Golden leaves suggesting Indigenous ancestors shimmer in a mixed-media portrait of Grace and Ira, a young mother and son pictured beneath a tree on the site of a former Indian boarding school in Arizona. Opened in 1891, Phoenix Indian Industrial School was one of the hundreds of schools designed to erase Native culture through forced assimilation.
Created by Shizu Saldamando, an artist with Japanese and Mexican roots who’s based in California, the 2019 portrait speaks to the practice of separating children from their families, elevating conversations around resilience and resistance even as a new wave of historical denialism is flooding America’s political landscape.
“Today, you don’t read about these schools in history books,” said Randy Kemp (Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, Euchee) during an interview with Hyperallergic. Kemp is an artist based in Arizona whose body of work includes a mural inside the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center where people can explore artifacts and ephemera related to the school’s past.
“Art has a place in helping people begin to understand the layers of this history,” reflected Kemp.
Phoenix Indian School closed in 1990, following decades of evolving policies and educational practices. Now it’s one of the hundreds of Indian boarding schools being addressed through the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative launched by the US Department of the Interior in June 2021, following the discovery of an unmarked mass grave containing the remains of 215 children, some as young as 3 years old, at a residential school in Canada, where the Pope recently undertook an apology tour underscoring the role of religion in boarding school atrocities.
The agency is headed by Secretary Deb Haaland (Laguna), whose grandfather was taken as a child to the Carlisle boarding school in Pennsylvania. The school’s founder coined the phrase “Kill the Indian, save the man,” reflecting the common belief among the US government at the time that Indigenous children were “savages” who needed to be “civilized.”
“Many Americans may be alarmed to learn that the United States also has a history of taking Native children from their families in an effort to eradicate our culture and erase us as a people,” Haaland wrote in a June 11, 2021 op-ed for the Washington Post. “It is a history that we must learn from if our country is to heal from this tragic era.”
In May 2022, the agency released a 106-page investigative report addressing 408 federal schools in 37 states, including burial sites at over 50 of those institutions. A future report will further elucidate marked and unmarked burial sites, boarding school impacts, and strategies for healing. Recently, Secretary Haaland launched a year-long initiative called The Road to Healing, which will include gatherings with Indian boarding school survivors and their descendants across the US.
Susan Hudson (Diné), a New Mexico artist whose body of work includes over 40 quilts conveying stories of Indian boarding school experiences, has spent decades exploring related issues such as colonization, genocide, and intergenerational trauma.
“A quilt can be the beginning of a conversation about boarding schools,” Hudson told Hyperallergic. “Making quilts is my form of activism.”
Hudson is one of several artists with work in Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, the ongoing, signature exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. A touring version launched in 2020 is being shown around the country through 2025, and an audio tour is available online.
“Not everyone will read government reports,” said Brenda Child (Ojibwe), a University of Minnesota professor and one of many Indigenous advisors for Away From Home. “The exhibit makes boarding school stories more accessible to the public.”
Entering the exhibition, visitors see a digital collage with rotating portraits of Native youth who attended Indian boarding schools, and hear the sounds of trains while traversing a curved corridor that leads to a turquoise-colored barber chair surrounded by locks of dark hair. Here, the sound of scissors serves as a haunting reminder that haircuts were intended to destroy Native identity.
Hudson’s “The Beginning of the End” (2019) quilt hangs near the exit to the exhibition by a display listing Indian boarding schools grouped by state, which indicates that they were most prevalent in Oklahoma, Arizona, Alaska, New Mexico, and South Dakota. Quilted imagery honoring family and close friends who attended the Toadlena Boarding School in New Mexico highlights practices such as assigning new names and punishing Native youth for speaking their own languages.
Near Hudson’s quilt viewers see a basket by the late Oklahoma-based artist Shan Goshorn (Cherokee), whose single-weave form features lyrics to the song “Ten Little Indians” and two historical photos of ten boys taken to Indian boarding schools, plus works by additional artists such as Jane Ash Poitras (Cree) and Felice Lucero-Giaccardo (San Felipe Pueblo).
The Heard Museum’s collection includes a mural titled “Fear of a Red Planet” (2000) by Colorado-based artist Steve Yazzie (Diné, Laguna Pueblo), which has 13 canvas panels exploring the relocation and forced removal of Indigenous people in the American Southwest.
Elsewhere, other contemporary artists addressing Indian boarding school trauma include Canadian Kent Monkman (Cree). Monkman’s 2017 painting “The Scream,” which is part of the Denver Art Museum’s collection, depicts Canadian Mounties and Catholic figures ripping Indigenous children from their mother’s arms.
In the exhibition i know you are, but what am i? (De)Framing Identity and the Body at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art in Salt Lake City, Gregg Deal (Pyramid Lake Paiute) of Colorado is currently showing “The Space Where Souls Get Eaten No. 2” (2022) an installation with two chairs symbolizing boarding school violence. Atop one, the artist has laid a long braid of his son’s hair, an element explained in a museum text panel near the piece: “In 2021, an unmarked mass grave with 200 bodies was found near the boarding school that Deal’s grandparents attended near Carson City, Nevada. Deal’s son chose to cut his hair and have it included in the sculpture to acknowledge the sacrifice made by those children and their Indigenous communities.”
Narratives have also taken shape beyond formal art spaces.
In 2008, for example, Brenda Manuelito (Diné) in Arizona and Carmella Rodriguez in New Mexico co-founded nDigiDreams to help Indigenous people create and share their stories related to health, education, and cultural preservation. Manuelito says a significant number of the 1,500 or so stories they’ve posted on YouTube involve trauma induced by boarding schools or forced removal from sacred homelands.
Even so, Manuelito cautions against assuming all boarding school experiences were traumatic. “My mom and dad met at a boarding school, so we heard the good, the bad, and the ugly growing up,” she recalled.
Patty Talahongva (Hopi) shares a similar sentiment, informed in part by her own experiences as a high school student attending Phoenix Indian School during the latter part of its existence. While there, Talahongva developed skills that helped her launch a successful journalism career. “My experience was good and it was bad, and my experience is unique to me,” she said.
As Secretary Haaland continues her conversations with Indigenous communities, curator Emil Her Many Horses (Oglala Lakota) at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, is hoping that others will also follow the work of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
And he’s convinced that arts and culture can help bring boarding school histories and impacts to light.
“It’s important that Indigenous and non-Native people talk about this as part of healing this past trauma,” said Her Many Horses. “Art is a way of starting to educate people about boarding schools.”
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