“ I was very frightened but I had no choice. The Board of Education said I couldn’t stay with my parents.”
“I can picture my family to this day just standing there crying. Even my grandfather had tears in his eyes. I was missing them so much and was so sad as I got on the train.”
Those are some of the voices you hear as you walk through the gallery Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The excellent display which occupies ten rooms tells the story of the American First Nations young people who were forcibly removed from their parents and sent to residential schools beginning in 1879. The exhibit uses photographs, artifacts, video and draws heavily on first person oral accounts from the four generations of American young people who attended these schools. It provides a great deal of information about the American government’s attempt to assimilate First Nations children into mainstream society often with tragic consequences.
“ The first thing they did was cut our hair. While we were bathing our breechcloths were taken and we were ordered to put on trousers. We’d lost our hair and our clothes and with the two our identity as Indians.”
As you stand in front of the barber’s chair a woman’s voice says, “I was tied fast to the chair. I was crying a lot as I felt the cold scissors against my neck.”
Although no comprehensive list was kept it is believed the American government ran hundreds of boarding schools. One of the voices at the museum describes this education system as “the Hiroshima” of the First Nations people of the United States because it “basically destroyed the fiber of family life.”
In the various rooms of the exhibit we learn about the kind of existence the children had in many of the residential schools. They spent the morning in the classroom and in the afternoon doing the cleaning, gardening, sewing, laundry, cooking and other work needed to maintain the boarding schools.
I learned the residential school system was the brainchild of an army officer named Richard Pratt who believed “savage infants could become civilized” in the proper environment but needed strict discipline to do so.
The Heard Museum exhibit does a good job of showing how the government went about trying to achieve three goals with their residential schools. They wanted to give First Nations young people an academic education, convert them to Christianity and train them to be American citizens. The children were prohibited from speaking their native language and practicing their own cultural and spiritual traditions. They were administered corporal punishment if they tried to do so.
The harshness of residential school life resulted in many students trying to run away. This painting by Judith Lowry in the Heard Museum tells the story of eleven year old Molly Lowry, the great-aunt of the artist. Molly ran away from her residential school on a freezing December night in 1916 and died from exposure before she reached her home.
As I walked through the galleries at the Heard Museum I wondered if any Canadian museum had as comprehensive an exhibit about the residential school system in our country.
I hope the new Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg will devote at least some of its space to the story of Canada’s residential schools. Perhaps the curators there need to visit the Heard Museum in Phoenix to get some ideas.
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