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New Fishtown Mural Remembers the U.S. Government’s Forced Assimilation “Boarding Schools” for Native American Children

March 3, 2019

A powerful new temporary mural from Philly-based artist YOMI could just work to educate some Philadelphians, myself included, about the United States government’s devastating decades-long practice of imprisoning Native American children into forced assimilation “boarding schools.”

Painted on Blair street near Palmer street in Fishtown, the mural includes some striking imagery of what appears to be a young student at a desk wearing a feathered headdress with a bloody axe behind them. Next to this in bold yellow and red text sits an attributed quote by Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman that reads: “You put me in your boarding school, made me learn your white man rule, be a fool.”

At first sight, I wasn’t too sure what to make of it all. I then quickly realized that the artist might just want the viewer to take these hints as homework and investigate more, which I did.

Googling his name led me to Wikipedia, where I learned that Floyd was a Sioux musician, political activist, and actor. He worked as a political activist for Native American causes after establishing careers as first a country music singer and then as an actor in film and television. Floyd passed away in 2007.

After reading a bit more about Floyd’s life I began to look through his famous quotes, where I came across this fitting advice: “Before America can heal, it needs to accept its past. With regards to history, the TRUTH will change everything.” The quote painted and depicted by YOMI in his new Fishtown mural, I learned after more Googling, is about Floyd’s time at the Wahpeton Indian Boarding School in North Dakota.

The Wahpeton Indian Boarding School was one of many such institutions where children were forced to abandon their Native American identities and cultures. “Native American boarding schools, also known as Indian Residential Schools were established in the United States during the late 17th and mid 18th centuries with a primary objective of assimilating Native American children and youth into Euro-American culture, while at the same time providing a basic education in Euro-American subject matters.” Attending these institutions was enforced by a 1898 ‘compulsory attendance’ law that enabled federal officers to forcibly take Native American children from their home. [Source: Wikipedia.]

After being forcibly taken from his family and his Dakota tribe, Floyd spent the rest of his childhood separated in these boarding schools. A must-listen WHYY/NPR piece on Floyd and these “schools” can be found here.

Fellow white people, I’m looking at you: We can only do better when actually know our full history. Do you remember learning about these “boarding schools” for Native American children in your history books? Just imagine what other injustices you/we have yet to learn. We have to do better than the generations that came before us, and it starts by acknowledging these facts about our history. Now, if you’re rolling your eyes right now, don’t forget that our government is current separating children from their families at our southern boarder. And that we’ve been imprisoning families around the U.S. for years. (P.s. You can support Philly-based Juntos right now, if you’re passionate about immigrant rights.)

Thank you to YOMI, Wikipedia, and WHYY/NPR, I have never in my life heard about these “schools” before, and I’m not sure I’d ever heard of Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman before either, unfortunately… But damn y’all, if this isn’t a brilliant use of public art to hopefully encourage more people to learn and think about our complicated unjust histories, and to spur us to do better.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Cathy Leary permalink
    March 4, 2019 7:44 am

    Would love to share this location. We do work raising awareness of Native American culture. Could you please tell me exactly here this art is located?
    Thanks

    • March 4, 2019 11:03 am

      Hey! There’s a link to a Google Maps pin in the article.

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