The latest visiting exhibit at the James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art is a far cry from the usual fare at the downtown St. Petersburg museum.
The collection speaks to a time when Euro-Americans stripped Indian children of their names, braids, and identities in an American attempt to assimilate the tribes into Euro-Americanism through Indian Boarding Schools.
Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, a traveling collection from the Phoenix, Arizona-based Heard Museum, opened in Phoenix in 2000. Over the past two decades, the Heard has updated and added to the exhibit.
I grew up in the Hillsborough County School System and don’t recall learning about the history, or even existence of, Indian Boarding Schools. I didn’t read about the forced assimilation of American Indians. I first learned about the idea of “colonial mentality” via Twitter – not the classroom.
That’s why this traveling exhibit visiting St. Petersburg matters.
Cultural genocide on display challenges our patriotism. It’s hard to stomach – and even harder to look into the faces of these children, but it’s a part of history that we can learn from.
The Heard Museum collection pays little mind to the appearance of the people who created the schools; instead, it’s filled with firsthand accounts, artifacts, bone-chilling quotes, and art from American Indian artists.
From the 1800s to the 1970s, the U.S. government sent tribal children to off-reservation boarding schools, where the teachers would “civilize” them.
The exhibit contains some posed pictures from this time, revealing groups of unblinking youth, standing uncomfortably in stiff Euro-American clothing. This U.S. government saw this as a victory, but descendants of these students still feel the impact today.
The U.S. had more than 350 schools, and Away From Home focuses mainly on the western schools.
The exhibit includes a child-size set of handcuffs rusting a display case, a replica of a chopped off braid resting in a red barber chair, and photographs of Indian children smiling in laced shoes and pink ribbons.
“If I am to learn the ways of the white people, I can do it just as well with my hair on,” boarding school student and Oglala Lakota chief American Horse (Sioux) said.
His words are plastered on the wall nearest the chair.
Growth at the James
The last exhibit at the James was Warhol’s West, a collection of popping movie posters and classic Warhol photographs.
The beautiful display reveals well-known Warhol’s little-known fascination with his perceived idea of the American West.
Exhibits like this, along with the stereotypical western landscape art and sculptures of “Indian in feathers” pepper the gallery.
“It’s so important for our collective humanity to acknowledge this history,” said James executive director Laura Hine. “The humanity you feel when we look into these children’s eyes … it’s that shared humanity that influences us.”
She adds, “This museum did a great job of getting open but now we have to think ‘who do we want to be in the world?’ Our mission is to inspire.”
Maybe Hine’s referring to the lack of Indian perspective at the James. Maybe this exhibit marks the beginning of more art and history storytelling at the James and less colonialized ideas of American Indian culture.
I look forward to it.
Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories The James Museum of Wildlife and Western Art, 150 Central Ave., St. Pete. Through Mar. 16: Wed.-Mon., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Tues., 10 a.m.-8 p.m. $20; $15, students, seniors, & active military; $10, kids. thejamesmuseum.org, 727-892-4200.