September 01, 2014

Museum opens Boarding School Experience exhibit

FSIS Graduates Ron Burgess (left) and Rita Wahnee (right) look over items to be displayed as part of the “Fort Sill Indian School - The Boarding School Experience” exhibit at the Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center in Lawton. PHOTO COURTESY COMANCHE NATIONAL MUSEUMLAWTON, Okla. – The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center (CNMCC) celebrates the history and legacy of an Oklahoma historical institution with the opening of a new exhibition titled Fort Sill Indian School – The Boarding School Experience. The exhibit will be on display at the museum September 30, 2010 through April 30, 2011.  The public is invited to attend the opening event/reception on Thursday, September 30th at 1:06 pm.  Light refreshments will be served.   The opening of this exhibit kicks off the start of the 19th annual Comanche Nation Fair.
The exhibit was conceived, developed and organized by CNMCC staff and consists of photographs and memorabilia documenting the life and times of the school.  Fort Sill Indian School (FSIS) was opened on February 20, 1871 by Ohio preacher, Reverend Josiah Butler, his wife, Elizabeth, and members of a Quaker organization called the Society of Friends.  Its first class consisted of just seven American Indian children but over the next 109 years, thousands were educated there.  Initially, FSIS provided instruction through only the 8th grade with additional grades added throughout the 1930s.  The first graduating class received their high school diplomas in 1939.
FSIS operated with a traditional curriculum until 1936-37 when emphasis was placed on vocational subjects devoted mainly to farming and homemaking.  Students attended class a half day and worked the other half.  Work details involved dairy farming, engineering, laundry work, kitchen work and anything else that needed to be done around the school.  Many of the students remained on campus eleven months of the year in order to care for student projects such as field crops and farm animals.
Until the mid-1940s, FSIS only accepted students from 7 Oklahoma tribes:  Comanche, Kiowa, Caddo, Delaware, Wichita, Apache and Kiowa-Apache.  Enrollment dropped drastically by the end of World War II.  The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs then changed policy and allowed Navajo students from Arizona and New Mexico to be admitted.  Other tribes soon followed.  Students from as many as 14 states and 64 different tribes received their education at FSIS.  In 1960, the school’s program changed from vocational to academic and basic core courses were required for graduation.  During the 1970s, FSIS faced a decline in the number of local students and by this time, most of its students came from out of state.  FSIS wasn’t alone.  The same scenario was also being played out at other Indian schools across the country.  The government stepped in to assess the situation and concluded that it was in its best interest to close a number of off-reservation boarding schools.  FSIS was one of the schools forced to close. The school graduated its last class in the spring of 1980.  Many of the old buildings still stand today.  The campus is largely closed to the public but special events are occasionally held on site, including powwows and a yearly gathering of FSIS Alumni.

About the Boarding School Experience:
In the late 1800s, policy makers assumed the Indians would change if they were kept away from their traditional ways.  Reformers believed that with the proper education and treatment, Indians could become just like other citizens.  They convinced the leaders of Congress that education could change at least some of the Indian population into patriotic and productive members of society.  For the government, it was a possible solution to the so-called “Indian problem.”
“The early boarding school era was not pleasurable by any means for the first American Indian students who experienced it,” said Phyllis Wahahrockah-Tasi, CNMCC Executive Director.  “Students had their hair cut short and their traditional clothing was replaced with daily uniforms.  They were also made to participate in mandatory military-style marching drills,” Wahahrockah-Tasi said.  The children were immediately taught English and were forced to speak their new language at all times.  Use of native language was strictly forbidden and harsh punishment often ensued for those who broke the rules.  In some cases, students were whipped for being disobedient.  This type of punishment was foreign to the students for Indian parents never struck their children.  Indians considered whipping a disgrace and believed it broke a child’s proud spirit.
“The boarding school experience helped shaped our American Indian people into what we have become today.  Just about every Indian in southwest Oklahoma has some tie to Fort Sill Indian School.  Our ancestors endured a lot.  This exhibit pays tribute them and every other FSIS student who rose from the unpleasantness to make the school into a proud institution of learning for American Indians from all across the country.” Wahahrockah-Tasi said.

About the Comanche National Museum:
The Comanche National Museum and Cultural Center offers visitors a glimpse of traditional cultural objects and detailed history about the Comanche People.  CNMCC is home to a variety of collections including Fine Art, the Egli and Chibitty Collections, Fort Sill Indian School, and Comanche Military.  A library and photo archives are also on site.  CNMCC is located at 701 NW Ferris Avenue, behind McMahon Auditorium.  Admission is free and tour groups are welcome.  Call 580-353-0404 for more information or visit www.comanchemuseum.com.

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