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Lesson No. 1: Shed your Indian identity

A major exhibit explores the legacy of forcing native American children into boarding schools in the 1900s

By Tim VanderpoolSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2002


Whether toddlers or teens, they were taken from home and shipped thousands of miles to dreary barracks. Their hair was cut, they were given new names, and each was assigned a number.

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The United States government began this brutal attempt at social engineering in 1879. Breaking rebellious Indians by indoctrinating their children in Anglo ways was considered a cost-effective alternative to war. But the personal cost to native Americans was incalculable.

"Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience," an exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, examines this dark chapter of American history.

Exhibits and books about native American boarding schools give the public "some clue about where we've been, and that we're now really making a massive attempt to participate in American academic life," says Elizabeth Cook-Lynn of South Dakota's Crow-Creek Reservation, author of "Anti-Indianism in Modern America."

The Heard, nationally renowned for its indigenous art and artifact collections, considers this to be the most comprehensive exhibition ever offered about the boarding schools. Nearly half a million people have viewed it since the opening a year and half ago, and the museum expects to keep the display up for several more years.

Walking through the exhibition, it is easy to understand why Heard archivist LaRee Bates says the forced education program was "absolutely devastating" for the children and their families. "They were literally kidnapped, loaded on wagons or trains, and all of them thought at any moment they were going to die. When the children arrived at the schools, it was the first time they'd been away from home." Many former boarding-school students, she says, including her own aunts and a grandmother, found their memories too painful to discuss.

'Rehabilitated' with clothes, haircuts

Before depicting their ordeal, the exhibition starts with the sounds of innocence, the laughter of children at play. Soothing voices welcome visitors in Comanche, Navajo, Hopi, and Delaware languages, and we see the landscapes of native homelands photographed in their pristine beauty.

Then the journey of separation begins. A huge, daunting photograph of a railroad locomotive travels along one wall. Juxtaposed against it are the frightened faces of Chiricahua Apache children, newly arrived at the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pa. Their hair is long, and they wear traditional, sometimes ragged clothing.

Another photo shows youngsters after their first few days of school. Their hair is neatly trimmed, and they wear stiff Anglo clothes – uniforms for the boys, neck-high dresses for the girls. Their faces have also changed; fear appears to have been replaced by sad resignation.

These "before and after" photographs were propaganda tools, Ms. Bates says. They highlighted the program's effectiveness at "rehabilitating" Indians. One tiny girl, probably just 4 or 5 years old, holds a sign that reads "Haskell Babies," referring to the Haskell Institute, a Kansas boarding school.

In other images, we see sinewy members of "Fort Totten's Baseball team" who played "the fastest game in the state," North Dakota. Some young boys huddled around a TV set, presumably sometime in the 1950s or '60s, appear almost preppy with their knit shirts and short hair.

The photos are accompanied by a steady stream of taped oral histories. "When they first took us in school, they gave us government lace-up shoes," one woman says. "Then they gave us a number. My number was always 23."

"When you first started school," says another female voice, "they looked at you, guessed how old you were, set your birth-date and gave you an age. Then they assigned you a Christian name. Mine turned out to be ... Fred."

Richard Pratt's oppressive plan

Hundreds of Indian boarding schools dotted the United States from the 1880s through the 1960s. The program was spearheaded by a zealous Army officer named Richard H. Pratt, who embraced the idea after working with Apache prisoners in St. Augustine, Fla. Pratt believed that removing Indian children from their culture and subjecting them to strict discipline and hard work would force their assimilation into mainstream society.

Congress agreed, and in 1897 it gave Pratt roughly 18 students and the drafty barracks at a deserted Army college in Carlisle. Cynical politics – and simple math – played into Pratt's plan. The government hoped to save millions of dollars, "because it cost anywhere from six to ten thousand [dollars] for the Army to kill an Indian," Bates says. "But if Indian children were put in schools and forced to change into 'Americans,' it would only cost a couple of hundred dollars per child."

Pratt's famous dictum was straightforward: "Kill the Indian and save the man." School officials prohibited children from speaking native languages, and punished transgressors. "Every school had a disciplinary jail cell," Bates says. Some even offered bounties for returned children.