Lesson No. 1: Shed your Indian identity

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

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.

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.

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.

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."

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