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Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Collection Spotlight: Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives

Thomas Indian School Class of 1912 (N49053). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
As classes come to an end and students sign ‘best wishes’ in freshly printed yearbooks, it is also a good time to highlight and remember the history of Indian boarding schools in our country. The Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives collection (NMAI.AC.061), newly processed, digitized and now available online, is one collection in the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), Archive Center that brings attention to this important story.

Thomas Indian School student performance (N49048). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
While NMAI holds many Indian boarding school photographs in its collections, this set of photographs is remarkable for many reasons. At first glance, the photographs appear to depict fun or happy events at the institution such as school plays and graduation ceremonies. However, as any good photo historian will tell you, only part of the story is captured in the photographs themselves. By observing what is left out of frame the photographs can reveal a much more complex student experience.

Notably absent from the Thomas Indian School photographs is any evidence of Native cultural heritage or material culture. The school most likely enforced acculturation and assimilation by means of prohibiting Native languages and traditional cultural practices which was common for Indian boarding schools of this time period. Instead of photographs of children playing with traditional corn husk dolls, for example, there are scenes of Girl Scouts, basketball teams, and Christmas celebrations. Other photographs in the collection depict girls in cooking classes, boys in woodshop, and children tending livestock. These classes were designed so that Native students could practice a trade within non-Native communities after graduation.

Thomas Indian School cooking class (N49104). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
Although not as well-known as other Indian schools- such as Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania- the Thomas Indian school was one of the oldest and longest running Indian boarding schools in North America. It also maintained one of the largest student bodies housing as many as 200 students during the school year. Located on the Cattaraugus Indian Reservation in New York State, the Thomas Asylum for Orphaned and Destitute Indian Children, as the school was originally called, was established as a private institution in 1855. In 1875 the school was transferred to the care of the New York State Board of Charities and in 1905 it was renamed the Thomas Indian School. Iroquois children from Seneca (Cattaraugus), Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Tuscarora communities attended the school until it was finally closed by the state in 1957.

Thomas Indian School Girl Scouts (N49064). Thomas Indian School glass plate negatives (NMAI.AC.061), National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center.
While there are reports of some students having positive experiences at the Thomas Indian School, in part because of the friendships they made, it is important to remember that this was not the experience for many Native boys and girls. In an era when most boarding schools had a mission to “civilize” young American Indians or as the Carlisle motto dictates, “kill the Indian, save the man,” many children suffered poor treatment and were stripped of their culture, identity, and families.

Though we can deduce a lot of information by reading and interpreting the photographs there are still many unanswered questions. The most obvious and perhaps the most important lingering questions being--Who were these students? What were their names and what stories are still untold? Moving forward, NMAI plans to provide these photographs to the Thomas Indian School reunion that will take place in New York in the fall. The hope is that family members and former students will be able to identify individuals so that we can finally put names to faces and make sure their stories don’t stay untold.

Emily Moazami, Assistant Head Archivist
National Museum of the American Indian

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