Tahoma’s School Days

Post by Vera Marie

Back in 2005, I received an envelope in the mail that contained possibly the most important documents of all the research that we have done on Navajo artist Quincy Tahoma. A librarian at the National Archives, Rocky Mountain Region Archival Office in Denver mailed us copies of the entire file entitled:

Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs

Santa Fe Indian School

Student Case Files 1937-1970

8NN-75-90-003, Box #71

Translated, the numbers indicate any records in the archive that mentioned Quincy Tahoma from the time he entered school through years afterward when people tried to contact him through the school. Therefore the file shed light not only on his size and physical condiiton (medical reports), studies and aptitudes (grade cards), finances (letters regarding money), but told us something about his post-school activities as well.

The first thing I did was arrange the stack of papers in chronological order.  At first I was disappointed that there did not seem to be paperwork from  Tahoma’s registration when he transferred from Albuquerque to Santa Indian School, but the first report in the file mentioned that he entered 4th grade at SFIS on October 10, 1930. (Ironically, the same date that his obituary would run in the Santa Fe paper just 26 years later.)

On the school form, date of birth is given as 1918, although census records later told us it was actually 1917.  So he was 12 or 13 years old, depending on what month he was born, and he weighed only 85 pounds at the beginning of the school year and 90 at the end.

The next record gives his grades for that first year, and the information that he failed 4th grade because of “lack of English”  and was held back. This record shows a birth date of May 24, 1918–although he was later to claim he was born on Christmas day. The form lists

  • Mother: Dead
  • Father: Dead
  • Guardian: Manual Siganitzo, brother
  • church preference: Catholic
  • Home post office: Tuba City, Ariz.

We would later learn that his mother was not dead, and although the Siganitzo (Saganitso) name led us to an adopted family, Manual, younger than Tahoma, almost certainly should not have been listed as guardian. The Saganitso family was not Catholic and the people we talked to have no idea why the school records would list Tahoma as Catholic. The first and last facts listed here were correct.

1935 Navajo Country, Courtesy of Charlotte G. Mittler

As would be the case throughout school, Tahoma got his best grades in art, and high grades in deportment.  His examination scores were abominable. He seemed to be one of those nice, well-behaved kids, who struggled in class and  panicked at test taking. We found it interesting to see what he was studying: Arithmetic, Drawing, English, Geography, Penmanship, Spelling, Physical Education, Reading, History and General Education.

The second time that he took 4th grade, Music was substituted for General, and the grading system changed from a 100-point scale to 1 through 4. Straight “1’s” in drawing and a solid 2 in English, along with deportment that still rated high, meant he was promoted to 5th grade at the end of his second year at SFIS.

He continued as a solid C student, with the exception of art and music classes where he won B’s. Unlike the schools that you and I attended, starting in junior high school, teachers gave grades in such things as Farm, Laundry, Kitchen and Dining Room.

All students at the Indian Boarding Schools were assigned work periods, with the stated aim of teaching them valuable work habits and skills, but with the side benefit to the school of providing unpaid labor for the self-sufficient schools.

A good reference for the development of boarding schools, and particularly Santa Fe Indian school, is History of Indian Arts Education in Santa Fe by Wanda Garmhausen. Sally Hyer’s story based on oral history from Santa Fe Indian School students, One House, One Voice, One Heart, provides invaluable insights into how attendees at the school viewed their own experience. In addition, we interviewed a dozen or more of Tahoma’s friends from school days to learn about their own reactions to the school and their memories of Tahoma the school boy.

I’ll be sharing more about Tahoma’s school days in the days to come.

Were you surprised to learn that students at the boarding school did most of the work that kept the institution in operation?

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10 Responses to Tahoma’s School Days

  1. Sheryl says:

    Interesting that the children help sustained the school. I’d think that by actually contributing to its operation, they’d naturally take more pride in it as well as learn some important life-long skills.

  2. Susan says:

    I find it fascinating how you pieced together all this information. Must have been much harder to do since none of these records were digitized back then!

  3. pen4hire says:

    Interestingly, I read a lot of interviews with the people who were children at the school when Tahoma was. They did not seem to have any resentment. One negative for the art students was that the work hours cut into their studio time. The most negative thing that I saw was a contemporary report that listed a group of boys by projected future occupation: carpenter, shoe repairman, etc. because the teachers saw that as the highest thing they could achieve. In fact two of that group turned out to be world famous artists. I don’t know the others, but wager they may have exceeded expectations if given a chance.

  4. pen4hire says:

    Actually it was easier with this particular set of information than with many other things. The entire school file was copied and mailed to us from the National Archives, where it was in one file folder. So I was spared searching through miles of microfilm. Other things we went in search of meant spending days at a library going through microfilms of newspapers looking for small mentions of Tahoma.

  5. Jane Boursaw says:

    What a jackpot of info! You must have squealed with delight when that envelope arrived. And really amazing how you can see his artistic life forming at such an early age. I wonder if there’s some correlation between a creative mind and the panic at taking tests. I was that way, too.

  6. Kristen says:

    What a find. I’m impressed that all of those records were still available.

  7. What a lot of mysteries you solved in writing this book!

  8. pen4hire says:

    You got it! We’re a couple of detectives! I think we could go with a firm called Havens and something clever, but “Badertscher”? Wouldn’t fit on the door.

  9. pen4hire says:

    Well, the records for Santa Fe Indian School were fairly complete, but we were so disappointed to find there are NO records available for that period at Albuquerque Indian School and the Tuba City Day School records were lost in a fire!

  10. Donna Hull says:

    What an interesting glimpse into Quincy’s years in school. It’s so sad that the school benefited from his (and the other students’) free labor.

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