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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

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Contagious diseases often swept through the schools, and exposure to the elements took the lives of many runaways. Photographs show vast cemeteries of plain white headstones inscribed with children's names. Equally haunting is "Going Home," a painting by native American artist Judith Lowry. In somber tones of black, blue, and purple, Ms.Lowry depicts her great aunt, who escaped from California's Greenville Indian School in 1916 only to freeze to death in the nearby woods. The tiny girl is ringed in a halo of white. Her face is peaceful as an owl swoops down to carry her away.

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For decades, there was little criticism of this abusive program from a nation steeped in dime novels about 'the savage Indian.' Instead, magazines such as Harper's Weekly praised the schools. In a glowing article dated April 26, 1890, Harper's glorifies the Haskell Institute with pictures of young men in contrasting settings: "Indian boys at home" shows them in traditional buckskin clothing, whereas "a finished pupil" looks like a young clerk with a high collar.

Vocational training was also central to the boarding- school mission. Indian teens worked at various tasks – girls setting tables and cooking meals, boys repairing shoes or pushing wheel barrows.

Pratt's misguided vision was never fully realized, as most children eventually returned to their families and old ways of life. By the 1960s, tribes wrested control of the schools away from the federal government "and began to make them their own," Bates says. Today, only four boarding schools remain, and attendance is voluntary.

For many former students, the experience remains bittersweet. The influence of Pratt's harsh philosophy had faded by the time Michael Kabotie, a Hopi, entered the Haskell Institute in 1959 at age 15. "In many ways it was an exciting adventure," says Mr. Kabotie, now a successful artist. "But on the other side of it, I come from a very traditional culture, and many of our religious activities happen during the winter months. And those are the things I missed."

Alcohol was a common escape at Haskell, Kabotie says. "There was a sense of detachment there. A lot of us just got lost." His own alcohol problem worsened when he entered the University of Arizona, where he felt intimidated by the academic demands. "They didn't train us for critical thinking at Haskell," he says.

He eventually beat the bottle, but other scars remain. "I think the boarding schools denied me parenting skills," he says, "because I was taken away from my own role models."

Ms. Cook-Lynn, a visiting professor of Indian studies at Arizona State University, says Kabotie's is a common tale. "I think that tribal people all over the United States are working to recover from this dreadful colonial, racist experience," she says.

That's the legacy of the "genocidal federal policy," she adds. "Many people don't use that word, but if you look at the schools and what they represent, it is not an exaggeration."

Teaching a new generation

The show's impact is perhaps most powerfully felt by native American visitors themselves. Among them is Giovanna Teller and her daughter Audrianna. Ms. Teller, a Navajo whose own mother attended Oregon's Chimawa Indian School in the 1950s, says, "I can't imagine leaving my daughter. It's unfathomable to me. They shaved [my mother's] hair, burned her clothes and possessions – including a carpet bag that she carried on her saddle – and bathed them, all in one step."

Robin Tsosie, a Navajo who went to Arizona's Leupo Indian School from kindergarten through second grade, describes her experience there as "scary." "I stayed with my brother," she says. "They were very strict. We had to always have our hair braided and wear dresses. Now it's a lot different for those who do attend Indian School [by choice]. They have a lot more freedom."

Viewing the exhibition moves Ms. Tsosie to tears. "It was heartbreaking," she says. "It brings back bad memories. It's sad that we were forced to change our identities when all we wanted to do was be ourselves. We now have to teach our kids where we came from." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Ms. Tsosie's gender.]

But for many museumgoers, the exhibit is the closest they'll come to knowing what the boarding school experience was like.

"It was a sad era when they tried to put American/European values on their culture," says Dorothy Allenson of Cape Coral, Fla. "I hope it was just ignorance and not something else."

Countless native Americans are still grappling with their boarding-school ordeals. But they no longer suffer quietly.

"Our main point with this exhibit is allowing silent voices to really come out," Bates says. "This is a part of everyone's history, and most people have no idea that it happened."