Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience | Heard Museum

Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience

The groundbreaking exhibition Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience draws on first-person recollections, memorabilia and the writings and art of four generations of Indian school alumni to examine the commonality of the boarding school experience. A powerful display that explores an important era in American history, the exhibition incorporates historic images, music, sound, oral histories, memorabilia and video to immerse visitors in the story being told by the people who lived it.

Remembering Our Indian School Days celebrates the spirit of survival. Originally established to “civilize” American Indians into mainstream society, Indian boarding schools became a shaping force of a national American Indian identity. “This is not just a part of American Indian history; it is an important element of American history in its entirety,” says Margaret Archuleta, curator of the exhibition, which opened in 2000 and has become one of the museum’s most popular and moving presentations. “Indian or not, this exhibit is an important examination of our society both past and present.”

1879 to the 1990s

Federally run Indian boarding schools became a key element of the widespread national effort to “Americanize” American Indians beginning in the late 19th century. The BIA’s first official boarding school, Carlisle Indian School, was established in 1879 in Carlisle, Penn. Because a comprehensive listing has never been created, the actual number of Indian boarding schools is unknown. The number of Indian boarding schools established since 1879 is estimated to be in the hundreds. Today, four BIA boarding schools – Chemawa Indian School at Forest Grove, Ore., Sherman Indian School at Riverside, Calif., Flandreau Indian School at Flandreau, S.D., and Riverside Indian School at Anadarko, Okla. – are currently in use.

Indian boarding schools have operated parallel to the mainstream education system historically. Curriculums changed emphases according to the changes in mainstream curricula, emphasizing agriculture from 1879 to 1910, vocational education from 1910 to 1960, academia from 1960 to 1990, and reform and college preparation in the 1990s. Cultural programming generally was limited until the 1960s, when many tribes began to oversee the schools.

The primary difference between Indian boarding schools and the mainstream education systems was segregation. Historically, only two groups – African Americans and American Indians – were segregated from mainstream education systems. African Americans were integrated with the Civil Rights Movement. Today, American Indians continue to be segregated from mainstream education systems, reinforcing misunderstanding and stereotypes. Remembering Our Indian School Days breaks down the walls of misunderstanding by presenting the common experiences of the American education system.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Boarding schools separated children from their families and tribal cultures and required conformity to Euro-American society. The boarding school experience thrust Native children into an unfamiliar environment. Children were abruptly taken from their families and homes and placed in government-run boarding schools around the country. Conversing in one’s Native language was strictly forbidden, and students were required to wear standard-issue Euro-American clothing.

Many students who arrived at the schools with long hair, which is spiritually symbolic for many Native cultures, received haircuts immediately following their arrival. Traditionally an act associated with special ceremonies, hair cutting became one of the most immediate and devastating experiences of boarding school life for American Indians. The wearing of long hair has served as a strong symbol of personal identity throughout the boarding school history.

Making the Schools Their Own

Although initially operated from a fundamentally Anglo-European structure, Indian boarding schools evolved with a national American Indian identity. Sports, music and arts programs provided students with an important means of achieving competency in a world previously unfamiliar. The students’ successes in these programs became a source of pride not only for the students but also for the community as a whole.

Carlisle Indian School student Louis Tewanima (Hopi) is one such example of the students’ individual and collective successes. Tewanima, a silver medalist in the 1912 Olympics, is remembered every Labor Day weekend at Shungopavi, Ariz., where a race is run in his honor. The event attracts runners from across the nation. His classmate and acclaimed Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe (Sac and Fox), was a football star at Carlisle Indian School.

Another phenomenon of the boarding school experience is the “Indian Princesses.” Originating with the strict Victorian values of feminine behavior instilled in Native students at boarding schools, the princesses became an expression of pride and Indian identity. With the creation of each student’s royal clothing, it also became a vehicle for the continuation of traditional Native art forms such as beading and silverworking. A simple parallel can be drawn between the transition from the simple royal sash to full regalia, and the transition from “boarding schools for Indians” to “Indian boarding schools.”

Remembering Our Indian School Days incorporates a variety of audio and atmospheric elements to immerse visitors in the experience of Indian boarding schools. Each of the exhibition’s 10 sections is constructed to emulate different boarding school experiences and environments, from the arrival to classrooms and dorm rooms. Hands-on stations are also present throughout the exhibit, enabling visitors to interact with the exhibition.

Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience is generously supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional support from The Rockefeller Foundation, The Arizona Republic, Bank of America, Intel Corporation, Mr. & Mrs. William Freeman, Mr. & Mrs. Fred Lynn and the Roger S. Firestone Foundation.