Cultural Amnesia Meets Burning Historical Memory

Image from Nawadiniwe: A Native American Boarding School Story by multimedia artist Eve-Lauryn LaFountain. Courtesy of Eve-Lauryn LaFountain
Image from Nawadiniwe: A Native American Boarding School Story by multimedia artist Eve-Lauryn LaFountain. Courtesy of Eve-Lauryn LaFountain
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?

Sacagawea by Way of Carlisle

Kim Wiggins, Lewis & Clark Among the Mandan, 2004, oil on canvas. Donated by Mrs. Gene Autry. Autry National Center; 2005.24.1
Kim Wiggins, Lewis & Clark Among the Mandan, 2004, oil on canvas. Donated by Mrs. Gene Autry. Autry National Center; 2005.24.1
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.

Memories That Haunt and Reaffirm

Booklet, Chilocco: School of Opportunity for Indian Youth, 1933. Chilocco, Oklahoma: Indian Print Shop. Autry Library, Autry National Center; E97.6.C4 C45 1933
Booklet, Chilocco: School of Opportunity for Indian Youth, 1933. Chilocco, Oklahoma: Indian Print Shop. Autry Library, Autry National Center; E97.6.C4 C45 1933
 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.

Maintaining Cultural Knowledge Through the Arts

Harrison Begay (Navajo, 1917–2012), Navajo Horse Race, circa 1936, paint on paper, 21 x 10.75 in. The General Charles McC. Reeve Collection, Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; 491.G.686
Harrison Begay (Navajo, 1917–2012), Navajo Horse Race, circa 1936, paint on paper, 21 x 10.75 in. The General Charles McC. Reeve Collection, Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; 491.G.686
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.

The Resiliency of NDNZ

Student poetry in Writings Diné, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1971. Brigham City, Utah: Language Arts Department, Intermountain School. Donated by Ellen Grim. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; 970.696 34, N318, W83w, 1971
Student poetry in Writings Diné, volume 1, number 1, Fall 1971. Brigham City, Utah: Language Arts Department, Intermountain School. Donated by Ellen Grim. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; 970.696 34, N318, W83w, 1971
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.

Surprising Diversity in the American Indian Boarding School Experience

Students learning to make furniture at the Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Oregon, undated lantern slide. Unidentified photographer; the Edmondson Co. The George Wharton James Collection, Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; LS.1128
Students learning to make furniture at the Chemawa Indian School near Salem, Oregon, undated lantern slide. Unidentified photographer; the Edmondson Co. The George Wharton James Collection, Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; LS.1128
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.

The Maverick Magic of Undisciplined Collaboration

research-gathering
Undisciplined Research Project participants share their findings and thoughts at the inaugural Undisciplined Conversation. From left to right: Institute director David Burton, photographer Pamela Peters, art historian Yve Chavez, playwright Laura Shamas, and historian Preston McBride.
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.

Legacy and Loss: Stories From the Indian Boarding School

A group of Apaches upon arrival at Genoa  Indian Industrial School. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society, RG4422-01-71
A group of Apaches upon arrival at Genoa Indian Industrial School. Courtesy of the Nebraska State Historical Society, RG4422-01-71
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 Voices in Boarding School Documents

The Sandpainter: Published in the Interest of Student Activities at Albuquerque Indian School, volume 2, number 10, February 29, 1936. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center
The Sandpainter: Published in the Interest of Student Activities at Albuquerque Indian School, volume 2, number 10, February 29, 1936. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center
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.

The Healing Power of One’s Own Story

The Sherman Institute at Riverside, California, 1903, Sunset Photo Engraving Co. Silver gelatin print. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; A.68.18
The Sherman Institute at Riverside, California, 1903, Sunset Photo Engraving Co. Silver gelatin print. Braun Research Library Collection, Autry National Center; A.68.18
There are moments in your life that alter your perceptions and relationships. Most of us are aware of these moments only in retrospect. However, on a few special occasions, sometimes, just sometimes, we can feel the shift as it is actually occurring. This happened to me in February 2013.