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American Today


Early 20th c. Letters Give Up Context on Racialization in New Mexico

By Adrienne Frank

For Adrea Lawrence, professor in the School of Education, Teaching, and Health, research is about the thrill of the hunt. In her sights: long-forgotten letters that offer invaluable glimpses into the past.

As a grad student, Lawrence unearthed more than 1,000 letters from the National Archives in Denver, which formed the basis for her forthcoming book, Unraveling the White Man’s Burden: Lessons in Colonization and Racialization in Northern New Mexico. Penned a century ago by Clara True, a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) day school teacher, and Clinton Crandall, superintendent of the Santa Fe Indian School, the letters reveal how federal Indian policy was implemented and interpreted along the Rio Grande Valley in the early twentieth century.

“These people were school teachers, but the fascinating thing was, almost nothing in their letters was about what went on inside the school,” said Lawrence. “They were all about what kind of learning went on outside the school, around things like public health, citizenship, land, and institutions like hospitals and asylums.”

For example, True — “the eyes and ears of the BIA at the Santa Clara Pueblo” — wrote frequently about improper water usage. “Policies made by the BIA or Congress didn’t matter much until they were interpreted on the ground,” said Lawrence. “True and Crandall made sense of these policies in their own way; the fact that a school teacher was mitigating all these policies was a big finding.

“I discovered that if you’re only looking at education as schooling, you’re going to miss a lot about learning,” she continued.

Since completing her dissertation, which spawned the book, Lawrence has uncovered 1,000 more letters from the New Mexico Commission of Public Records, the Denver Public Library, and other sources. “There’s a ton of correspondence out there, just sitting in boxes. Reading them is like popping candy,” she said with a laugh.

Next up for Lawrence: developing a digital tool to map how federal directives traveled through letters and BIA circulars and their policy impact on different localities. Presenting the information visually will better convey how a variety of people negotiated federal Indian policies, she said.

In the meantime, Lawrence continues her quest for correspondence.

“Last week I found a report I had been looking for for two years,” she said. “I wanted to do a little dance in the National Archives reading room.”