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Lesson No. 1: Shed your Indian identity

A major exhibit explores the legacy of forcing native American children into boarding schools in the 1900s

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Whether toddlers or teens, they were taken from home and shipped thousands of miles to dreary barracks. Their hair was cut, they were given new names, and each was assigned a number.

The United States government began this brutal attempt at social engineering in 1879. Breaking rebellious Indians by indoctrinating their children in Anglo ways was considered a cost-effective alternative to war. But the personal cost to native Americans was incalculable.

"Remembering Our Indian School Days: The Boarding School Experience," an exhibit at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, examines this dark chapter of American history.

Exhibits and books about native American boarding schools give the public "some clue about where we've been, and that we're now really making a massive attempt to participate in American academic life," says Elizabeth Cook-Lynn of South Dakota's Crow-Creek Reservation, author of "Anti-Indianism in Modern America."

The Heard, nationally renowned for its indigenous art and artifact collections, considers this to be the most comprehensive exhibition ever offered about the boarding schools. Nearly half a million people have viewed it since the opening a year and half ago, and the museum expects to keep the display up for several more years.

Walking through the exhibition, it is easy to understand why Heard archivist LaRee Bates says the forced education program was "absolutely devastating" for the children and their families. "They were literally kidnapped, loaded on wagons or trains, and all of them thought at any moment they were going to die. When the children arrived at the schools, it was the first time they'd been away from home." Many former boarding-school students, she says, including her own aunts and a grandmother, found their memories too painful to discuss.

'Rehabilitated' with clothes, haircuts

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