In the late 19th and early 20th century, the American and Canadian governments began establishing boarding and residential schools designed to assimilate and acculturate Native children. By “civilizing” the young children, and “erasing” their Native background, these children could become more “productive” members of North American society.
Leap from the boarding school era to the 21st century, when Sherman Alexie wrote The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. When Junior, the protagonist, decides to get a better education off the reservation in a nearby “white” school, he faces major social repercussions within his home community. By leaving the reservation for school, he has become a traitor, anow considering himself part Indian, part not. At home, his friends don’t really want to hear about all the white kids at his new school, and Junior felt uncomfortable being honest about his home life at his new school because it is so different from their idea of normal.
This dichotomous existence, the embrasure of an extremely difficult existence in the name of bettering one’s self, is difficult to comprehend. Various groups have taken actions over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries to gain freedom, justice, and equality for Native populations, and have succeeded in many of these endeavors. Still, Native communities struggle with the repercussions of the earlier boarding schools and residential programs. For many, original languages and customs were lost or forgotten by the majority of people. With a resurging interest in energizing Native culture, a few non-profits have arisen with a dedication to preserve and teach Native American languages, ensuring their survival. While language remains an especially important part of maintaining and saving Native cultures, other institutions have also become involved.
The International Sites of Conscience has started the Indian Boarding and Residential Schools Sites of Conscience project, including three schools with original missions of assimilating Native children into white society. These schools have since been re-purposed, and are either owned by various groups and tribes, universities, or high schools. The primary goals of the project include using history to address critical questions about contemporary issues facing Native communities, and using old school sites as centers for communities to confront their difficult histories and discuss their diverse legacies today.
Currently, the International Coalition’s Indian Boarding and Residential Schools Project, Ottawa-based Legacy of Hope Foundation (LHF), and former boarding schools are jointly developing a travelling exhibit entitled Where are the Children?, based on LHF’s popular photo exhibition that shares the story of the thousands of Native children sent to boarding schools and residential programs during the 19th and 20th centuries in Canada in the United States. The exhibition will travel to boarding school sites in both countries, inviting visitors to share stories and images of their own experiences.
When I think about the travelling exhibit, I wonder what effect it will actually have on visitors. First, who is the audience? If the exhibit is specifically trying to attract people from Native communities or backgrounds, the exhibit could potentially alienate other visitors. Considering the history being presented, worrying about this seems a bit ironic. In addition to the matter of audience, the topics represented in shared stories and experiences could present other issues. Will the sharing be limited to boarding and residential schools experiences, or will it include general hardships faced by the exhibit’s visitors? If the latter, the exhibition’s collected material could potentially become a bone of contention, depending on the audience and who decides to share stories or images. It reminds me of a moment in Alexie’s book, where a white man comes to a Native American funeral, trying to convince them of his love for all things Native American, only to be completely shunned by the Native American community because of his status as a collector and outsider.
Sharing can become political. Depending on who can share and who wants to share, an exhibition such as Where are the Children? could become controversial, all because of audience and deeply rooted political sentiments. Hopefully, the conversations and workshops held at the Sites of Conscience pilot schools will enable success in not only a historical education, but also a new cultural and social perspective.