Heard Museum federal Indian schools exhibit — program made errors, progress

Fort Shaw Indian School women's basketball team 1904
Fort Shaw Indian School women’s basketball team 1904
For history and culture do the Heard Museum

Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his moccasins.

That’s said to be an Indian angle on the universally prudent advice to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes before pronouncing judgment.

But what if the moccasins are ripped off your feet and you’re shipped off a thousand miles?

That’s what happened to Indian youngsters when the U.S. government in the latter 19th century decided that the answer to “the Indian problem” was to Americanize the young people of the tribes thoroughly and, from today’s perspective, illegally.

What U.S court today would countenance taking all the children from a village against their parents’ wishes and sending them far away to boarding school, with the express intent of completely changing them culturally?

Ooops, today that’s called being progressive, and 21st century U.S. courts happily engage in imposing social change to mold values according to the catechism of Planned Parenthood and the sexually indeterminate — except the young victims today don’t have to be shipped elsewhere. The value-smashing comes right to them courtesy of distant federal judges and modern media.

So maybe things haven’t changed so much after all. Still, it’s worth recalling an earlier aggression when the powers-that-be ran roughshod over the subjugated. Modesty instead of arrogance by the rulers would have much to commend itself, then and now.

Phoenix’s Heard Museum of Native American culture (2301 N. Central Ave.) has a long-running, popular exhibit, “Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience, 1879 to Present.” It makes us confront the bad with the good.

The exhibit isn’t only about the old Phoenix Indian School, but the federal system of Indian schools.

A benevolent authoritarianism set out to “assimilate, acculturate and Americanize” malleable younger people. It was benevolent because it wanted to make them productive, participating members of its Christian society. It was authoritarian because it wouldn’t take no for an answer.

A school official in 1884 is quoted: “When one Indian boy or girl leaves this school with an education, the ‘Indian Problem’ will forever be solved for him and his children.”

If some of the trapped youngsters pined away for the old life and home until they died, there was a cemetery, but most of them survived. The governing class may not have thought there was much difference with the urban public schools tasked to “Americanize” a diversity of European immigrant children whose overseas lives may have been more 16th century than modern.

Acculturating the Indians took a far different approach than the malevolent path in a different country that thought it, too had a “problem,” “the Jewish problem” that 20th century pagan, eugenically “scientific” National Socialist Germany tacked. The Nazis didn’t want to better incorporate the Jews into society but exterminate them wholesale, not just here and there as happened in some Indian-U.S. military encounters.

The American Indians’ boarding schools weren’t an ideal solution at all, but they weren’t Germany’s “final solution” for its outsiders.

The Heard Museum exhibit begins with an ominous quotation attributed to Thomas Jefferson in 1803: “While they [Indians] are learning to do better on less land, our increasing numbers will be calling for more land.”

American Indians’ reactions to the boarding schools, the Heard exhibit says, “ranged from mere tolerance or resistance to a love for, participation in, and desire for control of the schools.”

After long separations from their families, “Many returned home dramatically changed, unfit to live in the communities they had left so long ago,” the exhibit says. “Others returned to become teachers, leaders and artists in their communities.”

One sees the transition in the dynamic as the decades pass. Early students came from what Eastern politicians would regard as literally “savage” backgrounds. They were deloused, sheared of long hair and of their native names, put in trousers, and lined up for photographs with pained, lost expressions on their faces. The last thing Eastern politicians wanted was a hint of Indian culture.

Move forward into the 20th century a few decades. It’s yearbooks, letterman sweaters, cheerleader clinics, choir robes, sports trophies, prizes for debating skills, and graduation gowns and tassels, what one might expect at an ordinary high school.

The government having Americanized the Indians, it becomes acceptable for older tribal tokens to reappear. A drum major is in Indian regalia including full feathered headdress, and coed musicians wear the velveteen shirts and turquoise touches that were familiar to their grandmothers. However, a fuller consciousness of Indian identity also happens, one that might not have occurred otherwise.

“Indian clubs became popular and common at the schools,” the exhibit says. “The Indian club offered the opportunity for students to explore their Indian heritage and to learn about the cultures of the other Indian students… The annual intertribal powwow became a part of contemporary boarding-school life.”

A student council president, Scott Dumars, is quoted: “You meet people from different tribes, they all have like different religions and different stories and backgrounds… It’s just fun.”

Interestingly, Greyhound buses appear in some of the photos, the transportation to get 20th century Indian teens to boarding school. Remember Greyhound’s old slogan, “Go Greyhound, and leave the driving to us”?

There’s little doubt the U.S. government’s message to subjugated Indians in the 19th century was: Leave the mandatory Americanizing to us.

Was it worth it?

Some may say it was little more than a version of the military draft, which involved dominance over individuals for some greater good.

Others with a bit more libertarian leaning would say it was unjustifiable; as an alternative, the Indian parents could have chosen to send their children away, or could have asked that they be educated more locally. Eventually the federal government saw the error of its ways, even as it moved on to enforcing new errors in the 21st century.

In a separate exhibit at the Heard Museum, “Home in the Navajo Nation” touches on the powerful call of where they come from: “The Navajos that leave the reservation / And come to Phoenix / Never intend to stay. / In their bags they pack their plans / for returning home.”

I ended the afternoon by driving north on Central Avenue then turning east to the Sacred Hogan restaurant at 842 E. Indian School Rd. It specializes in Navajo food and was included in the Jan. 18-19 weekend Wall Street Journal travel feature, “Phoenix is rising.”

Want the news? There were two different Navajo newspapers by the cash register. Want history and culture? Do the Heard Museum.

About Dexter Duggan Religion & Politics 15 Articles
Dexter Duggan has been a weekly writer for The Wanderer, a Catholic newspaper, since 1997.


  1. “Was it worth it?”
    All of us are experiencing stress and pressures from modern life. Too little time, too little exercise, too much time sitting in a fetal position in front of a computer monitor growing larger behinds than we want.

    How many of us would like to return to a neolithic lifestyle of our ancestors for more than just a novelty weekend experience? Probably not many. Most of us today wouldn’t condone taking small children from their homes. This was done from ignorance. However, I’m pretty sure there’ would be few takers among the young and old Native American folks today living on/off the reservations to go back to life without modern Western medicine, education, appliances, internet, transportation, food, etc.

  2. I’m half Florida Seminole, conservative, Republican, and know that the manner in which the US government went about to subdue (think annihilate here) the Native American tribes was a travesty. The non-Native Americans who came from the East and gradually covered the US from coast to coast and border to border were answering the call of the US government to settle cheap land that belonged to the tribes. Were they conquered? Yes. Were treaties made with the US government? Yes. However, the US government rarely, if ever, kept to those agreements. Those tribal people who were left, particularly the children, weren’t asked, but rather forced into boarding and religious schools in an attempt to insure that most of them would end up in entry level or services jobs. Rarely did a Native American doctor, nurse, lawyer, senator, or representative come out of those schools until maybe the mid-20th century. In spite of all the injustices foisted on the tribes by the US government, we survived, but pitifully so.

    In my old age, I’ve observed this generation of non-Native American descent who lap up the government handouts of food stamps, medical care, EBT cards, Section 8 housing, Obama phones, and look to the government for sustainence, and demand more government dole. When did they become reservation Indians? It didn’t work for us; what makes them think that it will work for them?

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