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Museum exhibit and book hope to ignite dialogue over boarding school experience

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A superb gathering of voices, "Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Experiences" was produced in conjunction with the Heard Museum's exhibition which opens Nov. 18 and will be on view in Phoenix through 2005.

It is dedicated to the tens of thousands of American Indians who beginning in 1879, "left or were taken from their tribal homes to attend Indian boarding schools, often long distances away."

Parts of Nora Naranjo-Morse's "Gia's Song" express a part of the earliest experiences with a simple clarity. Gia explains that her family camped during farming days and the children spent their time "following my grandmother through the corn rows or playing in the streams below."

One day white men cam in a wagon and told of a government school for Indians that would educate and prepare children for jobs in the white man's world.

She said no one knew what it meant but the white men "spoke sweetly" and they offered grandmother "a ball of baling wire for each child that went to school."

In a tale repeated with slight variations across Indian country, before the children knew what was happening they were seated in the wagon and on their way to the government school, "away from our families, to another man's world."

There Gina was taught sewing which she learned on an electric sewing machine. By the time she returned to her village in the shadows of Black Mesa, she could sew, "but few of the people had heard of sewing machines or even electricity."

Passing through the archways at the various schools, students also wrested from their families experienced a symbolic transition from "uncivilized space" to "civilized space." It was difficult and traumatizing for many. They were "assaulted by practices consciously designed to strip them of their identities" for this was how the schools began their "task of creating a new kind of individual."

(Boarding schools) were started to stamp out the Indian from the Indian, you know, make us all into white people, and you know, it didn't' work," said Ruthie Blalock Jones, Delaware/Shawnee/Peoria, on the inside front cover. "Actually ... it was the exact opposite: It made us stronger as Indian people. It made us more aware of and more proud of who we were."

Not everyone had a totally negative experience. "I appreciate the Indian school for even being there, even if it wasn't the greatest of schools at that time. At least it was there," said Pablita Velarde, Santa Clara Pueblo, on the same foldout.

Unfamiliar and rigid discipline and constant supervision led to a lot of mischief and taking pleasure in acts of chicanery. "... there's no other way you could survive," said Curtis Thorpe Carr, Creek, who attended Chilocco from 1927 to 1935. It's a theme repeated throughout the book.

Constant drilling was a fact of life for the young men while the even-more-closely supervised girls were relegated to the domestic sciences for many, many years, maintaining the Victorian ideals of the period.

A Cherokee man enrolled at Chilocco in 1926 told how he spent 28 years in the Marines and heard "talk of how tough boot camp was ... that was a breeze after Chilocco."

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Boarding school life took its toll, on students torn from all that was familiar, but there were even greater hazards. Early students in particular faced very real and serious risks to their health, especially from "trachoma, influenza and most menacing of all, tuberculosis." A second threat was "homesickness, deeply affecting mind and spirit."

Some students ran away, perishing of exposure before reaching their homes. The fate of two boys who ran away from the school in Rapid City, S.D., is recounted. They were killed when, exhausted, they fell asleep on the railroad tracks. The boys were part of a group heading home for a tribal celebration.

A 1991 photo of children's graves in the Carlisle cemetery, and others, spell out the toll, in graphic fashion.

Yet repeatedly we're told the students found resourceful and imaginative ways and means, time and places, to "speak their languages, eat their foods and exercise religious practices" all forbidden.

Page after page of fascinating photos from different eras show bands and athletic teams - predominantly male activities. The high-profile athletic events were created mostly for male students although some schools had girls teams, as evidenced by turn-of-the-century photographs of girls basketball action.

Sports, music, art and other activities were reported to provide real opportunities for students "to evade the rules and claim time for themselves," though it took many years before their own cultural elements began to earn respect and be incorporated into the activities.

Tribute is paid to Angel DeCora, a young Winnebago woman trained in fine art, whose many contributions to the development and teaching of Indian art are often overlooked.

Debaters, orators, student council leaders and princesses went on to be leaders of tribes and pueblos. Choir and club members became instructors, sometimes in the very schools they had attended as students.

But it strikes the heart that it is only in photographs of later years that students smile and appear to enjoy their activities. It's difficult to say if they've simply been assimilated to such a degree they more easily adapt or if the programs in today's boarding schools are more respectful of their individuality and diverse backgrounds.

A part of the answer may lie in the explanation of the authors that the "students had learned to play Indian for a white audience on one hand and to play white for the teachers on the other" in this evolution of the various Indian clubs.

The heroes of Carlisle - Olympic silver medal distance runner Lewis Tewanima, Hopi, and Baseball of Fame pitcher Charles Albert "Chief" Bende, Ojibwe, both of whom played on school teams, and the incomparable gold medalist and all-around athlete, Jim Thorpe, claim their moments as well.

"In so many ways," the authors wrote, "Native students turned attempts to repress and replace Native tradition into something viable and vital, for themselves as individuals and for their Native communities, local and national."

In conclusion, Brenda Child wrote that "Native voices must be heard in the conversation (about the boarding school experiences) - in that way we will enrich our view of America's past, present and future."