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Inside JCPRD: “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories”

By the Johnson County Museum What we call Kansas today has long been contested space. Kansas has been a crossroads of people, lifestyles, and ideas for hundreds of years. The

By the Johnson County Museum

What we call Kansas today has long been contested space. Kansas has been a crossroads of people, lifestyles, and ideas for hundreds of years. The struggle between Native culture, traditions, and society and their Europeanized counterparts played out across the American West, including in Kansas and Johnson County. A new exhibit at the Johnson County Museum highlights this tension by exploring the history of federal, off-reservation Indian boarding schools. Titled “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” it is a nationally traveling exhibition, on display at the Johnson County Museum for just seven weeks before moving in 20 crates to its next destination. The exhibit is packed with original photos, artifacts, artwork, and multimedia storytelling. In the exhibit, the tragic and the positive, the despicable and the empowering are all wrapped together in a nuanced exploration of our shared national history.

The Federal Indian Boarding School System

Beginning in the 1870s, the U.S. government attempted to educate and assimilate Native populations into “civilized” society by placing children – of all ages, from thousands of homes and hundreds of diverse tribes – in distant, residential boarding schools spread across the American West. Many were forcibly taken from their families and communities and stripped of all signs of “Indianness,” and were even forbidden to speak their own language amongst themselves. Up until the 1930s, students were trained for domestic work and trades in the highly regimented environments of federal Indian boarding schools. Many children went years without familial contact, resulting in a lasting, generational impact. “Away from Home” explores these off-reservation boarding schools through a kaleidoscope of voices.

Native children responded to the often-tragic Indian boarding school experience in complex ways. Stories of student resistance, accommodation, creative resolve, devoted participation, escape, and faith in one’s self and heritage speak individually across eras. Some families, facing increasingly scarce resources due to land dispossession and a diminishing way of life at home, sent their children to Indian boarding schools as a refuge from these realities. In the variety of reactions, Ojibwe historian Brenda Childs finds that the “boarding school experience was carried out in public but had an intensely private dimension.”

Students at federal Indian boarding schools were stripped of their Indigenous identities and given new ones in the Euro-American fashion – including birthdays, religion, clothing, haircuts, languages, and even names.

Flipping the Script – Indigenous Led Education

Unintended outcomes, such as a sense of “Pan Indianism” and support networks, grew and flourished on campuses, and advocates demanded reform. Indian boarding schools were designed to remake Indigenous children, but it was the children who changed the schools. After graduation, some students became involved in tribal political office or the formation of civil rights and Native sovereignty organizations. The handful of federal boarding schools remaining today embrace Indigenous heritage, languages, traditions, and culture. What is today known as Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan. was the closest federal, off-reservation boarding school to Johnson County. In the 20th century, it transitioned from a federally run Indian boarding school to a Native-run university that teaches, explores, and celebrates Indigeneity.

Before the Federal Indian Boarding School System

The federal system that “Away from Home” explores does not include the Shawnee Indian Mission State Historic Site, located in Fairway, Kansas. In fact, there were nuanced but important differences between it and the federal system:

  • First, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School, as it was known in the 19th century, pre-dated the federal system by several decades. Methodist missionary Thomas Johnson first opened it in 1829 in Turner, Kan., before moving the Shawnee mission to Fairway in the late 1830s. Despite a nearly 20-year operational history, the Shawnee school closed in the 1860s – more than ten years before the federal system developed.
  • Second, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School was an on-reservation Indian boarding school located on the Shawnee reservation. Students generally lived nearby, and according to records, were able to return home when school was not in session. But, in another example of contested spaces, the Shawnee reservation was land that had previously been inhabited by the Kanza and Osage people. The federal government had removed the Shawnee there in the 1820s as part of what in 1830 became known as the policy of Indian Removal. Though located on the Shawnee reservation, more than 20 different Native tribes sent their children to the school.
  • Third, as its name might imply, the Shawnee Methodist Mission and Manual Labor School was religiously affiliated and run by the Methodist church – specifically by missionaries like Thomas Johnson and others, not federal officials (though it did receive some federal funding). In the 19th century, there were also Baptist and Friends (Quaker) mission schools in Johnson County.

Know Before You Go

“Away from Home” contains stories of resilience, revitalization, agency, honor. Yet it also contains descriptions of human indignities, hardships, and phrases that reflect historically racist perspectives and language from past eras. In presenting historical facts about acts of seemingly unfathomable violence and suffering in the lives of Native peoples, this exhibition is advised for more mature audience members, grades eight to adult. “Away from Home” will leave visitors thinking more deeply about contested spaces, the role of education in society, and the complexities of hearing from all the voices of the past.

Tom Torlino, a Navajo student at the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, upon entry in 1882 (left) and after three years of Indian boarding school re-education (right).

This traveling exhibition was adapted from the permanent exhibition, “Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” organized by The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Ariz. Both exhibits were supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this exhibition do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is brought to you by the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City’s Crossroads District, The National Endowment for the Arts, and The Chickasaw Nation.

“Away from Home: American Indian Boarding Schools” will be on display Feb. 1 to March 18, at the Johnson County Museum. The Museum will present related programming during the exhibition’s run. Visit JCPRD.com/museum for more information and to plan your visit.