Saturday, February 25, 2012

How The West Was Lost

On our last day in Arizona, we took the kids to the Heard American Indian Art and History Museum for the other side of the story.  And what a sorrowful story it is.  Inch by inch, acre by acre, and mile by mile, Native Americans' lands were ripped away from them in the name of Manifest Destiny.  The Heard Museum, however, doesn't focus on the overwhelming hardships of the aboriginal people, but embraces the spirit and beauty of the many Native American tribes still hanging in there.

Honestly, it's a miracle they are.  Starting in 1492, Indians, as the lost Columbus dubbed them, have been subjected and subjugated to disease, famine, war and dehumanizing degradation.  From Cortez and the Conquistadors to Andrew Jackson and American policies, the Native tribes of North America have survived like a Timex watch: they take a licking and keep on ticking.  It would be easy for the Heard Museum to dwell on this, but they don't.  They simply show the American Indian experience.

We began with the dolls.  Our kids learned how the American Indian doll had a purpose bigger than entertainment.  Girls learned  how to sew clothing and how to care for infants with their doll play.  Boys learned tradition and ceremony through the symbolic dolls.  Each individual tribe had a different doll that told the story of their culture.

Next, we moved to the hands-on exhibit called We Are! Arizona's First People where all 21 Arizona tribes have voices in sharing their history, culture and interactive art.  Anabel tried her hand at intricate beadwork and learned the Grand Canyon's native Havasupai words through puzzles and stories.  Wyatt created Yaqui paper flowers and studied tribal maps.  Emma worked hard weaving beads and braiding a Hopi belt.

From Beyond Geronimo: The Apache Experience to Home: Native People of the Southwest, we learned the beauty and heart of the native tribes.  Fascinated, we moved slowly through each exhibit pausing only in the beautiful kid's room to read a children's story about Navajo blanket weaving as told by a sheep.  We were having fun!

Then, we reached the Indian Boarding School Experience and stopped cold.  Seeing this gut wrenching display, I flashed back to my memories of viewing the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.  The politicians' theory of defeating the Indians by "Americanizing" them seemed a little too close to the Nazis' "Final Solution" for me.  One speech, advocating these boarding schools, actually used the phrase, "Kill the Indian in him and save the man."  Of course, the government-ran boarding schools weren't exterminating the Natives as the concentration camps were the Jewish population, but many Indians still died of illness and homesickness or just suffered the loss of their heritage by being ripped from their parents, stripped of their clothing and belongings (including their hair) and forced into suits, dresses, and even, cheerleading costumes.  I won't describe all the despondency we saw in the exhibit.  I'll just let this picture say it all:

This is Tom Torlino, before and after spending time in an Indian Boarding School.
If the exhibit ended here, the outlook for Native Americans would have felt hopeless.  As we wandered through recreated classrooms and dormitories, a gradual shift in the schools became evident.  They weren't teaching white skills anymore; they were teaching Native arts and crafts along with geometry and literature.  Eventually, the Indians made the schools their own with many choosing to go to the same boarding school as their parents and grandparents.  Great, right?  Wrong.  As the story goes... Due to budget cuts, the government is currently closing many of the now cherished Indian schools.

In the interest of full disclosure, I proudly admit that my great-grandmother was a full blooded Cherokee Indian who married my Scottish great-grandfather and then, sadly, forgot her heritage.  The Heard Museum hit home and made me wistful for my great-grandmother's family and the struggles they encountered.  I'm so glad that our last family field trip in Arizona taught us that though the west may have been lost, the American Indian lives on.

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