A traveling exhibition that looks at a time when American Indian children were sent to U.S. government-operated boarding schools is kicking off its five-year tour around the U.S. with a nearly eight-week showing at the Mid-America All-Indian Museum in Wichita.
“Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” which is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ On the Road exhibition program, was originally scheduled to come to the Mid-America All-Indian Museum earlier this year, but the tour was delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The exhibition will be shown at the museum from Sept. 1 through Oct. 17.
Starting in the 1870s, the U.S. government started operating off-reservation boarding schools in an effort to assimilate American Indians into what it called “civilized” society.
Families were often forced to send their children to the schools. At the schools, the children were forbidden to speak their native languages or do anything related to their culture. They also often went years without contact with their families. Up until the 1930s, students were trained for domestic work and trade in a highly regimented environment, according to the NEH On the Road website. About 100 such schools existed, including one in Lawrence, Kansas, which later became Haskell Indian National University.
Last week, the 20 crates holding the exhibit’s items — more than 100 photos, more than 40 objects and various ephemera such as postcards — arrived at the museum. The traveling exhibit was inspired by and adapted from a longtime permanent exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, according to Heard Museum curator Janet Cantley. The Heard’s exhibit originally opened in 2000, but recently was updated and renamed. It reopened in February 2019 under the same name that the NEH traveling exhibit uses.
The Heard museum provided a few items, including a sports sweater, and recordings about the American Indian boarding experience with elders and researchers for the traveling exhibit. A Haskell school band uniform and pennants are also part of the traveling exhibit.
One of the permanent exhibition’s iconic pieces is a barber chair, Cantley said. It symbolizes the stripping away of the children’s culture with the cutting off of their long hair. The traveling exhibition organizers were able to find a similar chair for the touring exhibition.
Because of COVID-19 precautions, the museum is not able to hold any in-person programming related to the exhibit, according to executive director April Scott. It has partnered with KPTS, the local PBS station, to air a PBS documentary, “Unspoken: America’s Native American Boarding Schools.” It is scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 17, and 9 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 1.
The museum is waiting on a grant to purchase recording equipment so that it can interview elders about the American Indian boarding schools, Scott said. The interviews will eventually be posted to the MAAIM YouTube channel, and the digital files will become part of its collection.
The Mid America All-Indian Museum is focusing on building its collection of works by Blackbear Bosin, who attended the federally operated Riverside Indian School in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
‘Away From Home’ exhibit
What: A traveling exhibition about Indian boarding schools. The exhibit is intended for mature audiences due to graphic depictions of human indignities, violence, racism and harsh language.
When: Tuesday, Sept. 1-Saturday, Oct. 17, hours are 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Where: Mid-America All-Indian Museum, 650 N. Seneca, Wichita
Cost: $7 adults; $5 seniors 55+, military with ID, and students 13 and older with an ID; $3 youth ages 6-12; free for children younger than 6
More info: 316-350-3340 or theindiancenter.org