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.
Such beautiful pieces. And such a touching story. When we were in Tucson a few years back, we visited a mission that was on a reservation. It made me very sad to see it. i won’t get all political here but it was just very sad. Again…these pieces are beautiful.
Thanks for the comment. I don’t want to get political either, but some things from the past can still make you so sad or mad or both, even though you know your reaction can’t make the past better. The same mistakes were repeated over and over, only with different groups of people. You just hope we have learned some lessons.
One can only hope. 😦
I don’t think this is a political issue at all, it’s a reality of our culture that for some reason we have a really hard time acknowledging. This is one way white American was able to “conquer” the Native American, you had to destroy their culture and taking the children away, forbidding them their language, cloths, family was one way to do it.
And you know, there are still native Americans here!!! This isn’t something that just happened long ago, white America just still doesn’t want to deal with it. Native Americans still have enormous challenges and I feel to call it political and then back off is unfortunate, they are still here, like some invisible minority. Check out what’s happening now, in the reservations. They are not gone.
I was trying to acknowledge that reality in my post. Maybe I didn’t express myself well, but I was trying to show the impact that that one exhibit case had on me, and how it brought home to me this particular tragedy of our history. I also wanted to express my respect for the talented individuals who had created those beautiful garments.
Let’s say I had gone to an exhibit of “The History of Singer Sewing Machines.” I might respect the beauty of the woodworking in the cabinets, even while I mourned the fact that those sewing cabinets were most likely made from trees in the Singer Tract, the last remaining habitat of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Even though many people tried to buy that property to preserve it, in 1938 Singer had it clearcut. I would have the same kinds of mixed feelings about that exhibit.
In neither case would my short review of one exhibit include whatever knowledge and opinions I have about current and international implications of complex, long-standing issues. There are plenty of other places on the web for people who want thorough information on the conditions of Native Americans – I am not qualified to give that information. I’m just here to try to shine a spotlight on the textile work of ordinary people, wherever I find it. In this case I was trying to point readers to another resource, where I felt museum curators had done an exceptional job of using artifacts to inform viewers of a sad aspect of our culture.
What a long answer, but you can tell, you gave me a lot to think about!
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