Without Reservation

'Indian School Days' revisits a past to which no native should return

Like the stern warning encountered by Dante upon being led by Virgil into the underworld, Pratt's quote is one of the first things noticed when entering this current exhibition. The Heard's Kevin Winters and Lisa MacCollum designed the exhibit in such a way that viewers follow the path of the Indian children as they are taken from their home, stripped of their old identity and transformed through the world of the boarding school. Shaped like the passages of a nautilus shell, the hallway leading to the exhibit begins with large, wall-size murals of pastoral Indian lands. And overhead one hears birds, horses and other country sounds interspersed with conversation in native tongues. The tranquillity of the beginning is soon replaced by photographs of Indian children in native dress being transformed into clean-cut-looking American kids, quotes from the likes of Pratt as well as text from oral stories collected by the museum from those who survived the boarding-school experience.

After following around another corner, though, the visitor is stopped in his tracks by an awful sight: a 1940s-style barber chair, behind glass, surrounded by masses of cut black hair and long locks of braided hair. The feeling created by such a sight is the eerie detachment garnered from viewing an electric chair or some antiquated torture equipment in the dungeon of an English castle. Stepping up to the glass to view the chair more closely, one hears stories being told by those who suffered such a fate all against a background of the continual snip, snip, snip of hair being cut.

The exhibit then opens up to become a replica of a turn-of-the-century boarding school, complete with wainscoting on the walls, a school bell, a trophy case and a series of restored classrooms that house a majority of the exhibit. The rooms are divided into separate sections; one deals with dormitory life and offers a perfect re-creation of a bunk bed, while others are set to look like classrooms, an art studio and a gymnasium.

Learning How to Eat Right, a photograph of Native American children at the Phoenix Indian School.
Learning How to Eat Right, a photograph of Native American children at the Phoenix Indian School.

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Continues for several years. For information call 602-252-8840 or visit www.heard.org

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Heard Museum, 2301 North Central

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Other rooms are divided into categories such as music, drama and family life. Some viewers will be left in awe that such things actually took place in this country. Photographs show things like "Patriotism Day," where children in a boarding school were dressed to look like pilgrims -- the men with white Washington-style wigs, the women in long cotton dresses -- all parading and dancing in front of a giant American flag; other photographs show students staring at the television and dressed in 1950s-style letter sweaters, black penny loafers and Elvis-style pompadours.

The extraordinary effect of the exhibit in full is to convey the emotion and power of these long-forgotten experiences, rather than feeling like in-your-face politicizing. The exhibit does not preach its cause at all, allowing the audience to make its own assumptions based upon the evidence at hand. Even when the exhibition ends with photographs of rows and rows of gravestones from the hundreds of children who died of diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza, one is overtaken with emotions stemming not from a person of a dominant culture sympathizing with those who have been dispossessed by such forces, but from compassion that comes from understanding the universal feelings of mothers and fathers helpless in the face of their children's death.

Thus it is a parental cringe when, next to the photographs of cemeteries, one sees the words, again, of Pratt: "Your son died quietly, without suffering, like a man. We have dressed him in his good clothes and tomorrow we bury him the way white people do."

The sadness behind "Remembering Our Indian School Days" doesn't stem only from seeing how history has treated Native children for the past hundred years; it also is in the harsh reality that all of this could soon be forgotten. Despite the heroic efforts of Archuleta and her staff, few people will bother to take time to see the exhibition and even fewer will learn from it. And though Phoenix is a city that dares to ignore its own history, this fate needs to be avoided. The Heard Museum should be filled daily for the duration of this exhibit; this piece of our local history, fellow Phoenicians, is required viewing.

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