Berkeley Talks transcript: How Native women challenged a 1900s Bay Area assimilation program

Berkeley houses in 1912

A view of the Berkeley hills from Derby Street in 1912. The Bay Area Outing Program started in the City of Berkeley. Listen to the Berkeley Talks episode. (Photo from the Berkeley History Online collection, Berkeley Public Library)

Andrew Saintsing: Hi, you’re tuned into 90.7 FM KALX Berkeley. I’m Andrew Saintsing. And this is The Graduates, the interview talk show where we speak to UC Berkeley graduate students about their work here on campus and around the world. Today, I’m joined by Katie Keliiaa from the Department of Ethnic Studies. Welcome to the show, Katie.

Katie Keliiaa: Hi, thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.

Andrew Saintsing: Yeah, it’s so great to have you here. So I found your page on the Department of Ethnic Studies and I saw that you were studying more recent Native American history in the 20th century. It’s like a really unexplored topic at least like popularly. And so it’s really interesting to be able to talk to somebody who’s studying it.

Katie Keliiaa: Wonderful. Yeah, you’re right. I mean, not a lot of people focus on this period. I’m usually, you know, folks really love like 19th century or just, I don’t know, Boston Tea Party type of stuff, we’re going back to colonial times really in the beginning and I think I’m really drawn to the 20th century. So I appreciate the fact that you appreciate it.

Andrew Saintsing: So, you study — it’s called “outing.”

Katie Keliiaa: Yeah, officially.

Andrew Saintsing: So, could you explain that term to us?

Katie Keliiaa: Absolutely. So outing is something that really derived actually in the 19th century. So we do go back a little bit 19th century, something that sort of was a mainstay in sort of Indian education for a long time. So it really goes back to someone named Richard Henry Pratt. He was a general and he had a big part in sort of the Indian Wars at the end of the 19th century. And he had this kind of radical idea that Native people could be assimilated, which actually wasn’t really the notion at the time. It was sort of like murder genocide, all that fun stuff. Right.

And so he essentially got ahold of some prisoners. He actually had prisoners of war. I think there were Comanche and a couple of other tribes. And so he sort of did this thing. That was an experiment. And he thought, “Well, what if I cut their hair, put them in military uniforms and sort of put them to work.”

So that’s the first example of like the outing experience among Native people. And it starts with these prisoners, right? He essentially sort of does this experiment and starts putting these prisoners of war to work at white homes. He gives them a small wage. He’s also kind of giving them like, remedial English, and I think math and stuff like that. And so he’s like, “This is the best way, it totally works. Look at these Indians, look how transformed they are.” He essentially is able to get support from the federal government to create the first ever Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, from that experiment.

Outing is something that continues throughout Carlisle and begins to spread as boarding schools spread across the nation. And essentially you had students working on campus and then later you “outed” them. You sent them out from their communities and had them work in my homes. It’s literally sort of this process that continues for decades along after it’s created.

Andrew Saintsing: They were sent far away from their tribal lands.

Katie Keliiaa: Yeah. So the kids at Carlisle, and there’s actually some adults, as well, as Carlisle, they are put to work. It’s a kind of local farms in the area. Some are also sent to New York and other places as well. The idea is that they’re at school during the school year, they’re laboring on campus during winter breaks and summer breaks, they’re being sent out. So even though, you know, you’d think you and I get to go home for the holidays, right? These kids don’t get to really do that, and the idea is actually to separate them from their parents, to separate them from tribalism, from their language, from their culture, and a good way to do that is to contract, quite literally contract children to work in these homes. And that same policy happened and continued here onto the West Coast.

Andrew Saintsing: So, you study outing programs that sent native American women to specifically this area, the Bay Area, right?

Katie Keliiaa: Yes. The Bay Area. Yeah. So as I mentioned, boarding schools pop up all throughout the nation and they all operate a form of outing program again, on those breaks, sending children out. And so what’s kind of unique about the Bay Area Outing Program — what I research is it started down the street on Prince Street here in Berkeley. So it’s literally, it’s got its roots right here in this sort of Berkeley East Bay Area. Right. And what it does is it runs independently from any specific boarding school. And so it starts funneling girls from Western-based boarding schools. So a lot of the girls first came from Stewart Indian school in Carson City, Nevada. A lot of them came from Sherman. Girls also came from Chemawa, which is another boarding school in Oregon. It was this whole process of funneling girls, specifically to work as living housemates in the area.

Andrew Saintsing: These were Native Americans from like all different tribes.

Katie Keliiaa: So, at Stewart, the way Stewart started, for example, in Carson City, it’s a boarding school that’s specifically sort of geared towards Great Basin Indians in that area. So it’s a lot of Paiute students, Washoe students, as well as Shoshone students. But over time, a lot of these schools began to expand past the sort of regional population of Native people. And so they start bringing in tribes from various parts of the country. So a lot of the girls coming here while at first they might be, you know, Washoe and Paiute. They start coming from up North, they’re Yurok, they’re Hoopa. They’re coming from down South, they’re Bishop Paiute, for example. And so you get this kind of like Pan Indian community. That’s starting to come through here in the Bay area. And it’s very small at first, but it begins to grow and begins to include more tribes. And it is a very kind of inter-tribal experience long before Indian relocation, which is what most people look at it kind of Indian urbanization it’s really happening decades before that.

Andrew Saintsing: Native American women were establishing communities in the city. Was there maybe a church they went to or like a community center?

Katie Keliiaa: That’s an excellent question. So a lot of the women coming into the Bay Area at first, there’s really no sort of inter-tribal community. They’re super isolated. Remember they live in the homes that they work in. So they’re working in Berkeley and Oakland some in Walnut Creek, a couple in San Francisco, etc. Some even in Alameda, for example, and they’re living in the home. So they’re totally kind of isolated from any kind of community. They’re literally just living in the home, kind of like how you saw maybe in Roma. I don’t know if you saw that movie, but it’s yeah, well now you’ll, you’ll see it with new eyes, but you’re living in the home and you’re, you know, a part of this family, if you will.

But of course you’re never a member of the family you’re working for, right. You’re taking care of their kids, you know, you’re doing their dry cleaning, their laundry. And we have to remember at this period of time, we don’t have washers and dryers like we do, right? Like this is really hard work cause it’s the ’20s to the ’40s. And so a lot of these girls don’t have a sense of community.

And what I found was in these early years, the program starts officially in 1918 and in the ’20s, girls are just running away, left and right. They don’t want to be here and it’s not a place that they find familiar or homelike or whatever. A lot of them are driven out to the Bay Area to experience what is the Bay Area, right? Like beautiful sort of bright lights and cities and trolley cars and all kinds of cool things that you wouldn’t experience, for example, in rural Nevada.

But at the same time, it comes at a cost. And so they’re lonely. They’re constantly surveilled by their employers as well as the outing matron, the person who assigns them to these homes. And so in the early years, girls definitely run away. I would say, it’s not super successful.

Andrew Saintsing: It’s not, the program isn’t successful or…

Katie Keliiaa: In retaining them in that sense, right.

Andrew Saintsing: Oh, where did they run to?

Katie Keliiaa: A lot of them ran back home. So there’s a couple of things that I do in my work. And a lot of them focus on newspaper articles and they’re always talking about how the call of the wild was strong, you know, for these young Paiute girls who are running back on barefoot. It’s ridiculous. In reality, you know, his girls were smart. They had some money at their disposal and they probably just took a train and went back home because they were done with it.

Andrew Saintsing: Right.

Katie Keliiaa: But girls are coming every single summer. And a lot of them actually aren’t staying and going. They aren’t going back to their boarding schools. They actually enroll here in the Bay Area to do public school at like Oakland High, for example, I think they also go to Alameda High. So it’s this very kind of interesting place where you have these supposed opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have like public schooling that is more rigorous than boarding school instruction. But again, it comes at a cost. So a lot of the girls run away. But I think I want to say the mid-’20s, maybe around 1926, the outing matron is kind of realizing that she needs to kind of create a space for these girls to be social.

And so there’s a couple of organizations that pop up. There’s a Yurok Women’s Club and there’s also something called the Four Winds Club. And these actually both operate out of the Oakland YWC so it no longer exists there, but the original location is right on Webster. And it was a great sort of space for the girls to meet and hang out. And they would often do this on Thursdays when they have their day off.

So they started kind of organizing, it started out as this sort of institution, if you will. That was meant to kind of control Indian girls. So they had a safe place to go again. The matron helped create it, but eventually over time, the Native women in the outing program began to kind of create their own space. And so they have things like we put on Halloween parties and they invite like local Native kids to come at this Halloween party. They have meetings, you know, and they organize together and create Christmas parties and social organizations.

So over time we start to see that once those became a mainstay, like the Four Winds Clubs and other sort of similar organizations, there actually appears to be fewer runaways. And it appears that Native girls are able to tap into a system. And it’s not just this isolated sort of community that it was way in the beginning.

Andrew Saintsing: Right. Okay. So this actually kind of helped establish, going back to that time, kind of still like a thriving Native American community?

Katie Keliiaa: Absolutely. So the women who come together and organize really become, you know, the organizing members of the Four Winds Club, they also are in relationships. So a lot of their partners are coming to the Bay Area for the purposes of World War II, actually. So some other partners are at mare Island some later come to the area and sort of are part of the Alameda Naval air station as well. So what happens particularly in the ’40s is that we see that Native women are coming to the Four Winds Club, but it’s also becoming like a social, almost dating space, if you will. So a lot of these women are meeting other Indian guys and some of them actually are students here at UC Berkeley.

So there’s Native men at UC Berkeley who are going to the Four Winds Club, and they’re meeting up with Native women and it’s this space that really becomes super intertribal and very Pan Indian, right. But it’s also a space where it’s not just women who are kind of driving the organization. And so men become involved too. When they do these Christmas parties, or even sometimes Thanksgiving parties, they’re bringing their regalia, they’re sort of exchanging dances and songs, and they’re kind of creating this community that really wasn’t there before. Right — inter-tribal anyway from people from all over the nation are coming.

And so what you start to see is that these Native people in the early 20th century are organizing actually well before and creating community well before Indian relocation, which is when a lot of people look at, ‘Oh, this is how Indians got to the Bay Area.’ So what I find is that the Four Winds Club has a lot of us organizing and sort of social spaces that later delve into what’s called the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland.

And so, to me, there’s definitely this kind of genealogy where this organizing in the ’20s and the ’30s and the ’40s becomes something very solid in the form of something called the Intertribal Friendship House in Oakland. And so to this day, IFH as it’s called, really, I think, lends its kind of communities start with part of these members coming from the Four Winds Club.

So to this day, yes, there’s a ton of Native people in the Bay Area. It was a relocation spot. So in the ’50s, the federal government tried another assimilation policy. They’re great at that. And they started another assimilation policy that brought Native people from reservations with the incentive that, “We’ll pay for your fare to get here. We’ll give you a little bit of training.” And again, the whole goal was assimilation. It was like, “If we can just get these tribal people away from the reservation into the city, they’ll be able to assimilate.”

So, San Francisco, Oakland, even San Jose, Los Angeles, I mean, I think we even have Chicago. I mean all over the nation Native people are being sent to these areas and then it becomes an even bigger, more diverse Pan Indian community with sort of new experiences and new communities, sports leagues, socials, powwows, all kinds of stuff come from that period of time. But for me, my argument is like, “Well, it was kind of starting before that though.” So that’s where, to me the sort of history of that Bay Area Indian community, a Pan Indian inter-tribal one, starts to gather. And it’s in these early years stemming from the outing program.

Andrew Saintsing: Going back a little bit, you mentioned that some of the women who were involved in the social clubs were meeting men in the area and some of these men were attending Berkeley. I was just wondering how did it end up that some Native Americans would be sent to these boarding schools and others were able to attend the colleges.

Katie Keliiaa: Yes, that’s an excellent question. I think it really varies depending on the education they received in their respective boarding schools. I’m very proud to say that one of the men who attended Berkeley was actually my uncle, my uncle Bert, my grandfather’s brother. He came to Cal on the GI bill and he was, as I understand it, very intelligent. I mean he was Phi beta Kappa, he was also in the boxing club. He was just, you know, one of those students that just really have it down, but he also came from Stewart Indian school in Carson City. So you’d think, how did he get here?

I know that for a period of time, he attended Alameda High for a little bit, maybe that helped in his education, but somehow, he was able to get in. I think obviously the GI bill help, but clearly, he was highly intelligent. So, he got into Cal and yeah, he did really well while here at UC Berkeley. I like to sometimes imagine what it’d be like to be on campus back then, you know, back in the day.

But yes, he was also going to the Four Winds Club, you know, he was meeting people there and socializing. And if I understand it correctly, there are a couple of Native women who also attended Berkeley and in order to pay for their tuition and fees and all that kind of stuff, they were domestic workers in the area. I have to go back. I have too many files in my mind, but if I’m not mistaken, there’s at least one or two Native women who were enrolled in Berkeley sort of later on in the program and who were doing domestic sort of outing work in the ’40s. So yeah,

Andrew Saintsing: This is just a reminder that you’re tuned into The Graduates. I’m speaking with Katie Keliiaa from the Department of Ethnic Studies. Okay. So your research is really interesting, but also I want to know more about how you do it. Would you call yourself a historian? You’re looking a lot at written documents.

Katie Keliiaa: Yes. Archives. It’s a lot of work and I think you have to be a complete nerd for it to really like it, you know, I think that’s most, it’s probably grad school and academia in a nutshell, but for me, I really enjoy going to archives. It can be really painstaking because you’re just there with boxes of things and you have to decipher, you know, what they are.

But through this smart program, I got to work with an undergraduate student and we were able to tackle my largest archive together, which was really cool. It was a summer. And for weeks on end, we were driving and bartering and using whatever system of getting to the national archives in San Bruno, which is right next to SFO. And so there, we just literally collected all the boxes and slowly but surely over weeks on end, digitized all the material from my archive. So, it was literally just kind of sitting there and flipping and turning and putting in tourney and then having lunch and then flipping and turning and doing it all over again. Right.

But during our breaks, we were having conversations. I’m really fortunate that I got to experience the archive with her, with Marina, because I feel like undergraduate students bring a new sort of lens to your work. They can help you see things that maybe you didn’t see that were right there. And she was coming into the work sort of fascinated with the stories and sort of the characters that really were in this archive.

And so we’d sit over lunch and talk about discussions and ultimately those informed themes that became the chapters and it was this whole kind of arc, you know, this process through which I’m tackling the materials and seeing them in front of you doing a lot of scanning, but also taking lots of notes and thinking about, “Okay, this is not what I expected to see, or this is totally what I expected to see.” So for example, in the archive, we came across deaths, women who passed away while in the outing program and who are still buried to this day in Oakland, if you can believe it, because the government refused to send their bodies back home, which is atrocious and disgusting.

Andrew Saintsing: Even though there was requests.

Katie Keliiaa: Yeah. Yeah. So, things like that were chilling and you see that kind of violence in the archive. And so I think a lot of it has been learning how to process that, right. And for me as a Native woman whose grandmother was in the Bay area, you know, doing outing, I feel it’s something that I can’t get away from. So I feel implicated in a way sometimes in this research and in the archive.

Finding mention of my great grandmother, my great uncle, in these materials, it’s also kind of odd, right? And it puts me in a different position than maybe someone who didn’t have that history. So for me, you know, the scanning and then looking at things and later qualitative data analysis, all that is the method, right. But you also have to think about the fact that if your history is quite literally embedded in this, then it takes longer to process that, I think, and to step away from it and try and be as objective as possible. It’s a very interesting experience. Maybe one day I’ll write about it, but otherwise it’s been very rewarding because for me to be able to find the letters and the moments where Native women are like frustrating the outing program, or they’re refusing to work at these homes or where they’re demanding better pay, you know, all those kinds of moments are me like able to locate agency in an otherwise like very entrenched labor program. It’s very much set on sort of like putting Native women into this particular box of how they’re supposed to be and how they’re supposed to behave and what’s available to them, you know? So it’s difficult, but I do genuinely enjoy.

Andrew Saintsing: Right. And then your family lived this history and I guess there are lots of people in the area who lived this history. Do you ever also collect oral histories, and things like that.

Katie Keliiaa: Yeah, that’s an excellent question. That was completely the goal from the start. And I’ve found that it was very difficult to find women who are still alive actually from this period of time. I can interview, you know, my dad or a number of other elders now who can tell me about what their mothers experienced more or less. But I really do wish that I had more of that firsthand account.

And there’s a couple of, sort of like oral histories out there that touch on it just a little bit, but there’s nothing direct that says, “Okay, what was your experience like in the Bay Area Outing Program? So, I would have loved to have more of those perspectives. I did interview my great-aunt, Esther. And I interviewed her just to talk a little bit about the outing program. She did remember one of the matrons and she’s like, “Oh, I remember that was the lady who would get you jobs.” She talked a little bit about kind of her experience, but I will say that, as much as I can look at this decades later, almost 100 years later in some cases, and be able to step back and think about it as you know, somewhat objectively. Right.

We have to remember that these are Native women working in private homes that are largely unmonitored. We don’t know what happened in those places, just as we don’t fully know what happened in a lot of boarding schools. So not everybody even wants to open up about these things and not to their, you know, their great-niece or some relative of theirs. So I think it just goes to show that there’s some things that people aren’t necessarily ready to talk about. And so that’s where I really focus on the archive to sort of give me a little bit more information about what was going on, what they were thinking.

And even in instances where I can’t necessarily find a letter that says, “I’m fed up” or whatever, even though I have a ton of those, I focus on Native woman’s actions and the ways that they’re able to say and express themselves and just kind of say, like, “I’m done with this and I’m going back home and I left.” I really try and highlight those moments and I think it’s important for me because it gives me kind of hope in an otherwise kind of bleak period of time — that these Native women are still, you know, creating potential possibility in an otherwise kind of unknown world.

Andrew Saintsing: Yeah. So that’s like mostly in letters they’re writing to their family members.

Katie Keliiaa: Yes. There’s some letters to family members and usually those are letters that are actually unmailed, which means the matron took them and never mailed them and refuse to let out what they’re trying to say.

Andrew Saintsing: It’s so interesting that they would keep it though. Like, I don’t know, if they had that power, they would just destroy it.

Katie Keliiaa: Yeah. I’m sure there’s probably destroyed things I’m sure. But, you know, these were the things that got through and they held on to them. But otherwise a lot of them are letters from concerned parents, from sisters, from the women themselves. And also, you really begin to see how the Bay Area Outing Program really tapped into kind of social service agencies in the area.

So for example, they got pretty tight with like Catholic charities, as well as various children homes and adoption agencies, even in San Francisco and local social service agencies as well. So these Native women are just really being managed by not just the outing program, but all these sort of local institutions that believe they know what’s best for them. You know,”This’ll be the best thing for you if you foster your child out or adopt them out or if you take this route instead of this one.” So it’s kind of, it’s kind of fascinating to step into that period of time and see what it was like. Heartbreaking at times too, you know, but ultimately I try and find those promising moments, those moments where Native women were able to kind of push back a little bit in ways that they could. Right.

Andrew Saintsing: Yeah. That’s a joy of history, right. Like finding that there’s like unexpected documents. So have you always known that you were going to be a historian?

Katie Keliiaa: That’s a great question. Not at all. I felt like I stumbled into it, you know? For example, I did do my undergrad at Cal, so I did need American studies and ethnic studies. And I actually remember being totally bored with our guy and just be like, “I don’t really get it.” Also, this handwriting is really difficult to read. But when I got to my master’s program at UCLA in American Indian studies, I think I started to fall in love with research and I hadn’t realized that all the things that I had been doing in undergrad was in fact research to some degree. Maybe it wasn’t in an archive or like a formal setting or like a one-on-one interview, but there were things that I was doing. And so that was research.

At UCLA, I got to kind of hone my skills and I got to do interviews with folks who relocated to the LA area. So people who were on relocation and talk to me about the churches that develop, the Native churches, the Native community centers and all this kind of stuff about their experiences coming to LA. And one, in fact who came to the Bay Area briefly to Berkeley specifically, and I learned there that I really do like research.

And so at UCLA, my master’s thesis was on Washoe language vitalization. That’s one of the tribes that I am, which is right around the Lake Tahoe area, that’s the center of the Washoe universe. And so for me, it was wonderful because I got to research kind of like my community, but it meant that I got to go to like language classes and interview people and talk about, you know, Washoe language ideologies and what it means to community members. It allowed me to think about what it means to myself as well. And so, I fell in love with it.

When I came to Cal for my Ph.D., I thought, “I’m just going to continue doing Washoe language research.” But then I was like, well, there’s always the thing about grandma was like a housekeeper. And I kind of wonder like more about that. And so that question of like, “What happened to my grandmother and what happened to other women and why were all the women in my family sent to boarding school? Why were they all in domestic work?” That was always in the back of my mind.

And so, when I got back to Cal, I was like, “I think I want to research this a little bit. And so in between undergrad and grad school, I did go to San Bruno and I was just picking up files of my grandfather’s file. My grandmother’s file from Stewart Indian school. Because their files are there too, which is kind of nuts. You know, it’s just like what this is just sitting in here. And this is a part of history. And I think I pulled my uncle Burt’s file as well, the one who went to UC Berkeley. Just looking at those files, I saw how there is this very gendered sort of discussion around the kids that my grandmother, the way that the rhetoric they use around my grandmother was that she was like bad or something or that she didn’t always obey and just, just the way that they wanted to control Native women was very apparent.

Just looking at that one file and then seeing my grandfather’s file and Uncle Bert, who again, was stellar and super intelligent was like, “Oh, there was a letter and Uncle Bird’s file.” That was literally from some lady who had visited Stewart. I don’t know why she did, but she’s like, there was this young man who gave us a tour on campus and he was just wonderful. And he, is he going places I want to know what’s going on with that young Indian boy. So there was clearly this notion that these boys have potential and they can do great things, you know? And so I think that gendered rhetoric was in my mind as well as I thought more about the outing program.

Once I got to delve into the files, it was kind of like I was struck and I was like, “This is what I want to do.” So while I still do language work, for example, I really was like, “Oh, I guess I am a historian.” And you know, it was just kind of this aha moment where I realized this is what I was really passionate about. Even when I did do my Washoe language research and my work on that, it was all about contextualizing, “Well, why is it that the Washoe language is endangered?” You know, “Why is it that children weren’t allowed to speak it at Stewart Indian school?” You know? So there’s always, I think I’m always been like a family historian, if you will. I love genealogy and all of that. And I think it just finally dawned on me. It took me a while to get there, but it dawned on me in grad school that, you know, this is what I’m really passionate about. So I truly love it.

Andrew Saintsing: Well, it looks like we’re running out of time for our interview. This has been a lot of fun. Is there anything you’d like any thoughts you’d like to leave the audience with?

Katie Keliiaa: So I think, I think for me, I went to a really great talk this weekend and it got me thinking about a couple of things about the work I do and all of that for a lot of people, even folks in NAS, Native American studies or history, the sort of concept of outing is like, “Wait, what’s that program, outing? Huh? What?” It’s new to a lot of folks. So if you listened in today and learn something and find it compelling that our nation had a full on education system geared towards assimilating Native children for decades and still has those institutions open, then I kind of want to put a little bit of pressure on you to take a Native American studies class. I would love it if you could, if you’re at all fascinated by this, or just want to learn more about our nation’s very complex history, then I think I would love for you to take a Native American studies class.

I would love for you to read a book that to me really speaks to my experiences and urban Indian woman growing up in the East Bay. It’s called There, There by Tommy Orange. It’s freaking amazing and touches on a lot of the things that we talked about today, actually. And I would also encourage you to support the local Indigenous communities in your area. And so here in Berkeley, obviously it’s the Ohlone people, right? And so there’s this thing called a Shummi tax. Have you heard of it?

The Shuumi tax is an opportunity for you to donate directly to the Ohlone nation here in the East Bay. And it’s a great, it’s a great way to support sort of Native-owned initiatives and really to kind of give back to this land that was taken away from a community that is still here to this day. People are still here, people forget that, right. And then I guess, because we’re on the Ohlone subject, right?

You guys definitely have to check out the Ohlone Cafe. It’s right here on Bancroft, it’s in the back of like the University Press books space. They have amazing food. Vince and Lewis are just like doing it up and I love it. And it’s super good. And these are just things that you can do if you’re interested in supporting the Native community and learning a little bit more about this history and the communities in this area that aren’t always shared about or talked about or discussed. So that’s your to-do list. I hope you enjoy it. And thank you so much for having me. It’s really been a pleasure.

Andrew Saintsing: It’s been so great having you here. I was speaking today with Katie Keliiaa. Tune in in two weeks for the next episode of The Graduates.