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Beyond School Walls: Race, Labor, and Indian Education in Southern California, 1902-1940


During the early twentieth century, officials from the Office of Indian Affairs sent hundreds of Native people from around the American Southwest to live and work within white-owned households and businesses under the umbrella of a program called the "outing system." Such work, they argued, would make young Indians more like the white, Protestant people with whom they lived and labored. Young men from Sherman Institute, a federal Indian boarding school in Riverside, California, dealt with low pay and dangerous conditions as they used the outing system to find work on industrial farms across Southern California. Likewise, Native women who found work via the outing system faced isolation and unsupervised working conditions as they travelled far from home to labor as domestics in Los Angeles and surrounding communities.

While outing programs presented challenges to Native communities, they also presented opportunities. Archival sources from the Office of Indian Affairs reveal that in Southern California, federal programs that aimed to assimilate indigenous people through labor became integral components within the survival strategies of young Native people and their communities during the early twentieth century. Native people from across the Southwest used outing programs at Sherman Institute and in Los Angeles to gain access to urban Southern California, its jobs, and its intertribal networks of indigenous peoples. Others used jobs secured through the outing system to earn significant wages and accrue new skills and perspectives. In many ways, Sherman Institute and the Los Angeles outing center became hubs within far-reaching migrations of Native people from across the American Southwest. In wealthy white homes, on factory floors and industrial farms, Native people combined education, mobility, and wage labor to forge modern pathways into the twentieth century. These students and their communities "turned the power," making a federal bureaucracy that meant to erase Native identities into a crucial component within strategies for cultural survival.

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