Without Reservation

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

This is a city of ghosts. Like an ancient necropolis unearthed from beneath the desert, Phoenix is a place of the dead. You see them caught in mid-scream in front of the bronze dome of the State Capitol, wandering eyeless across the dirt mounds of Pueblo Grande on Washington Street surrounded by strip clubs and Circle K, burned from exposure and starving on the sidewalks of the flop hotels promising fresh linens and a color TV, and recently, congregating amid the tree-high heaps of slag once known as the Phoenix Indian School.

Soon, the piles of broken concrete and disentombed earth found at the site of the old Indian School will be leveled or moved away, and a park will replace what city rulers see as an eyesore. And, soon, the place itself will be found only in the memories of people who have lived long enough to know that such a place existed. But Margaret Archuleta and the rest of the Heard Museum staff have made sure that, although the physical buildings are bulldozed, the life that went on within those walls for almost 100 years -- one solid century in the history of a town not even quite as old -- will remain with us. It's not something that should be so easily forgotten.

"Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience" is an exhibition that will not allow its subjects to be hidden from the gaze of history any longer. In fact, if a standard education were required for every person who wanted to live in this city, it should include -- besides classes in Advanced Cell Phone Talking and Angry Remonstrations of Sports Coaches 101 told over chicken wings at the local Hooters -- a visit to this exhibition. And before the exhibition runs its course, those who run this town should realize its importance to the local citizenry and transfer it to the few old buildings that still remain from the school to make sure that nobody ever forgets about this place again.

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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The facts behind the exhibition are ones usually omitted from history books. Beginning in the 1870s, tens of thousands of Native American children were stolen from their homes, brought to government-run boarding schools across the country and indoctrinated into white culture. The boarding schools themselves did not fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education; they were placed under the guise of the Department of War because our clever government believed that it was economically more feasible to do away with the "Indian Problem" by assimilating them into the white culture rather than to go to war with them. Once in these schools, the children were punished for speaking their native language and participating in Native traditions. They had their hair -- which for most of them was a symbol of pride and culture -- shaved off. They were combed for lice with kerosene, were given a lye bath and were taught such culturally rich traditions of white America as eating white bread, making Jell-O molds and singing show tunes.

Estelle Reel, Superintendent of Indian Schools for the U.S. government at the turn of the century, even said during this time that the Indian child should be placed "in the midst of the stir of civilized life, where he must compete with the wide-awake boys and girls of the white race" because "association with good white people is the best civilizing agency that can be devised." Key national anthem here.

The reality behind the schools, as learned through the exhibition, is that they were mainly underfunded and ignored. And, what education went on in such places as the Phoenix Indian School, the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma and even the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania -- which produced the great Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe -- was strictly vocational. The Indian students were being carefully groomed to form a strong underclass of America proud to be doing labor such as shoe and harness-making, painting, masonry, carpentry, baking and agriculture. The thought of these schools teaching their students, say, the philosophy of Emerson or Thoreau, the poetry of Whitman and the novels of Melville is the stuff of movies; in fact, while the rest of the world was learning the convenience of the automobile, these students were being taught to make saddles.

The exhibit, which has been in the making for five years, is beautifully crafted and works on levels untouched by any museum I've ever seen. Though photographs and memorabilia make up a large part of the physical portion of the exhibit, it is also full of documentary-style footage, music, daily sounds of children at school and the continual buzz of oral histories told from speakers above each of the show's many sections. It is a multimedia experience that approaches sense overload -- which might be good because a moment of silence facing such sights might be a bit too much for those faint of heart.

"Transfer the savage born infant to the surroundings of civilization, and he will grow to possess a civilized language and habit"; "Kill the Indian and save the man" -- Captain Richard Henry Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian School, 1879.

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.

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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