To (L)Earn Their Place in Society: Student Scrip and a Capitalist Education at Sherman Institute

Abstract: In the late nineteenth century, off-reservation boarding schools became the instrument of choice for the United States federal government to assimilate Indigenous communities. By separating Native American children from their families and placing them in government-operated schools, white officials hoped to transform them culturally, politically, and economically. Although the system was reformed in the early 1930s, boarding schools continued to promote assimilation for several more decades. In fact, white officials even developed new methods to assimilate young Native Americans, including the use of substitute currency, or scrip, as a form of economic training. One of the first off-reservation schools to adopt a scrip system was Sherman Institute in Riverside, California. In November of 1933, school administrators introduced a system of paper money to teach the school’s Native American pupils about life in a capitalist society. Through an analysis of scrip, this essay explores what Indigenous students at Sherman Institute learned about capitalism during the 1930s. Specifically, the article analyzes how the scrip system replicated the US economy with individual consumption at its center in an effort to communicate specific values, and how Indigenous students navigated said system. Thus, this essay argues that administrators at Sherman Institute used scrip to transform school life in a flawed attempt to present an idealized form of consumption-based capitalism to young Native Americans.

Starting in the fall of 1933, the Native American students attending the government boarding school Sherman Institute in Riverside, California, were paid for their school work in a form of substitute currency referred to as scrip. By using this money, students were expected to learn through direct experience how the American economy worked and how they were supposed to operate within it. Like previous generations of students at Sherman Institute and other government-operated schools, pupils were taught that capitalism was superior to the economic systems of their Native American communities. In this new system, however, economic education was no longer a piece of the school curriculum; it became the overarching principle around which everyday life was organized. As something that students earned during school hours and spent in their leisure time, scrip affected virtually every aspect of life at Sherman. The money that students earned for work done in class could be used on the school campus to pay for necessities the school provided, such as clothing, as well as for luxury items like refreshments from the student store or tickets for school events. As they used scrip, students were expected to adopt certain behaviors and values that officials considered essential to life in a capitalist economy, but they also found ways to circumvent the school’s restrictive understandings of how economies should function. While the use of substitute currency in Indian schools became national policy, Sherman’s scrip system—in addition to being one of the first—was one of the most elaborate.

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