Exhibit Confronts a Thorny Chapter of U.S. History

This 1905 photograph, “Students posing at entrance to Chemawa Indian Training School, near Salem, Oregon,” on view in “Away From Home,” inspired the arch at the entrance to the exhibit.
(courtesy of Pacific University Archives)

Johnson County Museum presents ‘ Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories’

“Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” confronts a thorn of lesser-known U.S. history without flinching. On view at the Johnson County Museum, the exhibit documents the U.S. government’s attempts to educate and assimilate American Indians into “civilized” society.

Beginning in the 1870s, the government sent Native American children, often forcibly, from thousands of homes and hundreds of diverse tribes to distant off-reservation boarding schools, where they were stripped of all signs of “Indianness.” Captors cut children’s hair, assigned “American” names, discarded native clothing and required wearing military uniforms and Victorian clothing. Children were forbidden to speak their own language and indoctrinated in non-Native culture and education.

The connection between boarding schools and tribes grew complicated. Some families on tribal reservations sent children to boarding school in the early 1900s, believing offspring would have better access to food and clothing. As recently as the 1930s, students were trained for domestic work and trade in federal Indian boarding schools.

“Sioux children on their first day at school,” (1897); photograph, variable size (courtesy of Library of Congress)

The barber’s chair visible through the arch at the entrance to the exhibit represents the moment Native youth would be given new clothing, a birthday, a new name, and have their hair cut. (Johnson County Museum)

“Away From Home” shares complex history through American Indian voices and perspectives. Johnson County Museum curator Andrew Gustafson presents the exhibition in a well-organized space densely packed with photographs, artifacts, recordings and documents. The traveling exhibition is a part of NEH on the Road, a past initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Mid-America Arts Alliance, The National Endowment for the Arts and The Chickasaw Nation contributed to bringing the exhibit to the museum.

Showcasing the children and adults at the center of these stories signals respect for their struggles and experiences, revealing the humanity of people subject to inhumane treatment. Many children went years without familial contact, spurring generational and social trauma. Ojibwe historian Brenda Childs finds that the “boarding school experience was carried out in public but had an intensely private dimension.”

Native students often arrived at federal Indian boarding schools wearing traditional Indigenous clothing and carrying keepsakes like the items displayed here. (Johnson County Museum)

Tragic, even abusive, experiences produced varied student responses — resilience, concession, creative resolve, participation, defiant escape and faith. Some students adapted and rose above their circumstances. Others reclaimed and reinforced their ethnic identity.

Along with indignity, the exhibit depicts how students forged new friendships, romance and hybrid families at boarding schools. Groundbreakers receive recognition, such as the Fort Shaw girls’ basketball team, gold Olympic medalist and Sax and Fox native Jim Thorpe, Kiowa photographer Parker McKenzie, and Navajo code talkers who served in both World Wars. Graduates also found life mates, employment and pathways to lead on and off reservations.

Social and political shifts in the 1930s, and tribal activism in the ’60s and ’70s, gradually led to school reform and closures. Leaders emerged to reform boarding schools through “Native self-determination.” Surviving federal schools, such as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas, evolved during the 20th and 21st centuries, developing new policies that celebrate Native culture, arts, language and history.

The exhibit is powerful, nuanced, disturbing, informative and profound. “Away From Home” exposes the thorn embedded in our collective past, its ongoing implications and our shared responsibility for policies that still affect people today.

“Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories” continues at The Johnson County Museum, 8788 Metcalf Ave., through March 18. Hours are 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, 913.826.2787 or jcprd.com/1836/Museum.

Pete Dulin

Pete Dulin is the author of “Expedition of Thirst: Exploring Breweries, Wineries, and Distilleries Across the Heart of Kansas and Missouri,” “Kansas City Beer: A History of Brewing in the Heartland,” and two other books. His reporting has appeared in “AFAR Magazine,” “Feast,” “Kansas City Magazine,” KCUR, Zócalo Public Square, “The Kansas City Star,” “The Boston Globe,” and other publications.

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