In 1879 the American federal government began forcing many Native American children to attend boarding school. Upon arrival, their hair was cut, their familiar clothing was taken away, and they were forbidden to speak their native languages.
I knew that in my head, but, I admit, it was not a part of history that affected me strongly. Until I saw the exhibit Remembering Our Indian School Days at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. It is a huge, multi-room exhibit, but of course the part that made me pay attention was the textiles.
I looked at these items of clothing that the children were wearing when they arrived. My first thought was of all the different cultures they represented. And then I realized, that these were the very best garments these children had owned. Every single one reflected hours and hours of someone’s love and effort, their attempts to provide their children with clothing that would represent them in their best light. Even the black one in the top left corner, that seems simple, was probably hand-spun and hand-woven on a frame loom.
Think of all the effort you put into choosing your children’s clothing for the first day of school each year, or for a holiday gathering. And now imagine making those clothes by hand, knowing that your children are going to spend years away from you, subjected to a foreign culture against your wishes, and imagine how much love and time you would put into that clothing.
This dress (below) has really stayed with me. I cannot imagine how many hours went into polishing each of those little pieces of bone. They are arranged so perfectly. I wonder if just one person made it, or if it took the work of many people, to collect and prepare those ornaments.
It is immensely sad to me that these children were torn away from their families. Taking away their familiar clothing was another crime. I wonder how many similar garments were just destroyed as soon as the children got to school.
Since some of the clothing has survived, I would like to think that some boarding school workers recognized the beauty and work in the clothing, and couldn’t bear to destroy it. And now, thanks to this respectful exhibit at the Heard Museum, we can see and appreciate these rare clothing items today.