Away from Home exhibit at URI documents Indian boarding schools

The United States government has operated off-reservation Indian boarding schools from 1879 to the present. The boarding school experience is a hidden chapter in American history that continues to profoundly impact American Indian communities today. A traveling exhibit from the Heard Museum in Phoenix, AZ was brought to the University of Rhode Island campus in Kingston, RI, by the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, RI. It is the only time the exhibit has been in the Northeast.

This unknown chapter in American history, when the U.S government aimed to assimilate American Indian children into “civilized” society by placing them in far-away boarding schools, is revealed through personal stories and historical legacies. Click the image on the left above to hear a two-minute video of some of those stories. Above is a barber chair where hair was cut off upon admission to the boarding schools as part of a “de-Indianization” process.

Education was seen as the tool to “civilize” the “savages.” The federal policy of forced assimilation was a war waged on children. As the Indian Wars were winding down, government officials found it was less expensive to educate Native Americans than to fight wars. Carl Schurz, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, estimated in 1881 that it cost nearly a million dollars to kill an Indian in warfare, while it cost only $1,200 to enroll an Indian child for eight years of schooling.

Off-reservation American Indian boarding schools were established in the late 1800s and early 1900s to remove Native youth from their families and communities and force them to learn the English language and to accept an American lifeway and Christianity. The policy of cultural annihilation continued for decades.