Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Indian School

"A piece of American history I never knew"

On my last full day in the US we visited the Heard Museum in Phoenix. The museum was set in a Spanish colonial style building and comprised collections of Indian artifacts including basketwork, pottery and the intriguing Katsinca 'dolls' - intricate models that were used for teaching the children about Indian religion. The exhibits showed how the different peoples lived, from the farming Pueblo nations to the nomadic tribes and also how they live today.

The exhibit that I found most extraordinary though, was the Indian Schools. The picture above shows a Navajo called 'Tom Torlino' - doesn't sound very Indian, does it? The picture on the left is how Tom was when he arrived at the school, on the right after he'd been there a while. Now, as you can see, Tom was a young man not a child. But children were sent - forcibly taken from their homes and sent - to the Indian Boarding schools from as young as five years old.

You see, 'taming the savage' by sending him to school and turning him into a little American was one way of 'solving the Indian problem'. Indian problem? Oh, the fact that they were occupying land that ... well, I guess historically I have to say 'we' (being of Anglo/Norman descent) wanted. Take George Washington, that paragon of liberation who freed the US from the Brits... he said “…(They) were wolves and beasts who deserved nothing from the whites but 'total ruin.” Um... guess they aren't going to use that quote often in modern history teaching?

The exhibit at the Heard was moving - the schools only closed as recently as the 1930s I think. This is quite a good site: "http://historyday.crf-usa.org/1712/introduction.html" with a basic introduction if you want to learn more.

So I wanderd round the exhibit with Nadine - looking at black and white photos of Indian children clutching each other in panic and pain, lined up like little Edwardian children, dressed in European style clothes, and the hair of the men shorn and neatly parted. To most Indian tibes, the cutting off of hair indicated that a man was a coward. So, these kids - perhaps as young as five, perhaps as old as 16, were taken from their homes, shaven, their clothes taken from them, the names taken from them, and then taught basic skills and 'how to be American'. This was one 'solution' to the Indian problem. Beats what Mr Jefferson wanted to do: “…(The US should) “pursue [Indians] to extermination, or drive them to new seats beyond our reach."

And hey - didn't it just work out fine? Didn't they get just what they wanted? A completely assimilated race who just fit neatly into the American model of a perfect citizen? Well, I guess not. No matter how many cultures try to overtake another - be it Japan invading China, Germany invading Poland or England invading India... it never works. Cultures that have been in existence for thousands of years cannot be wiped out through forced assimilation.

I have no idea what we as people have learned from this throughout history - I have a nasty feeling that this desire to conquer and convert (culturally, religiously or even in appearance if you want to look at celebrity 'worship') is such an ingrained part of human nature that, as a species, we won't ever really stop or change. We may intellectually examine the options, and decide what is morally right or wrong, but when it comes to the 'crunch' (and the next one on the calendar is probably not going to be world war three but global warming in my humble opinion), we will revert to our most basic of instincts.

I never met or spoke to any Native Americans (apart from one shop assistant who sold me a great hat) when I visited the US, but I did learn a lot from my visit to the Heard. I asked Nadine if she had any cultural attachment - any sense of belonging - to the Native Americans? She said no, she felt her cultural history was that of the settlers in her history who came over to the US from Scotland and Ireland.

I thought about it. My personal family history is easy to trace (on my father's side). I have two massive family history volumes with pictures, photographs, family trees going back centuries. But my family came over with the Normans. Do I feel culturally part of the UK, which - I guess if you go far back enough - is Anglo Saxon and Celtic? I don't know. More to the point, I don't feel the importance of being 'English' in that way; as a Norman or a Celt. I'm just English. I love my heritage - this country and it's rich cultural variation. I also love going to other places and exploring and finding out about other cultures. I understand that as an 'imported' race, the whites in the US have as many and varied cultures as the Indians have tribes, so I understand that Nadine's 'emotional' attachment to the Native Americans is perhaps best described as one of shame at what our ancestors did. Much as I feel when I read about the many atrocities the English committed in countries all round the world in the name of 'Empire' and - oh yeah! - civilisation. We tried quite a bit of that 'taming the savage' stuff across the world, not just in the US. Don't think it's all in the dim and distant past either - there is some awful stuff we have done as a nation that is very much in living memory.

I understand that unless I set aside another lifetime for studying, I could never begin to grasp all the implications of the effects the Indian Schools had on the indiginous race and culture. So much must have been lost in that time, snatched from childhood. But much survives. And you can't crush spirit - and spirit seems to outlive every atrocity that mankind heaps upon mankind somehow.

I found more pictures on this site: www.nativeamericans.com but if you have a site you think may be of interest to anyone that this story has stirred some interest in, please post a comment or let me know.

See what a trip to a museum can bring? (By the way, my myspace site now has a song I wrote about the Indian School - http://www.myspace.com/98749481
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