ST. PETERSBURG — The current special exhibition at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is its most poignant yet.
“Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” illuminates the federally run, off-reservation boarding schools that operated from the late 19th century through most of the 20th century, forcing Native American children to assimilate with the aim of eradicating their cultures. The exhibition tells the children’s stories through photographs, text panels, artifacts, videos and audio.
The exhibition was adapted from a permanent installation at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. It reveals the largely hidden history of what the experience was at American Indian boarding schools.
“This exhibition is occurring at an important time with the increase in civic discourse about how we teach history,” said Laura Hine, executive director at The James Museum.
Hine said that while it’s important to keep teaching well-known facts in U.S. history, “in order to maintain our humanity, as a state and as a nation we also have to teach about Indian boarding schools in the hardest times of civil rights.”
“Here at the museum, our mission is to provide experiences that inspire human connection,” she said. “And there is nothing that inspires human connection more than immersing yourself in someone else’s story. If this country needs anything right now, it’s to reconnect with each other. So I hope this does for the people who can come and see it.”
The concept of American Indian boarding schools was born in 1875, when the U.S. Army assigned Richard Henry Pratt to oversee Indian prisoners held at Fort Marion in St. Augustine. He implemented an experimental assimilation technique on the prisoners, who marched, learned English and worked for local businesses and individuals. In 1878, Pratt continued the experiment on the youngest prisoners, alongside African American students at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Virginia.
In 1879, Pratt opened the first American Indian boarding school in former military barracks in Carlisle, Pa. The Carlisle Indian Industrial School operated until 1918. It was the model for decades for the subsequent schools across the country, 350 in total.
In the 19th century, as settlers went on land grabs, federal and state governments forcibly removed American Indians from their traditional lands into increasingly smaller territories. The 1887 General Allotment Act stipulated the breaking up of tribal reservation lands for individual ownership.
Planning your weekend?
Subscribe to our free Top 5 things to do newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
The American Indian boarding school system began under the Department of War. As the Indian Wars — the conflict between settlers and Native Americans, mostly land disputes — wound down, the government deemed it less expensive to educate Native Americans rather than fight wars.
Children were forcibly removed from their homes and, in some cases, kidnapped and taken to the boarding schools, sometimes hundreds of miles away. Few were able to return home for summers or winters. Their hair was cut and they were given Western-style clothing, replacing their traditional garb. The schools were militaristic in nature, with severe punishments for speaking Native language, wearing traditional garb or participating in cultural traditions.
In addition to academics, the students were made to participate in drills and were Christianized. There was abuse that included rape, health conditions were poor and there was overcrowding. They spent half the day in lessons and the rest of the day in vocational training and school maintenance. An Outing Program, first developed by Pratt, made students work in outside businesses and homes, earning small salaries that went directly back to the school.
The facts presented in the first part of the exhibition are deeply troubling. The purposeful eradication of a culture and forced assimilation of children is difficult to digest. A panel at the beginning of the installation warns about the sensitive content. The many photographs of children, from basically babies to teenagers, are often heartbreaking.
A pair of children’s handcuffs on display is bone-chilling in the way images and artifacts of slavery and the Holocaust feel.
The shorn braided ponytail lying on a barber’s chair is upsetting, as one can imagine what was surely a traumatic experience. Tissues have been placed in the exhibition for those overcome with emotion.
Some of the stories are of escape and rebellion, while others describe normal teenage feelings, like having a crush. The exhibition makes clear the names and tribes the people speaking or depicted are from, which feels like an important way to give voice to what is being shown.
In 1928, the Meriam Report criticized the boarding schools’ treatment of the students, and reforms began. A panel featuring a photo of Pablita Velarde (Santa Clara Pueblo), a student at Santa Fe Indian School from 1930-36, appears with her quote: “I appreciate the Indian school for being there, even if it wasn’t the greatest of schools at that time. At least it was there.”
By the 1940s, the failed assimilation attempts took a stronghold with the notion of “Indianization,” in which the students started changing the schools. Indian clubs allowed students to explore their tribal traditions. With a large mix of tribes, the students learned each other‘s customs, mixing them together and creating songs and dances that were later taken back to the reservations.
The exhibition takes a turn for the positive here, depicting student activities like marching band, basketball and a boarding school press.
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the rise of Native activism prompted a decrease in enrollment at the boarding schools, with a push for students to be sent to local public schools. By the 1980s, many of the schools had closed.
There are only four Bureau of Indian Education-run boarding schools today, and they now celebrate Native heritage and emphasize American Indian history, language, art and culture.
Works from The James Museum’s collection by artists who attended Indian boarding schools are included in the exhibition, including a bronze sculpture titled Dreams for the Future by Allan Houser (Chiinde - Warm Springs Chiricahua Apache).
The heavy nature of the exhibition begs contemplation, and it ends with an area to do so. Guests can reflect in chairs and tables and record their thoughts on paper provided. The notes are posted on boards on the wall.
One guest wrote in their note, “It is too much.”
If you go
“Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” is on view through March 16. $10-$20, free for children 6 and younger; on Tuesdays $10 for adults and $5 ages 7-18. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesdays. The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art, 150 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. 727-892-4200. thejamesmuseum.org.