professional snoop, reading all those private documents people left behind). Augustana Special Collections is full of such things, given that it holds many of the personal and professional papers of students, faculty, and staff from throughout the school’s 160 years of history.

One day I was looking through the finding aid for the Olof Olsson family papers and came across a listing for “Diaries, 1892-1896.” Olsson was the third president of Augustana College, and these diaries were written by Lydia, his third child. Intrigued, I pulled the appropriate box out of the stacks and opened the first book.

Topsy’s Journal. Strictly private!

Journal kept by Lydia Olsson of 18.

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, Old time is still a-flying, And this same flower that smiles to-day. To-morrow may be dying.” [1]

“Keep true to the dreams of thy youth.” [2]

Black and white photograph of three young women and one young man

Lydia Olsson and her siblings, c. 1890s. Seated, left to right: Mia Olsson, Anna Olsson, Hannes Olsson. Standing: Lydia Olsson. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

Topsy was Olsson’s nickname for herself, and, as I found by examining the rest of the diaries, she liked to begin each book with a couple of mottoes or quotes. Reading on, I was immersed in the daily life of a young woman attending Augustana College, just as I was doing 118 years later. She took a variety of courses, had a robust social life, and was close to her family. She joked about the young men on campus who were vying for the attention of their fairer classmates, thought seriously about the role of religion in her life, and contemplated her future.

Was at Sarah’s for supper and then we went to Chapel together. Mahnquist stared at us and smiled a long while, which made us nearly croak. I told Sarah I could see my picture in his greasy hair. Everybody has gone to bed and here I am sitting writing such nonsence. I am wicked! (January, 29, 1893) [3]

Mia and I were talking about marriages . . . Mia herself don’t want to marry, and I well, I truly havn’t made up my mind if I do or not. Some day when I get old and sensible I am going to think over every thing and see what conclusion I come to. The first question is: Do I? and will I ever regret it? The second: Who to? and do I love him with all my heart and soul, or is it a fancy. 3rd: Is this the one that Providence has picked out for me? 4: – Will we always love the same? (December 22, 1893)

The diaries resonated strongly with me, and I began to research what life was like for a young woman attending college in the 1890s. Looking deeper into the archives, I kept coming across letters and diaries written by the young women of Augustana. Their stories were a different kind of history, one that I hadn’t encountered in class. Forget kings and wars and important dates, these were ordinary people living ordinary lives. National and international events appeared on occasion, but they weren’t at the center of the narrative.

Mia was piling wood this morning, so Emil Lofgren went by and he helped her, so did I. Some went skating on the pond this morning. There don’t seem much to thank for now as Harrison didn’t become elected! (November 24, 1892) [4]

I consumed books and articles about life writing, learning that diaries, letters, and journals were often the only outlets for women’s writing. I checked out piles of published journals and correspondence written by women, from Virginia Woolf and Mary Boykin Chesnut to more obscure writers. Why hadn’t we read these sorts of sources in my history classes?

For the first time, I became interested in something I recognized as women’s history. It sounds odd to say that now, but at the time I didn’t know this was an area of study. Of course, I had learned about many fascinating women in class, but they were mostly queens or presidents’ wives or other notable women. And I encountered them in history textbooks, newspaper articles, political cartoons, and government documents. In rare cases I read a speech or a letter, but never anything that dwelled deeply on their private lives or how they experienced the world around them.

Black and white photograph of three women standing amongst bushes and trees

Lydia Olsson and her sisters, Mia and Anna Olsson. Courtesy of Augustana Special Collections.

Reading Lydia Olsson’s diaries changed my idea of what history could be, and of who I could learn about. While earning my master’s degree in library science and working as a librarian and archivist, I kept reading about women’s lives, becoming more committed to the idea of studying them in an academic program. It’s thanks to Olsson that I’m here at Sarah Lawrence College, fueling that spark her writing lit in me.

And hereby endeth this chapter. Hoping to sow better seed in the future I close and zeal my book. – Topsy­ – (January 16, 1893)

———

For those who’d like to learn more about women’s life writing, here are a few suggested sources:

More suggestions can be found on this webliography. Fair warning that it hasn’t been updated since 2012.

And for those interested in the women of Augustana College, I encourage you to read Ann Boaden’s Light and Leaven: Women Who Shaped Augustana’s First Century (Rock Island, IL: Augustana Historical Society, 2011).

———

October is American Archives Month. Celebrate by exploring your local archives and special collections – you never know what you might find. Sarah Lawrence College students, faculty, and staff can learn more about the Sarah Lawrence College Archives on their website and Facebook page.

———

[1] The opening stanza of Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time.”
[2] A quote from the German dramatist and poet Friedrich von Schiller.
[3] Olsson’s original spelling, grammar, and word choice are retained in these quotes.
[4] Olsson is referring to the 1892 United States presidential election between incumbent Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland.