Indian Assimilation: The Mystery of the Tiny Handcuffs, Solved
Shane Murray vividly recalls the scowl on the face of the young Native woman at Haskell Indian Nation University’s Cultural Center when he placed a pair of tiny handcuffs on her desk. “She knew immediately that these were child’s handcuffs and thought I wanted an appraisal of their worth,” he says.
When he explained to the young student that he wanted to donate the handcuffs to the museum, her expression immediately softened, and she suggested he return later to meet with Bobbi Rahder, the Center’s director at the time.
Murray doesn’t remember when, exactly, this happened, but is sure it was in 2006 or 2007. How he came to possess the grim artifact and his experiences with it are aspects of a mysterious story that continues to haunt and amaze him.
He contacted ICTMN after reading the recent story about those tiny handcuffs and how they got to Haskell. In addition to correcting some factual errors, he explained that he wanted to “continue his journey” with the handcuffs.
Murray, 40, lives in Clarksville, Tennssee, but grew up in Kansas. He says that during a summer visit with family in El Dorado, Kansas, his grandfather called him away from the group of cousins with whom he had been playing. “I must have been about 8 or 9 years old,” he says.
His grandfather, Clarence Snyder, told him, “’I want to give you something.’ He showed me the handcuffs inside of a shoebox, and said, ‘I want you to hang on to these.’
“He told me the handcuffs were used to take Indian kids to school and warned me never to play with them.”
Murray says no one in his family knows how his grandfather, who has since passed away, came to have the handcuffs. “My grandfather was an interesting person. He had what they would now describe as PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] from his service during World War II. He would never talk about it, but I know he suffered horribly.”
Murray says his grandfather was aloof in his pain—he seldom talked with the rest of the family—but for some reason shared a bond with his young grandson. “I could sit and be quiet with him,” Murray recalls.
Murray’s relatives told him his grandfather grew up in Oklahoma and had a grandmother who was Native. Her tribal affiliation is unknown but her last name was Hefer. Murray speculates that the handcuffs came from her, his great, great grandmother Hefer.
Murray did as he was told with the handcuffs—he carefully stored them with his most treasured possessions, where they stayed for almost 30 years, until the day he walked into the Cultural Center. Or did they?
“I know this may sound strange, but those handcuffs seemed to move,” he says, his voice faltering. “I would put them away and then they would seem to come and go on their own. I would put them someplace but then they would be gone for months or years.”
Murray says the handcuffs began to speak to him after he moved to Lawrence, where he had a job that took him past the Haskell campus on his daily commute. Each time he passed by the school, he says he thought of the handcuffs. Before long, Murray says, the handcuffs began to scream at him: “Take us home, take us home!”
Murray’s voice breaks with emotion as he recalls the day he donated them to the Cultural Center. “Tears were a-flowing among those present, “ he says.
Rahder and elders from Haskell invited Murray to return to the Center for a ceremony for the handcuffs, but he was unable to attend. “I kind of passed out after giving them the handcuffs,” he says. “I slept for two days; it was as though a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders.”
Even though he is no longer the keeper of the handcuffs, he feels a strong urge to serve as an advocate for them. “There are souls involved in that artifact and I feel as though I should give my two cents about their history,” he says, arguing that the history of Indian boarding schools needs to be brought to the forefront of our collective consciousness in the United States.
“I’m glad that Haskell has let the handcuffs be shown,” he says. “They are tangible proof that the atrocities at boarding schools really happened.