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Troubling legacy of Native American boarding schools on display at James Museum in St. Petersburg

Sioux Children on their first day of school.jpg
Library of Congress
Sioux children on their first day of school, 1897. Thousands of children were removed from their communities, and were stripped of their languages, religious practices, and community connections.

Children were forbidden from using their native languages and from practicing their religion and culture. They were given new Anglo-American names, clothes, and were forced to cut their hair.

During the late 19th century, the federal government placed thousands of Native American children in federally operated off-reservation boarding schools.

The impact of this forced assimilation campaign is the subject of a new exhibit, "Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories," at The James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art in St. Petersburg.

WUSF's Cathy Carter spoke with museum curator Emily Kapes.

Can you start by telling us about the exhibit?

These residential boarding schools were set up starting in the late 1870s. And for about 50 years, it was a program that was traumatic. It took them away from their families and their culture. The exhibition is a series of interactive panels, photographs and personal accounts from former students that attended boarding schools. It's a part of our history, that's important to know but I feel like not many people really are aware of what happened. We hope this exhibition is going to create that awareness and really create some understanding and empathy. I hope that visitors will leave with a sense of native resiliency.

In this exhibition, we learn there is a Florida connection to this story, that the idea was started at a prisoner of war camp in St. Augustine by a U.S. Calvary Captain during the civil war era. Tell us more about the mindset under which the U.S. government forced tens of thousands of Native American children to attend these schools.

There were hundreds of Indian boarding schools that popped up across the country after the first one in the late 1800’s. That first one came about, because of an experiment. A former civil war officer named Richard Henry Pratt, was in charge of 72 Native American prisoners of war in St Augustine in the 1870s. When he was in charge of them, and this was for about three years, he had this idea to kill the Indian save the man: Let's get rid of Indian culture — I think it's beneficial to them to become more civilized, and to learn white culture and to adopt Christianity and to wear Victorian clothes.

He persuaded the government that a school would be an even better way to go because you would be influencing children.

Carlisle Indian School Student Body.jpg
Courtesy of Cumberland County PA Historical Society
Founded in 1879 under U.S. governmental authority by Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt, Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania was one of the early federally funded off-reservation Indian boarding schools.

And as part of this federal push for assimilation, children were taken from their communities. Tell us a about the process and the experiences that children would have gone through.

When children were taken away from their families, sometimes they traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to these schools. So, a brand-new situation, brand new set of people. And all of a sudden, they had to change out of their traditional clothes, their hair was cut, and they couldn't speak their own language, so to even communicate was so difficult for them and there was such sorrow because of that separation. It was a very immediate environment that was severe and I think when you're dealing with children, it is so hard to think about what they would have gone through, to be in such an unknown place that was cold. They may not have even had siblings there. So it was a traumatic entry into the school. So even think about the foods that they would typically eat or the games they might play. That was all taken away. It was stripped away very immediately.

In many ways, this is a really tough exhibit to go through. We are witnessing generational trauma but you think it's important that people experience it and learn more about this part of American history.

This exhibition is emotional, and it is thought provoking and it brings an awareness of a part of our history that so many people don't know about. So, I think it's important to bring this knowledge to our community and to really be able to share it, we're proud of that. It absolutely is important to share different perspectives.

Judith Lowry, Going Home, 1992; acrylic on canvas, 64 x 52; Courtesy of Judith Lowry / Gift of Kathleen L. and William G. Howard, The Heard Museum.
Some of the artists in the James Museum's collection attended American Indian boarding schools. Their artwork is shown alongside the historical documents and personal stories in the exhibition.

And to supplement this exhibition, the James Museum has included works from your collection from Native American artists who attended boarding schools.

We've included about 20 works of art in addition to the exhibition. I think it adds some response. Because our collection is more contemporary, some of the school experiences were not quite as extreme but they still impacted these artists. And in some cases, we were able to talk to some of them about those experiences. It adds some really interesting aspects to the personal responses that these artists have had over the years. I think it's important to share those specific stories and relate it to our museum.

In 2021, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (a member of the Pueblo of Laguna) announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to review "the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies."

"Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" runs through March 16.

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