Navigation Menu
The Dennos Museum Center
F. Johnston, Miss Forester’s art class at Carlisle Indian School, ca. 1901; photograph, variable size; Courtesy of Cumberland County Historical Society, Carlisle, PA.

Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories

Scheduled for September 1, 2021 — October 20, 2021

Beginning in the 1870s, the US government attempted to educate and assimilate American Indians into “civilized” society by placing children—of all ages, from thousands of homes and hundreds of diverse tribes—in distant, residential boarding schools. Many were forcibly taken from their families and communities and stripped of all signs of “Indianness,” even forbidden to speak their own language amongst themselves. Up until the 1930s, students were trained for domestic work and trade in a highly regimented environment. Many children went years without familial contact, and these events had a lasting, generational impact.

Native Americans responded to the often tragic boarding school experience in complex and nuanced ways. Stories of student resistance, accommodation, creative resolve, devoted participation, escape, and faith in one’s self and heritage speak individually across eras. Some families, facing increasingly scarce resources due to land dispossession and a diminishing way of life at home, sent their children to boarding schools as a refuge from these realities. In the variety of reactions, Ojibwe historian Brenda Childs finds that the “boarding school experience was carried out in public, but had an intensely private dimension.”

Unintended outcomes, such as a sense of “Pan Indianism” and support networks, grew and flourished on campuses, and advocates demanded reform. Boarding schools were designed to remake American Indians but it was American Indians who changed the schools. After graduation, some students became involved in tribal political office or the formation of civil rights and Native sovereignty organizations. The handful of federal boarding schools remaining today embrace Indigenous heritage, languages, traditions, and culture.

This exhibition explores off-reservation boarding schools in its kaleidoscope of voices. Visitors will explore compelling photographs, artwork, interviews, interactive timelines, and immersive environments, including classroom and dormitory settings. Objects such as a period barber chair and a young Seminole girl’s skirt, as well as reproduction elements poignantly illuminate first-person accounts. Stories of tragedy and familial love and friendships intersect. Experiences of gaining things useful and beautiful out of education, despite a formidable, fifty-year agenda that mostly maligned Native American capabilities, call us closer; each trial, each turning of power seeded in human survival, strengthening Indigenous identity.

This exhibition is made possible by NEH on the Road, a special initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities. It was adapted from the permanent exhibition, Away from Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories, organized by The Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona.

Resources compiled by Eric Hemenway for the Holy Childhood Boarding School Exhibit can be found here and below.


The Museum thanks our regional tribal leaders and advocates for helping to tell the story of Anishnaabek in Northern Michigan, in particular:

David M. Arroyo, Tribal Chairman, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians
Eric Hemmenway, Director of Repatriation, Archives and Records for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians
Sammie McClellan-Dyal, Cultural Department Manager, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians
Todd Parker, Native American Success Coach, Northwestern Michigan College


EDUCATIONAL MATERIALS FOR TEACHERs (PRE- or POST-VISIT)

All materials gratiously provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities for use in the classroom.

Map of Schools (All grades)
Indian Life Readers Lesson (Grade 8+)
Outreach Cards and Activities (Can be modified for all grades)
Exploring Indigenous Lands (All grades)
Yearbook / Boarding School Stories (All grades)
Visuals and Artworks (All grades)
Food - Three Sisters Garden (All grades)

Holy Childhood Exhibit Resources


Image: F. Johnston, Miss Forester’s art class at Carlisle Indian School, ca. 1901; photograph, variable size; Courtesy of Cumberland County Historical
Society, Carlisle, PA.