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Western Heritage Center brings Indian boarding school exhibit to Billings

Posted at 1:17 AM, Apr 09, 2024

BILLINGS - American Indian boarding schools will be featured at the Western Heritage Center starting on Tuesday.

“Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" tells the story of what happens to children that the federal government took from their families and put into schools to educate and assimilate into society.

The exhibit is an opportunity to see artifacts, pictures, and memorabilia to help tell the story of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and other boarding schools from the 1870s to the 1930s.

They have diplomas hanging on the wall from the Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

A set of handcuffs is part of the exhibit.

“It is kind of gut-wrenching when you look at the handcuffs and imagining children having to wear these,” said Cecelia Gavinsky, collections manager at the center.

Gavinsky’s grandfather was a Rosebud Sioux and he was put into a boarding school in South Dakota.

 “Just the way they have been treated,” Gavinsky said about her grandfather and other children sent to the boarding schools. “So it brings it home. And he actually wrote a book and it’s in part of his book.”

The handcuffs are just one of the artifacts that were used at the boarding schools.

“It's a powerful energy once you get to stand next to it,” Gavinsky said about the handcuffs.

“So the idea that you would have that done as you entered a school situation like that is pretty appalling,” Kevin Kooistra, executive director at the center, said about children’s hair getting cut at the schools.

Kooistra showed a barber chair used at boarding schools.

“They're going to cut their hair off,” Kooistra said. “They're going to change their clothes. They're going to impose kind of a sense of military rules about what they can say or what they can speak. Can they dance? All of these things, are supposedly good for them to eradicate all those elements of their own personal cultural backgrounds.”

The traveling exhibit does show some celebrations, such as Olympic and professional athlete, Jim Thorpe, who played football at Carlisle.

“He becomes recognized because of his athletic skill set and becomes well known throughout the United States,” Kooistra said. “I don't know if people knew that he was connected to Carlisle.”

And there's the energy and excitement of the marching band.

“They're marching and they're making art and just having that part of it,” Gavinsky said. “So it's not all completely sad.”

But there are sad parts to the children in the Indian boarding schools.

“People are going to have very strong emotional impacts when they come and visit,” Gavinsky said.

“What is our place in our history?” Kooistra asked. “And how do we look back in these events and what do we learn from these events?

The exhibit runs through May 25.

About a week ago, a small semi brought the load of 20 crates, each weighing from 150 to 400 pounds.