Symposium weighs damage of US expansion on tribes
Boarding schools left scars on American Indians, speakers say
Actor Wes Studi, left, and filmmaker Kevin Willmott discuss their new film, “The Only Good Indian,” during the Kansas Lewis and Clark Symposium on Friday at the Dole Institute of Politics. The event focused on the relationship between American Indian tribes and the U.S. government before and after the Lewis and Clark expedition.
By Erin Castaneda
September 13, 2008
The first contact Meriwether Lewis and William Clark made with American Indians on their exploration across the country forever changed the course of tribal life.
“We didn’t all experience the winning of the West the same way,” said Dan Wildcat, director of the Haskell Environmental Research Studies Center and of the American Studies program at Haskell Indian Nations University. “For some of us this was an invasion of homelands.”
Wildcat was one of several speakers at Friday’s Kansas Lewis and Clark Symposium at the Dole Institute of Politics. The event was the final stop in a three-year, 11-state symposia designed to discuss the American Indian way of life before and after the Lewis and Clark expedition and to look to the future for how to preserve tribal traditions.
Wildcat discussed a major way the explorers’ trip across the continent affected tribal nations, which was through boarding schools created in the 1900s. Haskell Indian Nations University, for example, was originally a boarding school. Children were taken from their homes and forced into the schools to assimilate into white society.
Tammy Wahwassuck, of the Kickapoo Reserve in Horton, said her sister and mother went to boarding schools.
“It’s interesting because people out there really don’t know what boarding schools were like,” she said. “It really was an experience for them because they did make you do things you didn’t want to do and your parents weren’t there to help you.”
Speakers discussed the way in which tribal elders and tribal colleges such as Pawnee Nation College in Oklahoma are working to preserve native traditions and languages that were lost.
A highlight of the symposium was a sneak peek at a new film directed by Lawrence filmmaker Kevin Willmott starring Wes Studi, from “The Last of the Mohicans” and “Geronimo.”
The film, “The Only Good Indian,” written by Tom Carmody and shot in Kansas, is about a young boy taken from his home and forced into a boarding school. He later escapes, but is sought by Studi’s character, a bounty hunter of Cherokee descent named Sam Franklin, who exemplifies the byproduct of assimilation.
Willmott and Studi discussed the film with an audience of about 200.
Studi himself went to a boarding school for four years in Oklahoma, the same school his father went to in the 1940s. The role he played in the movie reminds him of his father, he said.
“He had adopted some of those traits that this character had,” Studi said. “I used him as a reference in my performance in a way.”
The film was a learning process for Willmott, who said he first learned about boarding schools when working with Wildcat during the creation of his film “Confederate States of America.”
“I think a large part of what the symposium has been about is holding on to identity, holding on to who you are and at the same time becoming part of America but not losing yourself,” Willmott said.
“Boarding schools were designed to lose yourself,” he said. “I think they were a beautiful example of how people fought to hold on to who they are and in many ways the symposium was kind of a celebration of that.”