The era of the American Indian boarding schools is of one of the more shameful in United States history.
USD students and area residents had a chance to learn about it through first-hand accounts Monday night when the readers' theatre, "The Great Hurt," was presented in Farber Hall.
Readers were recruited from the community and sat on the bare stage dressed in black, while pictures and historic quotes were displayed behind them as they read from diary entries, letters and other historical documents.
"It's kind of a strange way to put on a play, but it worked out tremendously," said Carl Gawboy, who assembled the play. "I think it had a very powerful effect on everybody we took it to. It was quite an experience."
The boarding school movement was started in large part by Richard Henry Pratt, a former Union soldier whose background lay in jails, not education.
Under Pratt's direction, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School was the first of many that separated children from their families and deprived them of their names, language and culture.
Pratt was described in one passage as a Baptist because he "believes in immersing the Indians in our civilization, and when we get them under, holding them there until they are thoroughly soaked."
The results were devastating. Accounts were offered of patrols which rounded up school-age children, often roping them like cattle and stealing them from their parents.
Many of these children never returned, as they either died from illness, or their records were lost when they were transferred to different schools.
The effects of these separations continue to reverberate today, according to the testimony provided in the play.
"It was a great hurt to be told that Indian children would be taken from their homes to be raised by others who would fit them into a more 'modern' world," Oklahoma social worker Carolyn Attneave said in 1954.
Gawboy was one of five American Indian interns at Minneapolis' Walker Art Center in 1972 when he began assembling the play.
"We were asked to do one outside research assignment, and I chose boarding schools," he said. "Boarding schools were simply not that popular a topic in those days, and after I was happily through my paper, I realized this would be a really great readers' theatre. …
"I wrote the script and handed it in for my assignment, but I couldn't get anyone to put it on," he said. "I wanted the interns at the Walker to present it at first. They weren't interested."
It finally was staged 39 years later, when Gawboy's wife Cynthia Donner asked if he had any material on historical trauma.
"I blew the dust off the pages, and we tweaked it a little bit and added some more material at the end," he said.
Since that time, it has been performed in many other places, he said. Many of these performances have opened a dialogue where it had not previously existed.
"I think Indians don't want to talk about anything unpleasant, and it's not so very recently that this history is starting to be (discussed)," he said. "The message is to break the silence. Our play, in many locations, broke the silence. I would never have thought that was possible, but stories came out and now people are talking about it. I'm happy to say that almost everywhere we go, there's a great enthusiasm to talk about these stories."
Donner is coordinator of the Tribal Sites for The College of St. Scholastica's Social Work Program, a program she described as "listening with the ear of the heart."
The play also provides that opportunity, she said.
"The importance of listening with the heart to the stories of others – that's where it really starts. There's no textbook that can give you that," she said.
Gawboy is a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Ojibwe. He received a master's degree in American Indian arts from the University of Montana, Missoula in 1972, and taught American Indian Studies for a period of 18 years at a number of universities.
The readers of the play were: Suzanne Cross, Carl Gawboy, Chris Denny, Manapé LaMere, Steve Miller, Lyle Hoesing, Nitausha Williams, Jeff Hermsen, Ryan Myers, Richard Lundy, Jamie Fields, Kimberlee Browne and Debra Norris.
The invocation was delivered by LaMere, and the event was opened and closed by the Wasa Wakpa Oyate Drum Group, Dr. Wayne Evans, drum keeper.
The event was hosted by the USD Department of Social Work.