PHOENIX — It is the hair you remember, long after you've left the museum. The crisp snip of the shears. The strands of ebony piled around the barber's chair, some still tightly braided. The woman's anguished voice: "I cried aloud, shaking my head all the while until I felt the scissors against my neck."
When American Indians were forced to attend federally operated boarding schools beginning in the late 1800s, their long hair was lopped off immediately upon arrival as part of the effort to "civilize" the natives. It was one of the most devastating acts of the boarding school experience.
Today, that act is relived in an exhibition that traces the history of the boarding school system through the words and memories of those who attended, operated and founded the schools.
"Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience" is the first comprehensive exhibition examining the federal government's quest to use education to assimilate Indians into mainstream society and rid the country of its so-called "Indian problem." It will run for up to five years at Phoenix's Heard Museum, a showcase for Indian art.
Tens of thousands of Indians — some by force, others by choice — attended boarding schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs beginning in 1879. At one point there were more than 100 such schools; today there are just four.
"The boarding school experience is crucial to understanding Native America today," says Margaret Archuleta, curator of fine art at the Heard. "Indian or not, this exhibit is an important examination of our society — both past and present."
Five years in the making, the exhibit takes visitors through the evolution of the school system, from its beginnings as a program to strip Indians of their cultural and religious practices to the boarding schools of today, which celebrate Indian heritage.
The show was the brainchild of Archuleta, who along with a handful of Indian historians, curators and educators gathered memorabilia from archives across the country and conducted more than 100 hours of interviews with former boarding school students and teachers.
Their words, captured in text, audio and video, accompany visitors through the show, lending poignant authenticity to the visual images that bring the school experience to life.
The exhibition starts out as the students did — on the reservation. Before a sweeping photograph of desert brush and canyons, the sound of horse hooves can be heard, along with Indians speaking their native languages.
Then come the train whistles as students are delivered to school, and black and white photographs of some of the earliest institutions — including Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, established in 1879 as the first BIA-operated boarding school.
In the background are voices of students recalling their arrival:
"The big boys were singing brave songs. They were expecting to be killed any minute. …"
"They looked at you, guessed how old you were, set your birthdate and gave you an age. Then they assigned you a Christian name. Mine turned out to be Fred. …"
Especially striking are before and after photographs taken by the schools to document their success.
One features 11 Chiricahua Apache children upon their arrival at Carlisle. They are barefoot, with long hair. Their clothes hang loose and are caked with dirt. They stare at the camera in defiance and confusion. Another photograph, taken four months later, shows the boys in matching uniforms, their hair cropped short. The girls wear prairie dresses. This time, they are posed.
The second half of the exhibit is divided into rooms that depict various aspects of boarding school life: the dormitories, classrooms and extracurricular activities. Each reflects the changing attitudes that shaped the schools through the years.
For example, early students were taught Christian hymns and performed in military bands, while tribal music and dance were prohibited. Later, students formed Indian clubs and held annual pow wows, featuring those very traditions that once were banned.
Perhaps the most memorable element of the exhibit is the lone barber's chair, its base covered in hair, that represents the traumatic beginning of the boarding school experience.
"To cut their hair like white men is to be separated from your ancestors, to be separated from your ties to your spiritual heritage," explains Rayna Green, director of the American Indian Program at the National Museum of American History and a member of the consulting committee for the Heard exhibit.
"The idea was to turn them into something other than Indian, to stop them from being savages, and all the symbols of their savagery were to be taken away from them," she says. "The haircutting had to go along with that."
While the exhibit examines injustices done against the Indian students, it also celebrates what good came out of the schools. Many Indian artists got their start at the institutions. Olympian Jim Thorpe attended one. Lifelong friendships, even marriages, began at the schools.
And, in the end, the children the schools sought to Americanize instead "Indianized" the schools.
Today, while the system has come full circle, the schools stand as an everlasting symbol of segregation and stereotypes — some of which persist to this day.
"The schools are like a little mirror of society's shifting yet very persistent attitudes toward Indian people," says Green, adding that the exhibit "is a way of getting Americans to look at something that exemplifies the way people have thought about Indians. That's very powerful."
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EDITOR'S NOTE — Pauline Arrillaga is the AP's Southwest regional writer, based in Phoenix.
— Arizona Daily Sun