Isabel Evans ’23 Investigates Environmental Education and Colonial Violence

Portrait of Scripps College student Isabel Evans '23 conducting research in Denison Library

Isabel Evans ’23, a double major in environmental analysis and English, is conducting Scripps-funded research to investigate early versions of environmental education curriculum implemented in federal Indian boarding schools between the 1890s and 1920s. Her summer research project will lay the groundwork for her senior thesis in environmental policy, which will examine the same topic.

From the early 19th century through the 1970s, the United States established federal Indian boarding schools throughout the country. The purpose of these schools was to remove Native children from their communities and force them to culturally assimilate, while simultaneously dispossessing Native tribes of their land. Environmental education, Evans explains, was one of the many pedagogical methods used to achieve this.

“I have long believed that environmental education generally represents a force for good in the world, especially under the global threat of climate change. I imagine that many who call themselves progressives or environmentalists share my perspective,” she says. “Yet, my research has ultimately revealed that environmental education curriculum can also be a conduit for colonial violence.”

Summer Research Vital to Evans’ Project

Evans’ project builds on research she conducted last summer, when she examined representations of Indigeneity in 20th-century American children’s literature through Denison Library’s Arthur Vining Davis Foundation Internship. As part of that project, Evans focused on a series of bilingual children’s books called the Indian Life Readers, which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) published throughout the 1940s for Native students at federal Indian boarding schools.

Although Evans’ research at that time focused more on the books than on the BIA, she knew she wanted to further explore the agency’s role in environmental curriculum design.

“I was eager to grapple with the ways that the BIA and other federal agencies perpetrated colonial violence under the guise of ‘education’ and ‘environmental protection,’” she explains. “In the context of federal Indian schools, environmental education represented a mechanism through which the federal government attempted to suppress traditional Indigenous environmental knowledge and to supplant it in the minds of Native children with capitalist, Protestant, and Anglo-American modes of thinking about land.”

To better understand the social and political context surrounding environmental education in federal Indian schools—and how it conformed to or differed from environmental education pedagogy in public schools—Evans is going straight to primary sources.

She plans to supplement her review of BIA publications with a visit to the National Archives at Riverside in California, where she will examine photographs, student schedules, school reports, and other archival materials from the Phoenix Indian School and the Sherman Institute, two federal Indian boarding schools. Additionally, she is examining popular textbooks, journals, and leaflets about nature study, school gardening, and agricultural training that were prevalent in public schools during the same era.

“Summer research such as Isabel’s provides students with the opportunity to delve deep into a project and leave no stone unturned, resulting in dynamic and thoughtful papers contributing to the larger dialogue of scholarship,” says Jennifer Martinez Wormser ’95, director and Sally Preston Swan Librarian for the Ella Strong Denison Library. “One of the great pleasures of serving as her faculty advisor is our frequent discussions of research strategies and then watching Isabel’s successes as she discovers more primary sources supporting her line of inquiry.”

Preparing for Senior Thesis

Later this summer, Evans will travel to the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, where she will access the papers of the Intertribal Friendship House and the Community History Project, originally established in the 1950s to serve the needs of Native people forcibly relocated from reservations.

These papers lay out the pedagogy that Native educators, activists, and community leaders developed in the aftermath of the boarding school era. Evans hopes that engaging with these documents will inform the second half of her research: a review of the ways in which Native leaders have advocated for an Indigenous-centered model of environmental learning.

“The content of environmental education curriculum was and is informed by hegemony; by the beliefs and systems of knowledge of the powerful,” Evans says. “I plan to look at reparative justice solutions to this problem by researching the efforts of Native educators, activists, and community leaders to decolonize environmental education by developing and implementing models of environmental literacy grounded in Indigenous knowledge and tradition.”

The extent of Evans’ research wouldn’t have been possible, she says, without the funding she received from the Scripps College Research in Environmental Analysis and Pre-Thesis Fellowship. The fellowship provides opportunities for students to develop their senior thesis projects and supports senior thesis research on topics related to the environment. Evans is using the fellowship award to fund her travel to the National Archives and the Bancroft Library. The award has also enabled her to live in Claremont, where she has received hands-on access to primary and secondary sources in the Denison and Honnold Mudd Library special collections.

“Having the ability to focus on research during the summer and not be distracted by the demands of other classes and activities that occur during the academic year creates an immersive experience that would be otherwise difficult to replicate,” Martinez Wormser says. “Isabel has fully taken advantage of this opportunity and consequently will be well prepared her senior thesis writing experience.”

“Without the Environmental Analysis Award, it would have been difficult for me to fund my travels,” Evans explains. “Working in Claremont has also allowed me to draw on Jennifer’s expertise with archives. Among many other things, Jennifer has helped me navigate online repositories to find digitized government documents and develop research strategies and skills that will be invaluable when I go to the Bancroft and National Archives. As such, the award has given me access to otherwise inaccessible research opportunities and has allowed me to produce a more layered and expansive project.”