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A Walk in Their Moccasins

Recently, I had a surprising and moving adventure while on the road in Phoenix. I visited the Heard Museum of Native Cultures & Art.

Inside I saw a gallery of photographs by Barry Goldwater and pottery donated by Sandra Day O’Connor. Next, there was a large multimedia exhibit of audio recordings by people from each major tribe of the Southwest. These were familiar things and I expected them.

Then came a shock.

Upstairs I came upon a gallery called “The Indian Boarding School Experience.” The only museum episodes I’ve had that could compare to its shock value would be the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and the Nazi death camps at Dachau. For the free Indians, compulsory re-enculturation at faraway boarding schools was the murdering of their whole way of life and, in touring these experiential exhibits, you could feel some of the trauma that they did.

You began in a large, open space with huge murals of the prairie and grasslands. You felt the Indians’ freedom. Then you heard the trains and saw the monstrous engines that took the children away.

Many spoken recordings by students, now up in years, described how hard their parents and grandparents had cried when their children were confiscated and removed. The children would be gone for years at a time and some of the kids died in school and never returned. Their graves were marked with their tribes of origin.

After the train area, you saw the school barber’s chair, with the kids’ beautiful long hair on the ground all around it. This was an appalling sight. You knew that this was the moment, the very guillotine moment, when their dignity, pride, and prior identity as free people were stripped away in mere moments.

Next, you entered an office where you would choose your new white names, both first and last. Then came the classrooms for various subjects, and dorm rooms.

Suddenly, you realized that the school had you enveloped in the middle of its Total Environment. It felt like a completely foreign and sinister encapsulation, especially in contrast to life in the forests and grasslands. You felt foreign for the first time in “familiar” surroundings.

If you used any Indian words or alluded to any Indian ways at school, you were punished. The recordings of the Indians describing life there were so real and moving. Of course, most acclimated to the new ways, being young, but these were conquered people, living under conquest, and their progress under the system had a bittersweet cast.

There were posters to recruit you for organized activities. These were so extreme that they seemed a plant by some political activist group to enrage you against the schools. On the boys’ poster, it said “Learn to be tough and not show your emotions. Learn to take direction from a stern, father-like coach.” These were the very words. This school system, incidentally, was organized under the Department of War and was run by the military. On the girls’ activities list, it said, “Learn to be clean and civilized.”

The pictures of the boys, heads shaven, in military uniforms, was such a disconnect. Their bodies and faces were completely Native American, yet they were dressed in U.S. Army-like uniforms. It looked like the ultimate vanquishment. One only hopes that they were never sent to harm or kill their own later. But somehow I would not feel surprised if they were.

I found myself asking as I thought about the conquest of North America, How could this have played out some other way? Was there a middle ground possible? Where was any example of it in the world before? I had no good answers. Of course, there were American Indians touring this museum, too. I met some of them in a room where there were copies of their high school yearbook, “The Sandwriter.” The yearbook was in the same style as all high school yearbooks. These volumes dated from 1986 to 1988. I noticed that each student’s picture was captioned with the tribe, along with the student’s name. But there were no Indian names. Only, “Tom Wilson” and “Susan White.” It was an eerie sight.

I bought a Native Indian newspaper in the bookstore. I noticed that the feature stories and letters to the editor were signed by people with no trace of tribal roots in their names. Yet they were all Indians. This was obvious from what the stories said. Some writers would be “Bob Black Elk” or “Joan High Mountain” but most were “Jack Jones” and “Mary Smith.”

I felt a chill and many conflicting feelings at the exhibit. It portrayed as well as I can imagine the emotional realities of being a thoroughly conquered people.

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