Mary Annette Pember
(Mary Annette Pember)

Tiny Horrors: A Chilling Reminder of How Cruel Assimilation Was—And Is

Mary Annette Pember
1/1/13

For such small objects, the child’s handcuffs are surprisingly heavy when cradled in the palms of one’s hand. Although now rusted from years of disuse, they still convey the horror of their brutal purpose, which was to restrain Native children who were being brought to boarding schools. “I felt the weight of their metal on my heart,” said Jessica Lackey of the Cherokee tribe as she described holding the handcuffs for the first time.

Lackey, an alumnus of Haskell Indian Nations University, was working at the school’s Cultural Center & Museum when the handcuffs were unwrapped last spring after being kept in storage for several years. I had heard rumors about the existence of the handcuffs during visits to Haskell over the years and had made numerous inquiries to school authorities about them, but people seemed very reluctant to discuss this touchy artifact. This past summer, however, Haskell agreed to allow a public viewing of the handcuffs. Andy Girty, one of the elders who first blessed the handcuffs when they were given to Haskell in 1989, helped unwrap them for me.

Known as the Haskell Institute in its early years, the school opened its doors in 1884. It was originally founded as an instrument of the final solution to this country’s “Indian problem”; Haskell Institute’s mission then was embodied in the now infamous motto of Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” This mind-set led to decades of forced acculturation through brutal military-style incarceration cloaked as education in U.S. Indian boarding schools.

Although begun as a model for assimilation, native students have, over the years, transformed Haskell into a model for self-determination. The school’s early curriculum featured training in domestic and farming skills but has since evolved into four-year university.

Haskell’s Cultural Center & Museum, located on campus, tells the full—and often cruel—story of Haskell’s painful past as well as providing a venue to showcase Native art, culture from the past and present. Opened in 2002, the center features the permanent exhibit Honoring Our Children Through Seasons of Sacrifice, Survival, Change and Celebration, featuring artifacts, photos and letters from the school’s early days.

Among the artifacts currently on display is Andy Girty and Jessica Lackeya heavy iron lock and key for the school jail, which held unruly students. Letters, photographs, copies of early school newspapers and daily menus are among the more commonplace artifacts of early daily life displayed at the museum. One display includes a heavy lock and key from the small on site jail used to punish unruly students. Soon, perhaps, the handcuffs will be included among these artifacts, adding its chilling testimony regarding the practices used by early educators to kill the Indian and save the child.

Not much is known about the diminutive handcuffs, which were donated to the Cultural Center in 1989 by a non-Indian man who described their use to Bobbi Rahder, former director of the Haskell Cultural Center & Museum. “He told us they were used to restrain captured Indian children who were being taken to boarding schools,” says Rahder. The middle-age white man said his father had the handcuffs for years but that he no longer wanted to have them in his possession. “He seemed relieved to get rid of them,” Rahder recalls.

I made many phone calls, but was unable to track down the man, who is said to have lived in Lawrence. According to Rahder, he failed to respond to messages they had left him over the years, and he has not been seen at Haskell since the day he brought the handcuffs to the Cultural Center. “It was all very vague. He didn’t tell us how his father came to have the handcuffs. He showed up one day and donated them to the Center,” she says.

Mysterious donations are common at the Cultural Center. Rahder has witnessed scores of non-Indian donors dropping off important—and often poignant—historical artifacts relating to Haskell. Last year, Roger Bollinger of Pennsylvania donated an 1880s leather-bound photo album containing photos and corresponding identifications of Haskell’s very first students in 1884. This album represents the only known identifiable photos from that inaugural class. Bollinger knew little of Haskell and had no idea how the album came to be in his family’s possession. A supporter of education and cultural understanding, he decided tom donate the album to Haskell.

The handcuffs, however, were different, notes Rahder, who took them from the man. “I was shocked and afraid to touch them,” she recalls.

She says she immediately contacted administrative and spiritual leaders at the school for guidance on handling the handcuffs. Leaders at Haskell were overwhelmed by the brutality of the tiny handcuffs, she noted.

Girty, of the Cherokee Nation, who is a Cherokee language instructor at Haskell and a number of other elders and leaders, conducted a modest ceremony the next day at the school’s medicine fire. His wife, Frances, of the Creek and Choctaw Nations, provided a tiny handmade quilt in which the handcuffs were reverently wrapped before being stored in the Cultural Center’s archives. The handcuffs remained in storage for more than 20 years.

Although the Cultural Center displays a number of artifacts related to the harsh treatment of early Indian students at Haskell, the handcuffs were simply too painful to be addressed, opined Rahder. She says elders blessed the handcuffs and instructed her to put them away. She did as she was told, trusting that students and faculty would one day decide on the appropriate treatment of this painful artifact. The handcuffs languished in the archives of the center until this past summer.

As word of the handcuffs began to leak out over the past few years, students and faculty began discussing the importance of acknowledging their existence and putting them on display. For whatever reason, no one at the school has been willing to take the lead in the handling of this powerful artifact, but with the approval of Haskell administration, Girty agreed to unwrap them for ICTMN.

For Lackey the handcuffs are a tangible example of the painful history between Native people and the U.S. “The history of our genocide has been so swept under the rug by the mainstream. People need to see the impact that these policies had on us,“ she  says.

According to Girty, who was a student at Haskell in 1959, there are many stories of the brutal means used by authorities to bring and keep students at school in its early days. For instance, reservation authorities would hold back Native families’ food rations if they refused to allow children to be sent to early boarding schools, he noted. “If those handcuffs could talk, they would tell some terrible stories,” he says.

Steve Prue, spokesman for Haskell, says there are no immediate plans regarding how the handcuffs will be presented to the public, nor how they will be displayed. He agrees with students that the handcuffs are an appropriate item to be included in displays of other Haskell artifacts at the Cultural Center. “It’s good to have these sorts of things on display in the Cultural Center,” he says. “They tell the story of who paid the price for us to be here now.”

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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This makes my Heart Cry !!! I cannot believe children were put in these things !!! May God Have Mercy on the Souls of such Evil Souls !!! GOD BLESS the CHILDREN!!!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
torture, abuse, genocide, and people expect us to be silent about such? Silence is not an option, but silence is what is imposed, still we cannot speak up, perhaps Chief Theresa Spense will speak with a fast and those who join her, be blessed in Yeshua, Who reigns in all...

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
:(

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This is a chilling reminder of how cruel people can be. All civilizations of people have done wrong to someone. Cruelty is happening as we speak all over the world.. sad

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
just when I thought I could not be any more disgusted by the actions of our so called ansecetors, I am this makes me sick and ashamed even though i know i did not personally do this i am ashame of the white man whos blood i carry!!!!!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This A horrible and cruel thing to do to Children to break their spirit! I am Cherokee and Choctaw! I have read a lot of things that the white eyes have done to break the spirit of the Indian people,but this truly the most cruel way to do to children!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
A child indeed has endured pain like no pain a child should ever feel in a so called free world. Our children are still paying the price.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
The American people in general need to know about these cuffs, they need to understand how cruel and brutial their ancestors where, and how little they cared for human life as a whole, their ancestors came over here and were met with open arms in a way, they left Europe to get away from what they came over here and did to the indigious people of this land, this is history and it needs to be know about, then we can ask the question who was the barbaric people back then. Not the Indigious people thats for sure

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
What a bunch of nonsense. File this under myths, like fabled small pox blankets. You people need to stop whining.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Is the University called Willamette at Salem,Oregon an old Indian Boarding School? If it was, then what was it called?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
My soul aches for the the Native children torn from thier families and homes and the horrors they had to endure. Thier culture was beaten out of them. Thier parents souls must have died at being separated from thier children and knowing thier rightful heirtage was being destroyed. And our government did this. I have Native American Heirtage and I will never forget.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
My soul aches for the the Native children torn from thier families and homes and the horrors they had to endure. Thier culture was beaten out of them. Thier parents souls must have died at being separated from thier children and knowing thier rightful heirtage was being destroyed. And our government did this. I have Native American Heirtage and I will never forget.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
I am sure the Indians were treated worse then the slaves,, they were and still our the only true Americans. Very sad even today how they are treated.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Horrible. Everyone has assimilated to some degree....it cannot be helped. When Rome ran the world, cultures had to assimilate in varying degrees, while still retaining some of their culture, but it would be a lie to say that Hellenism (as one example) did not affect Judaism, or Romanism did not affect Christianity? People curse wholesale "whites", while at the same time embracing with open arms their culture clothing , food, and educational system? We are all hypocrites refusing to acknowledge that all is not necessarily bad.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
My Dad said something about this long years ago. They took his brothers Albert, Jerry and Richard along with his sister Polie. He found all but his Sister, they said her records had burned up. My Grandmother's name was Ella Anderson, and she died after Richard was born and their Dad left them.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
What Terrible Harm! Children Treated Like This! What could have driven the powers that be to do this? Was all this really necessary? Other Indian tribes ( Oneida, Seneca, Onondaga, Cayuga, Mohawk, and the Tuscarora) were all left unharmed. I believe the condition was embracing Capitalism.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
Don't think that this type of mistreatment of Native children has ceased, like 2 yr old Ponca Naomi White Crow who died due to blunt force trauma that her Caucasian foster mother was accused and found guilty of inflicting on her in a Logan County OK court room last year. The woman recieved a $5000 fine and no jail time. Or the state of SD violating ICWA by collecting & sending Lakota, Dakota, & Nakota children to white foster homes, while being financially compenstated by the US government. If we do not protect our young ones, how are we to survive as Native People?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This is just the sickest thing and saddest! Why did people even make those?!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
We must not forget the past, but we also cannot dwell upon it. If we spend our energy looking at what we have done over a century ago and yet spend no energy looking at the injustices happening NOW (including the bombing of innocent children in Pakistan) then our concern for the past is hollow.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This is awful. Very important that they be preserved. My personal belief is that they should not be displayed but continued to be kept in the tender, hidden way they have been described to be kept in the last few years, in this article. Please consider continuing to keep the in this way. The memories that are attached to this object must continue to sleep and dream regardless of the historical importance

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous
Submitted by Anonymous on
This is awful. Very important that they be preserved. My personal belief is that they should not be displayed but continued to be kept in the tender, hidden way they have been described to be kept in the last few years, in this article. Please consider continuing to keep the in this way. The memories that are attached to this object must continue to sleep and dream regardless of the historical importance

Two Bears Growling's picture
Two Bears Growling
Submitted by Two Bears Growling on
Some washichu comes on here & says this is nonsense & a fable & tells US all to stop whinning! Whoa to that foolish & ignorant one! Here is what this foolish one writes to us & I quote their very words: ........................................................................................................................ Anonymous "What a bunch of nonsense. File this under myths, like fabled small pox blankets. You people need to stop whining." Login or Register to post comments . Wed, 01/02/2013 - 00:59 ....................................................................................................................... I can 100% guarantee everyone in here is as angry as I am about this comment by this foolish & ignorant washichu. I pray the Creator opens this ignorant ones eyes & they come to know how hurtful their words have been to us all. Such a one doesn't realize these events are still like yesterday to all our many peoples. The killings through the ages are still like they happened just yesterday. I pray the Great Spirit comes to him in dreams & lets him see some of the horrors that have been done to our many peoples. I pray these dreams so disturb this man until he realizes the hurt he has caused our peoples. We know all the things that have been done to our people through the centuries & they were no myths. These things truly were done to try & wipe us all off the face of Mother Earth!

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