Resisting the Mission; Filling the Silence
Seven sets of two (14 baskets total) Size approx 21” x 6.75” x 6.75” each
Arches watercolor paper printed with archival inks, acrylic paint, artificial sinew
With the end of the Indian wars and tribal communities safely sequestered away on specified lands allotted to them, the country felt driven to solve the "Indian problem" of entire native nations being forced into dependency upon the U.S. Government. It was the brainchild of Captain Richard H. Pratt to create a military inspired Indian boarding school to assimilate native children. Here, they would learn to speak, dress, act and think like white citizens, thus eradicating native culture in one generation. Native children were coerced or forced from their families and taken far from home to this Pennsylvania facility, often for many years; their education included punishment for "acting Indian.” Perhaps the most devastating offense was the speaking of tribal language which was forbidden, thus silencing an entire generation of voices. It was Pratt's goal to engage the new medium of photography through “before and after” photographs to advertise the success of his social experiment to integrate native children into mainstream white society, even employing techniques such as photographically lightening skin tones and padding the children's clothing in the “after” photos to make them appear well-nourished and able to "fit in.” He hired professional photographers of the day for this campaign, most notably John Choate and Alexander Gardner.
My collection of seven column-basket sets began with the "before and after" images taken of native children upon their immediate arrival to Carlisle and after some time spent at the school. These historic photographs were researched in a variety of notable collections including the National Museum of the American Indian and National Anthropological Archives (both part of the Smithsonian Institution) and the Cumberland County Historical Society, located in the same Pennsylvania town as the school. Over the course of one year, I alternately carried the printed images with me as I traveled or shipped them to willing venues to encourage varied community interaction, asking people to write their comments directly on the surface of these reproductions before they were cut into splints and woven into Cherokee style single-weave baskets. The remarks were heartfelt and poetically beautiful, ranging from family stories of tribal members who attended this iconic institution to remorse about the way these children were treated during this ugly part of American history.
The exteriors of the baskets include Pratt's promotional address where he coined the phrase ‘Kill the Indian, save the man’ which served as a guiding mission statement for Carlisle and many other institutions that followed. The interiors feature names from the student roster of this school. From 1878-1918 when this boarding school was open, approximately 10-12,000 native children from all over the United States attended the facility, earning the status now defined by many native activists as Prisoners of War.
This school and assimilation campaign was a heinous attempt to destroy an entire culture through government sanctioned whitewashing techniques. Historical trauma still haunts native people as a result of this deliberate theft of language, family and culture. I hope this piece will give audiences- especially native people- an opportunity to overcome the silence that has been suffered for too long.
"We remember your sacrifices. You have not been forgotten.”
(From the “Memorial Song,” written by the artist)