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Visitor Driven Research and White's Institute

In 2017, an individual from the Pine Ridge Reservation (also called the Pine Ridge Agency) contacted me with the hopes of obtaining information about a relative who was buried in Wabash County. Since that time the topic has come up again several times, be it from scholars researching Indian Boarding Schools to other members of the Oglala Sioux looking for other family members and stories about them. This was my first contact with the topic of Indian Boarding Schools as a museum professional.


Indian Boarding Schools have been placed in the national spotlight recently because of the crimes being revealed in Canada and its boarding schools. It does not surprise me that interest has picked up in the past several weeks regarding this topic. White’s Institute (1883-1895), from its very founding, was intended to be a place of education for all people, regardless of skin color. When the federal government began to seek out religiously affiliated institutions to place Native American students, White’s was a natural choice.

Indiana was home to two Native American Boarding Schools, one in Wabash County at White’s and the other at St. Joseph’s Normal Indian School in Rensselaer, Indiana. The Museum is not in possession of much of the records from this time period at White’s and the topic has not been especially well researched although several students who attended White’s became nationally and internationally famous, such as Zitkala-Ša and Will Jones.

The subject of boarding schools for Native Students is complex and painful. While on the one hand, students gained valuable knowledge and skills alongside lifelong relationships, and many became renown artists, authors, and activists as a result of their education, the program explicitly sought to Christianize students and strip them of their native cultures and customs. The trauma of cultural suppression is dealt with at length in Zitkala-Ša’s memoirs, and the dual identity that boarding schools created in students is something that is still affecting Native communities today. It should also be mentioned that the perpetrators of this cultural suppression thought they were doing a good and necessary thing and so they were often blind to the pain they were causing their wards.


We possess several copies of correspondence between employees at White’s and the Indian Agent at Pine Ridge. A telling case is this: technically, the students were not compelled to attend boarding schools by law, but the voluntary aspect of the boarding school project was often purposefully overlooked. A student at White’s wrote home asking for his parents to come to Wabash and collect him or tell the Agency to send him home. The Indian Agent in Pine Ridge then wrote to White’s informing them that they ought to begin censoring their student’s mail so as to prevent them from asking to be returned home or from saying negative things about the school in general. This letter was used by the Board of Trustees at White’s as justification for their agreeing to terminate their involvement in the Indian Boarding School program.


The person from 2017 has visited Wabash and toured the museum and burial ground at White’s. They also carried out Native religious rites (as the burials were strictly Christian originally).


Yet another relative of the same student I was first made aware of in 2017 arrived this week. They weren’t aware that a relative of theirs had already visited the site and sought out information from the Museum. They too visited the cemetery at White’s where their relative lay buried and performed native rites. They are currently in discussions with their other family members and White’s about possible exhumation and return to Dakota.


The cemetery at White’s is an interesting vestige of a little known period of Wabash County’s History. There are 14 graves there behind a painted rail fence in a shady little corner of the property. There were other native students who died while at the school, but they were buried in the Friends cemetery in Wabash. The children were often given the option to speak about their experiences at the Friends Church in Wabash, Indiana and some applied for regular membership and must have been fairly well known to the residents of the Southside Wabash at one time.

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