Sunday, August 22, 2021

A Visit to the Heard Museum: Away from Home

When I first moved to Phoenix, Arizona in 1976, there was no mystery about how Indian School Road got its name. It went right past a very large complex where Indian children were shipped to be schooled and assimilated into the white culture. It was the aim of these boarding schools across the country to erase these children's identities and remake them into perfect little "white" citizens.
I'm happy to say that most of the buildings have been torn down, and now there are undoubtedly thousands of residents who don't have a clue about the origin of Indian School Road's name.
The exhibit detailing the boarding school experience is one of the longest running at the Heard Museum, and every time I visit it has a powerful effect on me. The exhibit includes rooms showing what classrooms and dormitories looked like, as well as photographs and quotes from the children who lived in these places. So many of those quotes are heart-breaking.
I thought I would share some of the photos I took there.
The entrance to the exhibit. Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories. The lightbox cycles through the graduation photos of Indians who graduated from these boarding schools.

The long curving entrance to the exhibit. The quote states: "I remember it was in October when they came to get me. My mother started to cry. 'Her? She's just a little girl! You can't take her.' My mother put her best shawl on me."

The entrance keeps drawing you in. "We rode three days and three nights before we reached Hampton." The aim was to get these children as far away from their families as they could.

Postcards from the Phoenix Indian School.

Another postcard from the Phoenix Indian School. These young women look happy, don't they...

Clothing and toy taken from a child when he arrived at a boarding school.

I don't know if you've heard about the hundreds of graves found at one of these boarding schools in Canada recently. "Death was the only way you could get home... it had to be a sickness or death before they'd let you out of there very long."

"Your son died quietly, without suffering, like a man. We have dressed him in his good clothes and tomorrow we will bury him the way white people do." I have no words to express how I feel about this.

Seeing this barber's chair with all the black braids littered on the floor around it always makes me cry.

"The next day the torture began. The first thing they did was cut our hair, while we were bathing our breechclouts were taken, and we were ordered to put on trousers. We'd lost our hair and we'd lost our clothes; with the two we'd lost our identity as Indians."

The entire human race has a lot to answer for, but I think the hubris of the white race is particularly heinous. This exhibit at the Heard Museum is a powerful one; one that I can't stay in very long because it seems as though the pain and sorrow seeps into my very bones. I find it diffficult to understand how anyone could walk through it and be unmoved.

Never fear! My next post about the Heard will be much happier, and it will showcase some amazing art. Stay tuned!


  1. What a moving experience that must have been, Cathy. Just the 'photos and your description brings a lump to my throat. Such awful damage to those young people! I'm glad there is a memorial; we should not forget.

  2. Cathy, I know very little out this piece of American History. That is what I love about museums. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Heartbreaking. Part of our history that we hate to acknowledge, but that we are obligated to learn from.

  4. This is just so terribly sad. And that it lasted as long as it did may just be the most despicable aspect of the whole thing.

    Since my trip last month, I've been reading about the Navajo culture a lot and thinking about the things we saw and the people we talked to in Arizona, Utah, and South Dakota. I find it almost impossible to believe that so many "good people" were involved in this kind of atrocity on both sides of our northern border for so long.

    I thought about it again last night while watching the rather over-the-top movie called Windtalkers starring Nicolas Cage. It's a significant part of Navajo Tribe history and we saw some good exhibits featuring the "windtalkers" while on the trip.

    1. Sam, did you happen to stop at Window Rock and see the Code Talker statue? A moving tribute in an unmatched setting.

  5. I feel the same way you do, Cathy, and this marks the first time I cried reading a post at this blog.
    I'm both outraged and sad for those children and their parents from whom they were stolen.
    The true history of this country must be taught and known to everyone from 1619 when enslavement began to theft of Indigenous children and denial of their culture, mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers, internment of the Japanese, etc., etc.

    Thanks for posting these photos and your commentary. Wish it could be in a billboard on Times Square for all New Yorkers and travelers to read.

    1. Too many Americans seem to believe that we can't be GREAT if we acknowledge that we've done wrong. I say we admit what we did wrong and go on to make a better world for us all.

  6. Yes. A lot of things to atone for and repair. Respect for all people would be a start, with the truth about U.S. history.

    I saw Naomi Hirahara on PP last night and was reminded dof the internment of the Japanese during WWII, many of them citizens and U.S.-born.

    George Takai wrote a memoir about his family's internment.

  7. And there's the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which is opposed by many U.S. residents, the Vietnam war left 58,000 U.S. GIS and 3 million Vietnamese dead. And the Iraq war where millions were displaced and children were orphaned.


Thank you for taking the time to make a comment. I really appreciate it!