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‘Away From Home’ exhibit offers striking stories of American Indian boarding schools

The executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter says the impact of the tour has brought visitors to tears.

Loren Spears explained the painting next to her at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown.Stew Milne

SOUTH KINGSTOWN — For some visitors, the dark chapter of US history illustrated in “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories,” currently on exhibit at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown, sparks a profoundly emotional experience.

“They didn’t know the depth and breadth of the boarding schools,” said Lorén Spears (Narragansett-Niantic), the executive director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter. “We have a lot of people writing in the comments at the exhibit just about the pain of it. We had people who were brought to tears by the impact.”

A photo and quote from Juanita Cruz Blue Spruce on display at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at the University of Rhode Island in South Kingstown. Stew Milne

“Anyone who has a child, to envision your child being taken away at a young age and taken from their community, stripped of their clothing and anything related to their community — their clothes are changed, their language is changed, their religion is changed,” she said. “You are told everything about you is bad. That’s painful psychologically. There was unfortunate physical violence that took place. People were really traumatized by this system.”

The exhibit featuring first-person Native American perspectives is appearing in New England for the first time. The Tomaquag Museum is only the second native-led host for the national tour, which was adapted from the permanent exhibit at the Phoenix-based Heard Museum by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ NEH on the Road program and the Mid-American Arts Alliances.

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Before and after photos of Tom Torlino as he entered the Carlisle Indian School in 1882 and later in 1885, on display at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at URI. Stew Milne

The show tells the traumatic stories of the US government-run off-reservation American Indian boarding schools from 1879 to the present.

“The exhibit reminds people that there were ulterior motives to every one of these things that happened,” Spears said. “The warfare, the Dawes Allotment Act, these things were meant to take the land. Bounties on Indigenous lives happened all across the country, but mostly during the gold rush, to move Indigenous people to make the land appear vacant.”

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The chance to bring the exhibit to Rhode Island came at the New England Museum Association Conference, where Spears said she met a woman who worked at the Mid-American Art Alliance who was seeking hosts for the show, which is now touring for the first time.

"Indian Land For Sale" advertisement on display at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at URI. Stew Milne

“We were really excited to participate,” Spears said. “We speak to the intergenerational trauma of boarding schools and industrial schools. The impact of places like Carlisle Indian Industrial School on local tribal communities. We felt it was an important story to tell and is often overlooked.”

According to the Carlisle Indian School Project, the first government-run boarding school for children in Carlisle, Pa., opened in 1879. The goal was to force the assimilation of Native American children into white American society, believing that one could “Kill the Indian, Save the Man,” the Carlisle Project says.

Thousands of students attended the school during its 39 years of operation from 1879 to 1918.

Spears said visitors to “Away From Home” remark about the resilience of the Indigenous people to turn the boarding schools from being a dark mark in history into a long-run network for the Indigenous movement, much like the Civil Rights movement.

Child handcuffs, from 1899, used to restrain children taken to the boarding schools on display at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at URI. Stew Milne

“In some way, the people used the education they got, literacy, and certain points of their education to become activists and politicians,” Spears said. “People that were advocating for Indigenous rights.”

Inside the exhibit, visitors will find paintings, boarding-school artifacts such as drab uniforms, and artifacts such as handcuffs used on small children as they were taken to the schools.

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There is also a library with children’s books and graphic novels that help make the complex exhibit easier for elementary- and middle-school age students to comprehend. The Tomaquag Museum’s resources page offers a list of other children’s books to consider.

Spears recently read “When We Were Alone,” by David Alexander Robertson and Julie Flett, to her 7-year-old twin nieces.

The book tells the story of a young girl who notices things about her grandmother that make her curious: long hair, colorful clothing, speaking Cree. She asks questions and her grandmother shares her experiences in a residential school, “when all of these things were taken away,” a summary of the book says.

“Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" on exhibit at URI. Stew Milne

“The image of a grandmother and grandchild having conversation about this, talking about all these things, it’s a really great story of resilience but also a really well-written book to express to young children what boarding school was like,” Spears said.

The exhibit itself gives adult visitors plenty to think about.

“There’s one painting in the exhibit, I believe it’s called, ‘Going Home,’” Spears said. “It’s about one of the children who were there, who never returned home in a physical sense but were going home in a sense because they passed away in the frozen landscape. The painting is spherical and depicts the child as an angel. That is just so powerful as an image when you think of these lost children.”

Spears said her parents’ and grandparents’ generations lived through this time, and she had an uncle who attended one such boarding school.

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Before and after photographs of students on display at the “Away From Home: American Indian Boarding School Stories" exhibit at URI.Stew Milne

“It impacts the rest of your family and multiple generations,” Spears said. “All our staff, native and non-native, feel something to host this. It’s not just a third-person perspective. We are sharing first-person perspectives from our own families and our own community. One of our presenters last night said that when they are going through — they are a tribal member — they are thinking about their own children and the experience of their own family members. It’s very, really overwhelming.”

Spears said it wasn’t until the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 that the last Native American industrial school closed in Rhode Island, and the government recognized that Native American children were being removed from their homes and communities at a much higher rate than non-native children.

While Rhode Island did not have a federal boarding school, some Native Americans were sent to Carlisle boarding school, Dartmouth in Massachusetts, and an industrial school at Rhode Island College. The industrial school taught American Indians trades similar to those offered at boarding schools, Spears said.

“There are moments we have to stop the ceremony because it’s so difficult to process all of that,” she added. “This intergenerational trauma wasn’t that long ago.”

“Away From Home” runs until Jan. 7 at the University of Rhode Island campus, 59 Upper College Road, Kingston, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is free.

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Carlos Muñoz can be reached at carlos.munoz@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @ReadCarlos and on Instagram @Carlosbrknews.