Shinnecock explore connection to Native American residential schools in art exhibit
Artists from the Shinnecock Tribal Nation are telling a part of their story that has long been buried.
Denise Silva-Dennis is an artist and Shinnecock Tribal member. Dennis said growing up, she never knew that children from the tribe were sent away to boarding schools. It’s a part of her tribe’s history she only began learning about as an adult.
“A lot of people were just very closed, and I think that the generation of 'just don't speak of those things' it's in the past. And they did not want to relive the trauma,” Dennis said.
Dennis started to understand it after she heard an elderly woman speak at a funeral for her cousin. She talked about their shared experience at the Thomas Indian School in upstate New York.
“She started crying, saying you know, we were so far away, because it’s just below Buffalo and here we are on eastern Long Island. She said you know we missed our family so much and we had each other. So they were able to bond,” Dennis said.
These experiences were common for many native tribes. Thousands of children were sent from their homes to residential schools for a century — from the 1860s until the late 1960s. Children were often mistreated and poorly fed. Several died and their bodies were never returned home.
“They had a whole nation of people, they had cousins, they had friends, they had aunts and uncles. Maybe there was a grandparent,” she said. “ You know, they should have done the right thing and those children should have been sent home.”
Dennis and several other Shinnecock tribal members began to research that history. They compiled lists of Shinnecock children that attended the Thomas Indian School and other schools around the country. Dennis felt that openly knowing what happened would be a way to honor the tribe’s ancestors and offer healing.
“It has an impact still. It didn't go away. We weren’t healed because it wasn't acknowledged, it was buried,” She said.
Last December, an exhibit opened at Ma’s House BIPOC Art Studio on Shinnecock territory in Southampton. The exhibition was called, “We Were at the School, We Were There, We Remember.” Photos, letters, items, and archival history help tell the story of the children’s experiences.
Jeremy Dennis, an artist at the studio, worked with several other collaborators to bring the exhibition together. The exhibition was researched and curated with the help of Brianna Hernández and Lisa Bowen. Several other Shinnecock tribal members also contributed photos, writing or artifacts.
Dennis said the piece that gets the most questions and interpretations is a copy of a letter his family donated. It was written by his great grandfather who attended the Thomas Indian School from 1919 to 1920.
The letter says the children at the school were “fed like kings” and that they enjoyed their time there. But Jeremy Dennis noted that there are crossed-out words on the letter. He believes the children were closely watched by the teachers.
“It was basically like a prison letter. Everything was filtered, everything was approved and probably dictated for the children to write that to the parents,” he said.
The Seneca Tribe near Buffalo also had an exhibit that documented their experiences with the Thomas Indian School. Artists Jocelyn Jones and Hayden Haynes curated the traveling exhibit. They shared photos with the Shinnecock exhibit, which included images of some of the school buildings. They also shared their research and a video interview with a former student.
Jeremy Dennis said the exhibit has allowed for much-needed conversation among Shinnecock tribal members. The exhibit closed at the end of January but they want to continue the research. Dennis hopes to add to the Shinnecock collection and curate future exhibits.
“If you go into their personal stories, into their letters, their belongings could be its own exhibit. So there's so much potential to tell this story and expand,” he said.
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