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Friday, March 18, 2011

Taken Too Early: Remembering the children of Native American and First Nations' Boarding and Residential Schools

Montage of Indian Students at the Carlisle Indian
School, Pennsylvania, 1881. By John N. Choate.
General Nelson A. Miles Collection. (P06946) 

For many, we look back on our time in elementary or grade school with fond memories of afternoon naps, playing at recess, and making life-long friendships. But what if you didn't get those opportunities and instead were forcibly taken from your families and placed in a school that stripped you of all your identity, culture, and well-being? That is exactly what happened to thousands of young Native American, First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children across the United States and Canada throughout the late eighteenth century and nineteenth century. Although some former students did have positive experiences at residential schools, many children suffered emotional and physical abuse. In addition, the children were often punished for speaking their own language or following traditional cultural practices. In general, the practice was forced assimilation to "kill the Indian and save the man." Much of the trauma suffered by these children has gone unresolved and has been passed from generation to generation. Thus, it is time to heal this suffering and tell the stories of thousand of survivors.

Tinted Lantern Slide of Sunday School with Inuit and Settler
children at the Moravian Churck at Makkovik, Kaipokok Bay,
Labrador, Canada. Leuman M. Waugh Collection. (L02274)

As part of this initiative, I was recently asked to speak at a forum, Sharing Truth: Creating a National Research Center on Residential Schools, organized by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The TRC was established when former residential school students took the Canadian federal government and churches to court. Their cases led to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the largest class-action settlement in Canadian history. The agreement sought to begin repairing the harm caused by residential schools. Aside from providing compensation to former students, the agreement called for the establishment of the TRC of Canada with a budget of $60-million over five years. One of the TRC's major goals is the official establishment of a national research center and the preservation of its archives. Thus, the TRC organized this gathering to learn from a varied spectrum of knowledge and experiences from guest speakers from across the globe whose countries and peoples had also witnessed horrific atrocities, including South Africa, Rwanda, Sudan, Senegal, Germany, Chile, Guatemala, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Bangladesh, and East Timor. For many of the speakers, while it was emotional to relive experiences, each noted the importance of having a living memory of these experiences because while the physical archive is critical to preservation, it in essence serves as a tool for memory. The information shared with the Commissioners will inform their decision making for the preservation and archiving of survivor statements, as well as materials created and received during the Commission's work. If interested, most of the webcasts of the forum presentations can be viewed here.

As part of my presentation I shared experiences and lessons learned regarding the development of the NMAI Archive Center. In addition,  I shared specific ways that NMAI has been involved with preserving the Native American boarding school experience so that these stories are carried on for generations and never forgotten, and more importantly, that these atrocities are never repeated. NMAI carries out these initiatives through various programs, exhibits, and publications, as well as partnering with other agencies, institutions, and museums that are also dedicated to this cause. In 2008 NMAI hosted a program titled Harvest of Hope: A Symposium on Reconciliation that focused on topical issues of reconciliation and highlighted national apologies made to Native peoples in Canada and the United States. Overall, the symposium sought a deeper, more inclusive understanding of our national narratives and the experiences of the Native peoples of the Americas. Additional information about the symposium and the entire webcast can be found here.

Furthermore, we preserve memories through our extensive photograph collections. The photos highlighted in this post are just a sampling of the thousands we have documenting the lives of children at boarding schools across the United States. For example, the two below photos are striking images of the same Chiricahua Apache children at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. The image on the left is upon their arrival in November 1886 and the image on the right is only four short months later in March of 1887. It is not difficult to see the physical changes of the children, so think how much they must have changed emotionally in that short time as well. 

Chiricahua Apache students at the Carlisle Indian School,
Pennsylvania, from Fort Marion, Florida, November 4, 1886.
Photo by John N. Choate. Gen. Nelson A. Miles Collection. (N36022)

Chiricahua Apache students at the Carlisle Indian School,
Pennsylvania, December 1886. Photo by John N. Choate. Gen.
Nelson A. Miles Collection. (P06847)

With the goal of making more of our collections digitally accessible, we will be digitizing many more boarding school images so that survivors will have access to these important images that encompass such a transformative period in Native American history.

For additional background information about the history of boarding schools, please see "Indian Education, American Education," by Brenda J. Child, in Native Universe: Voices of Indian America, eds. Gerald McMaster and Clifford E. Trafzer, 2004.


  1. sorry to be SO nit-picky, but don't you mean "too" in the headline?

  2. Hello,
    There are quite a number of misspellings in the writing on this page, but I am wondering if you would be interested in a DVD of images I have compiled from James E. Johnson, my Great Great Uncle's football history scrapbook compiled by his younger brother, Adam. James was a star quarterback at Carlisle as well as at northwestern University. He is also in the College Football Hall of Fame. Due to the age of the scrapbook and its disintegration, I photographed every page and they are quite easy to read. The original was given to Northwestern last September.

    Additionally, the DVD contains many photos of James' personal life, his parents and siblings, as well as many from the Carlisle Indian School.