Indian Boarding School to Green University

Last weekend I drove up to Morris, Minnesota, population 5,000, which is about a three hour drive north of the Twin Cities.

On the way we stopped in Glenwood for a DQ ice cream and spent a few moments enjoying the view of Lake Minnewaska. It was a beautiful day and the lake was inviting. That night we dined at the Bella Cucina in downtown Morris.

It has an extensive menu and very good food. We enjoyed artichoke dip with grilled ciabatta as an appetizer and then dug into such things as lasagna, Tuscan rigatoni with goat cheese, lobster mac and cheese, penne Corsica with shrimp and artichokes, and chicken scallopini. All were delicious although probably too much because we were all stuffed.

We couldn’t find a bed for the night in Morris due to some track meet so we had to drive another half hour to Benson. Benson is a town of about 3,000 people, how hard could it be to find our hotel? We got lost, drove all the way through town, turned around, got out the phones and finally found our hotel. By this time we were ready for a nightcap. We headed to the bar attached to the hotel. It was packed, not a free seat in the place, and the DJ was a maniac with loud, loud music. It was time for bed instead.

DonsCafeThe next morning we headed back to Morris and Don’s Café for breakfast. Don’s has been around since the 1940s and serves good homemade slow cooked food. The bread is made on site every morning. On the wall above us was a plaque presented by the local CBS affiliate to Don’s for having the best grilled cheese sandwiches in Minnesota. We decided it must be the bread.

Morris’ main claim to fame is the University of Minnesota – Morris which was founded in 1960 as a public liberal arts institution. About 1,900 students enroll each year. The campus is on 130 acres and is part of the state university system.

In the Liberal Arts College category, Morris ranks in the top 20 along with three other Minnesota colleges, Carlton, Augsburg and Macalester as LGBTQ friendly campuses. Morris has a long standing commitment to fostering diversity, intercultural competence and environmental stewardship. The campus is a national leader in green initiatives and on its way to becoming carbon neutral.

IMG_2097From 1887 to 1909, it was a different story. The Catholic Sisters of Mercy ran the Native American boarding school in Morris until 1896, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs took over and called it the Morris Industrial School for Indians. Young children, some as young as 5, or 6, were separated from their parents and forced to live at boarding school. Over time there were about one hundred government schools on and off the reservations. The original plan for these schools was devised by Herbert Welsh and Henry Pancoast, reformers who believed they could “program” Native Americans to think and act like Euro-Americans. Students were forced from their families and brainwashed. They were only allowed to speak English, thus forgetting their native languages. They were taught Christianity, European history and European culture and values including the concepts of ownership and possession.

The idea was to completely assimilate Indians to the point where their own identity was erased. The slogan “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” was coined by Col. Richard Henry Pratt who established the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879, the only off-reservation boarding school built in the East.

The schools had a history of discipline and punishment and in the Merriam Report of 1928, it states “The survey staff finds itself obligated to say frankly and unequivocally that the provisions for the care of the Indian children in boarding schools are grossly inadequate.” Children were malnourished, mistreated and were prone to illness and epidemics. Amazingly enough, it was not until 1978 when the Indian Child Welfare Act passed that the Native Americans had a legal right to refuse to send  their children to off-reservation schools.

It is estimated that about 2,000 children attended the boarding school at Morris, Minnesota. Boys learned trades like blacksmithing, carpentry, or farming while girls learned to cook and sew and do laundry. Some students were placed as apprentices at local homes and businesses.

The school closed in 1909 and the government gave the campus to the State of Minnesota. The Indian boarding school was part of a treaty obligation so the federal government stipulated that any Native Americans who attended any future school on the grounds would have their tuition waived. The policy remains today by Minnesota statute.

IMG_2099In 1910, the West Central School of Agriculture opened to 103 high school students with no state funds. It originally offered a three year program with six months of school and six months on the farm.

They soon received state funding to upgrade the campus and construct new buildings. The curriculum focused on agriculture and carpentry for the boys and home economics for the girls but by the 1920’s it branched out with more emphasis on academics.


During these years the architect Clarence H. Johnston, Sr. designed several Prairie School buildings which earned the campus a place on the National Register of Historic Places. Johnston designed ten buildings between 1912 and 1930. They are faced with brick from the Twin City Brick Company and have a brownish color. Texture was added to the brick facades using patterning the emphasized the openings and roofs. They follow the Craftsman and Prairie School styles with modest unpretentious simplicity. Johnston was a prolific architect and his work can be seen throughout Minnesota.

There is one building that survives from the days of the Morris Indian School. It is now the Minority Resource Center and was constructed in 1899. It was originally a boys’ dormitory and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

It was a quick trip but we thoroughly enjoyed the beautiful landscape and our time out of the city.