Three months ago, the Autry’s Institute for the Study of the American West initiated a new experiment in activating specific collections of the Libraries and Archives of the Autry and engaging diverse scholars and artists in the research of those collections. We called it an Undisciplined Research Project, reflecting our desire that participants find a way to step out of the comfort of their established disciplines, and pointing to the possibly unpredictable outcomes of their investigations and discourse. In introducing both the project and this blog series in my initial post on September 23, I said I would be monitoring the process as well as the outcomes to assess levels of success and areas for improvement. So, what, in fact, was learned?
The selective amnesia that defines the United States’ relationship with Indigenous peoples is starkly apparent when non-Indians are introduced to the topic of Indian boarding schools. Now that this history is more accessible on film, in newly digitized photographic resources, and in recorded oral histories such as the Cante Sica Boarding School Stories archive at the Autry National Center, the remaining question is, “What comes next?” Is reconciliation possible?
As the Autry Institute’s Chair of Western Women’s History, I have become accustomed to the Autry’s collaborative and innovative approach to conversations about the history, art, and cultures of the place we know as the American West. Autry programs and publications have a way of bringing together a wide array of people—curators, scholars, conservators, designers, executives, staff, trustees, docents, members of the public, researchers, writers, and creative artists from across the Los Angeles area and the nation. So on the evening of the recent Undisciplined Conversation about the collection of oral histories of survivors’ experiences at Indian boarding schools, it was not surprising, but still refreshing, to hear varied takes on the rich and sometimes disturbing, sometimes heart-opening set of stories in the Cante Sica Boarding School Stories archive.
What is memory? In examining one’s own life, what events are recalled in detail? Who and what are forgotten? These are some of the questions that intrigued me as I explored the twenty-some- odd hours of interviews in The Cante Sica Boarding School Stories archive at the Autry National Center of the American West.
When I first approached the Undisciplined Research Project, I set out to study the relationship between Indian boarding schools and Native artistic traditions. I hoped to find that Native American students continued to practice their traditional arts at the boarding schools. I was surprised, however, that this was often not the case.
For my work as a researcher in the Autry’s Undisciplined Research Project, I had the privilege of studying the Autry’s collections of American Indian boarding school material with specific focus on the interviews in The Cante Sica Boarding School Stories archive. My work gave me the opportunity not only to learn from the first-person journeys of various tribal members but also to examine student poetry and art, as well as artifacts and pamphlets from the boarding schools.
On the morning of October 25, 1918, a Southern Pacific train crept into the San Xavier American Indian Reservation station south of Tucson, Arizona. As the wheels screeched against the tracks, slowing the train’s momentum, reservation superintendent T. F. McCormick awaited its freight. Beside him, a woman later watched as men lowered a coffin carrying her son’s body to the platform.
From its inception in 2002, the Autry’s Institute for the Study of the American West strove to bring the most exciting scholarship, much of it produced by professors at universities, into the exhibitions, publications, and programs of the Autry. In carrying out this mission over the past twelve years, the Institute has helped bridge the divide that had grown up between academy and museum. But the creation of connections has not always been smooth, owing to the differences in how professors and museum professionals think and work.
As many of you know, Native Voices is the resident theatre company of the Autry National Center of the American West. We are currently celebrating our twentieth anniversary of developing and producing plays by Native writers, and for fifteen of those years we have proudly done so at the Autry. During that time span we have developed close to 200 new theatre works and mounted seventeen world premieres. Blessed with a large and amazing pool of talented Native actors and theatre artists, Native Voices at the Autry has brought greater authenticity to the portrayal of Native peoples on stage.
The Cante Sica Foundation’s Boarding School Stories visual histories are invaluable additions to the Libraries and Archives of the Autry’s collections related to Indian boarding schools. They unite past experiences with present perspectives, adding an additional layer of knowledge to a topic too often rooted solely in a historical point of view. Together with the contextualization provided by other library and archival materials, they allow researchers the opportunity to more fully explore a lived experience. And by ensuring the accessibility of the personal narratives of individuals brave and generous enough to share their voices, earlier printed research materials join with the present through the vibrant, living element of contemporary voices.