"We're Still Here": Past and Present Collide at a Native American Residential SchoolHistorians in the News
tags: racism, Native American history, Residential Schools
With other students’ eyes on her, Wicahpi Medicine’s heart raced, but as she started dancing, she felt proud to embody her Lakota heritage. The beads on her jingle dress swished and her long braids bounced as she moved quickly and lightly in her moccasins.
“People think that we’re extinct – they think we don’t really exist anymore,” said the 17-year-old student, who goes by Kimmi. Dancing at Sherman Indian high school cultural week, she said she was showing “we are still here”.
Medicine is one of more than 200 students from 76 Native American tribes who come from across the country to attend the all-Native American boarding school, which opened in Riverside, California, over a century ago. It was one of hundreds of federally run boarding schools across the US that aimed to assimilate Native American children into white society by taking them from their families, chopping their hair short, and brutally punishing them for speaking their language and practising their culture. In 1901, the institution’s namesake, the congressman James Sherman, declared the school would represent “the redemption of a race”.
Most of the schools have closed, but the government continues to operate a handful, including Sherman. The US says it has transformed the remaining schools, but students like Medicine feel echoes of the old system.
Today, signposts on the grassy grounds show reservation names and their distances from the school, reminding Medicine how far she is from home: Standing Rock, North Dakota, 1,453.9 miles. “It sucks a lot because there have been times this year that I’ve wanted to go back home, and I can’t,” she said.
Members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe living in Fort Yates, North Dakota, Medicine’s family smudged, prayed, attended sweats and spoke Lakota.
“We practise our way of life as our ancestors did,” she said.