Jayln Isaham had heard stories like these before: American Indian children removed from their families, forced to live and work in boarding schools that tried to strip away their heritage. Jayln’s great-grandmother was one of them.
“When she was forced into one of those schools, she said her Ojibwe name, and they duct-taped bags of marbles to her knees and made her clean the floor on her hands and knees,” she said.
So the 14-year-old Isaham wasn’t surprised to see hardships like these depicted in the “Then Now Wow” exhibit, which opened in November at the Minnesota History Center.
She was surprised to be asked to be part of the display, which contrasts the lives of Indian children in boarding schools from 1879 to 1950 with the lives of middle-school students on the Red Lake reservation today.
A total of 14 students, including Isaham, were selected by the school librarian and teacher at Red Lake Middle School, Gloria Collyard. Last year, curators from the museum interviewed the students, and photographers and videographers followed them around like paparazzi, documenting them on the way to school, going from class to class, talking with friends in an attempt to capture their everyday lives.
The museum then put together a simple but powerful display contrasting the two time periods. A single row of old-fashioned desks, faded black-and-white photos, letters and keepsakes depict life at a boarding school. A brightly colored contemporary lunch table represents the “now” section of the display. The lunch table is topped with 14 red cafeteria trays, each with a profile of one of the students.
“That side is so sad and dark,” said Isaham, talking about the portion of the display on the Indian boarding schools. “Then you look at ours and it’s like BAM!, colorful and happy.”
Ellen Miller, the exhibit developer for the Historical Society, said the aim of the display is to help visitors relate to the students from Red Lake.
“The key in introducing people from all backgrounds is to show that experiences are universal,” Miller said. “They are special, but they are also just regular kids.”
In January, the students made the four-hour trip from Beltrami County to the Twin Cities to see their display at the museum for the first time. They were startled — and pleased — to see themselves and how different their lives looked from those of their ancestors.
“I hope people can see how much has changed,” said 16-year-old Athena Cloud, “but [the display] also teaches them to be more open-minded.”
During their visit, the students didn’t shy away from talking about the challenges the Indian community still faces.
“In the movies, they make us seem like we are bad people,” said Jerol Beaulieu, 14.
“They think we are all bad people,” said Dayton Lussier, 14.
But, they maintained, those negative stereotypes have helped spur them to succeed.
“They motivate me to prove them wrong,” Cloud said.
Ashlyn Reynolds wants to be a doctor and join the Marines. In his profile for the display, Lussier wrote that he wanted to be the president of the United States.
And while life as an Indian has changed dramatically since the boarding-school days, there is one thing, the students say, that they hold as dear to their hearts as their ancestors did: their culture.
When Isaham told her grandmother that she would be participating in the display, her grandmother said to do something she hadn’t been allowed to do:
“She told me to be loud and outspoken,” Isaham said.