Perhaps it was the camera that frightened the young lady in the bottom right hand corner. After all, the caption says this photo was taken in 1892, a time when lots of kids hadn't even seen a camera, had no idea what such a thing did, and certainly had never before been a target. I'd like to think that what has her so terribly uneasy is a stranger with a black veil over him behind a huge camera on a heavy tripod.
Maybe a flash, too. The corners of the photo aren't lit. That may have been a lens problem, or maybe that hooded photographer carried one of those wide flash guns that exploded with light and fire. Maybe that's what made her afraid--she certainly looks scared.
But then, she's Blackfoot, and lots of Native people believed that a photograph somehow steals away a part of his or her soul. Maybe the look on her face is fear of what might happen to her once the picture is taken.
What's startlingly evident in the photographs on exhibition at Calgary's Glenbow Museum, an exhibition titled "Where Are the Children?--Healing the Legacy of Residential Schools," is that this little girl's fear isn't unusual. Other photographs of residential school children feature similarly affected students. And it's not hard to see that in this one, no one--not one student--looks in any way happy.
"Don't generalize," you're saying. Chances are that same hooded photographer in a school in Ireton or Indianapolis, in Sioux Center or Pocahontas would have caught the same look--"readin' and writin' and 'rithmetic/taught to the tune of a hickory stick." Violence was simply the way education was accomplished in ye olden days--even the Bible invites it: "spare the rod and spoil the child." Maybe abuse was the curriculum.
But what the Glenbow photographs document is a peculiar phenomenon because this residential school, public or private, really wasn't like its counterparts in Ireton or Pocahontas or Indianapolis, circa 1900, because the mission of this school was to end a way of life, to destroy a culture, to reshape children into something they'd never been. No white parent would have stood for that mission, a school dedicated to retooling children's minds and hearts and spirits.
Still, it's hard to look at these pictures and demonize all the white folks. Here's a faculty.
It's really hard for me, a white man, to believe every one of these teachers is an abuser, a closet criminal, men and women who have chosen to teach in residential Indian schools because no one cares about what happens there and they'll be free to carry out their horrors.
Okay, maybe the older men in the background and the woman with her arm up over the guy with fancy bibs. Maybe them. What's more, her elbow points at a man who looks for all the world as if he's hiding something.
But what about the young couple, second row, far right? They look as young and idealistic as any first-year teacher, don't they?
Not long ago, we drove past the last remaining building of what once was Pipestone (MN) Indian Training School, an institution that once upon a time was simply massive.
It was the day before Halloween, and the friends we were with told us about a friend of theirs, an Ojibwa from up north, who refused to go back to Pipestone ever, even though the quarries outside of town hold the only reserve of the precious, soft stone Native people from all over the west use to fashion pipes used in spiritual ways, a tiny piece of ground that belongs to Native people by way of a treaty signed by the Yankton Sioux way back in the 1850s. The Ojibwa man swears he will not return to Pipestone, they said, because of what went on at the school he attended as a boy--this school.
Only one building still exists these days. This one, the old administrative building created from Sioux Quartzite, far left on the old post card above.
The front porch is falling apart now, but once upon a time lots of Native kids--Dakota, Ojibwa, Lakota--probably sat inside waiting to see the headmaster. Were all of them in terror? Did what happened inside scar every one of them?
On the day before Halloween, it wasn't at all hard to imagine this place a real haunted house.
What's most troubling about "What Happened to the Children?" an exhibition of photographs at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, Canada, is the panicky look on the faces of so many children. Look at the faces in that picture at the top.
The photographs document a story of Native people, aboriginals.
But it's my story too.