There were about 360 boarding schools nationwide that operated in the 19th and 20th Centuries. They housed thousands of children separated from families across the country, including from Rhode Island. Our South County Bureau Reporter Alex Nunes visited the exhibit and spoke with Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, which is hosting the exhibit. Below is a transcript of their edited conversation.

NUNES [NARRATION]: Walking into the “Away From Home” exhibit, you see two rooms divided into several sections showing the progression of Indian boarding schools in the United States. The multimedia exhibit features photographs, furniture, clothing, audio, an interactive map of boarding schools nationwide, and an account of how indigenous Americans eventually transformed Indian education. The national touring exhibit is being hosted at URI because it’s too large for the Tomaquag Museum’s space in Exeter. The museum's executive director Lorén Spears says she wants people who visit “Away From Home” to leave with knowledge of the triumphs of indigenous people as well as the lasting trauma caused by Indian boarding schools.

SPEARS: It's a really powerful exhibit that speaks to you about the impacts of the boarding school system, but also the resilience of indigenous people, about the human indignities that took place during this process—really the violence and suffering that people individually had, but the impacts of that on families and community into what we term intergenerational trauma that still befalls our communities today.NUNES [NARRATION]: To begin the exhibit, Lorén and I make our way under an arch that reads “Indian Training School” intended to signal moving back in time to the early days of the boarding schools. Front and center we see an advertisement from the U.S. government, reading “Fine Lands in the West.” Lorén, who is Narragansett-Niantic, says this sign speaks to the underlying motivations behind the boarding schools.

SPEARS: It always gets back to land, you know, as this sign says: “Indian land for sale / get a home of your own / easy payments / perfect title / possession within 30 days.” And literally, this is just stealing the land from indigenous people as they displace them and dispossess them of those resources.

NUNES: There's a list of different states, how much acreage available in those states, and then the average price that someone can buy that land.

SPEARS: Correct. Very blatant...This next piece of the exhibit, which is about separation, arrival, and the human toll, it's talking about Pratt’s experiment. And literally, Richard Henry Pratt, he devised this approach to assimilation practices. And he really did it in a military format, and he is quoted as saying, “Kill the Indian, save the man.” And so the idea was forcibly assimilating indigenous people by stripping them literally of their dignity, but ripping them from their families and communities, taking them many states over, if you will, to other territory so that they couldn't just run away and get home. For me, when I look at some of these little people in these pictures, I think of my own children, but I think of my grandson who's three. And to think about what it would feel like to have your child forcibly taken from your arms, taken clear across the country, and then kept there for an indefinite amount of time. And then the trauma, when they finally do come home, of the suffering that they felt at the hands of these leaders of these schools.NUNES: This one piece right here speaks to that.

SPEARS: Yeah, these are handcuffs that are an example of handcuffs from 1899. When parents refused to cooperate, the federal agents used the agency police to put children on wagons and trains and withheld food rations. In 1898, there was a compulsory attendance law [that] empowered the commission of Indian Affairs to withhold food, clothing and annuities from families who refuse to send their children to government run schools. There was force to get there. And then it was force when you were there. You had to toe the mark, and you didn't have a choice. You didn't have family and community around you to protect you—you're on your own. And when you had siblings there, they would divide you up. If there were people from your own community, they would divide you up so that you couldn't speak your language to someone that you know. I have an uncle who's from another tribal community that suffered through this. And people often think of this as long ago. He's only in his late sixties today.

NUNES: Going through the exhibit, seeing the quotes from the people who founded the schools like Richard Pratt, you get the sense that they portray themselves as addressing a problem, like they're doing something good.

SPEARS: Right. It's the quote unquote “Indian problem.” So they're addressing the problem, in their minds. They're finding a way to get rid of us when you couldn't tangibly get rid of us all through war, right? So they found a new way through this forced assimilation, and through policy, sometimes talked about as legal genocide. 

NUNES [NARRATION]: The exhibit shifts in the next section. We see how student social life evolves at the boarding schools. Lorén explains how the schools stripped students of indigenous art practices and imposed Western-style art and sports on Native children. But American Indians at the boarding schools used some of these new activities to build bonds and strengthen their spirits.

SPEARS: In the end, it actually revitalized in some ways their cultural identity. Because running, for example, was part of our cultural norms. The sports, even if slightly different, were part of our culture and our communities.

NUNES: When you look at the pictures, it seems like it's very much like a source of pride.

SPEARS: Pride, but it also within those schools created a sense of community, because now you're starting, as they're growing up in this space, even though they're being forced to be there, they're starting to create these relationships with people that starts to give them a sense of community, even if one person's Lakota and another person's Diné and another person's Mohegan, they're starting to make these relationships.

NUNES [NARRATION]: The exhibit moves into a separate room that used to house the kitchen for URI’s University Club. Lorén says the museum didn’t alter the space much, because staff wanted to emphasize the barracks, military nature of the boarding schools. You see sports uniforms worn by indigenous children, and one section explores the experiences of students who ran away from the schools and the bounties offered to capture them. Leaving the room and returning to the main exhibit, we move forward in time to see how the boarding school era ended after passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 and how indigenous people came to remake the schools in their own vision.

SPEARS: So there's this new era of the schools being transformed to uplift and empower Native people within their culture, within their community, and to give back to their community, and to have the resilience and the continuation of our cultures and traditional knowledge. Despite the fact that these schools were intended to destroy our people, our communities, our nations, we're still here.

NUNES: Lorén Spears, executive director of the Tomaquag Museum, thanks very much for speaking with me.

SPEARS: You’re welcome.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: You can learn more about the exhibit at tomaquagmuseum.org/awayfromhome.]

Alex Nunes can be reached at anunes@thepublicsradio.org