The greatest treasures inside Riverside’s Sherman Indian Museum are not in the giant glass case of trophies, or the room full of handwoven rugs and expertly crafted basketry. The most precious contents hide in a closet, where yearbooks, records and photos are stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. There lie generations of student stories just waiting to be told.
This museum is dedicated to preserving the 130-year history of Sherman Indian High School, a boarding school in Riverside, Calif., where Native American students from across the country earn high school diplomas while also maintaining their tribal traditions and language.
“I’ve made a lot of very moving discoveries,” says Amanda Wixon, a volunteer curator at the museum that shares a campus with the school. Wixon, a PhD student at U.C. Riverside and an enrolled Chickasaw, focuses her work on the oral histories of older generations of alumni.
When Sherman Indian High School opened at the turn of the 20th century, it was one of hundreds of government-run boarding schools built specifically to strip Native American children of their cultures. Many were established on reservations, with another 25 run by the federal government off-reservation. The history of these schools has recently received widespread attention outside of Native communities after the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, ordered an investigation this summer into cemeteries at these schools where students were often buried.
Many of the schools closed long ago and are viewed as sites of trauma. But Sherman is different. It’s still open, it’s thriving, and it’s mission has changed completely.
“Sherman is a community place and very dynamic and changing as to what the community needs,” says Wixon.
Students who were once forced to come to Sherman to lose their traditions are instead attending by choice and learning things like basket weaving and the traditional use of local Southern California plants.
The change started around the Civil Rights Movement and the Red Power Movement of the 1960s. At that time, alumni started returning to Sherman as employees, ready to reverse course on the school’s early history of cultural genocide.
And new students started to have a very different experience when they arrived, such as Howard Dallas, a member of the Hopi tribe, who first came to Sherman on a bus from Phoenix in 1966. He was 11 years old.
Dallas says the boarding school experience was not traumatizing, but culturally affirming. “I can only say that I had the greatest experience in my life,” he says. “And if I could do it over again, I would do it all over again.”
Dallas was one of 16 children — too many for his mother to care for in the wake of his father’s death. Dallas’ grandparents, who had attended Sherman, encouraged Dallas’ mom to send the oldest kids there rather than raise them on her own. So Dallas and his three older sisters made the journey to Riverside, Calif., together.
The school was called Sherman Institute then, and it was still mostly a vocational program. In the past, Dallas had gone to public schools with mostly white kids, so this was his first time around other Native children. “I did not even know I was from the Hopi tribe,” says Dallas.
He realized he had to learn about his heritage in order to relate to the other students. This didn’t come easy, and he remembers other students calling him “white boy.” Rather than hurting his self-esteem, says Dallas, “It helped me to do more, to be outspoken, [and] to be part of the student body.”
First he joined the school band to play the snare drum, where the music teacher Mr. Green taught him the value of hard work. Dallas laughs when he remembers how his 5 foot 2 inch, 120 pound frame was only big enough for a girl’s uniform. His stature also caught the eye of the cheerleaders, who made him an outfit to be the school’s mascot, a Sherman Brave, for basketball games.
Then as a high schooler, he became a member of the student body council, and led the effort to get the school accredited and the name changed to Sherman Indian High School.
“You put yourself in a position where you want to help other students understand that we can be a positive organization by helping make good changes for everyone,” says Dallas.
Now Dallas returns to the campus when he can, even if he’s just passing through town. “I always make it a point to at least drive by and just wave,” says Dallas. “It was my childhood, my growing-up period.”
Sherman is one of the four last remaining federally run off-reservation boarding schools, and they are the only one that has a dedicated museum and archive.
At the peak of the boarding school era in the 1920s, 80% of all school-age Native American children attended such schools, where the goal was to turn them into Christians and laborers.
“Did trauma take place? Is it still happening in communities? Absolutely,” says Sam Torres of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. “But there are so many additional instances of resilience, of organizing, of putting pieces together.”
The history is complicated, Torres says. Most students in those early years survived and went on to benefit themselves and their people.
“It's not that these stories haven't been shared,” Torres says. “It's not that these narratives haven't been told. It's that they haven't been listened to.”
The Sherman Indian Museum has been listening for decades and doing the work of telling a nuanced story of the boarding school experience.
This mission is led by the museum’s director Lorene Sisquoc, who grew up at Sherman in the 1960s. “It was my community and what supported me in my younger years,” says Sisquoc. She went to public school, but lived at Sherman because her grandmother was a teacher, and her mother monitored the dorms.
Sisquoc, an enrolled member of the Fort Sill Apache Tribe and a descendant of the Cahuilla people, says when she was growing up, her tribe in Oklahoma didn’t have a reservation. So she wanted to create a safe supportive space at Sherman “for the community, for our students, for our urban community, [and] for my own family and friends,” says Sisquoc.
Having the school and museum open is one thing, but it’s getting former students and Native leaders to visit that really makes this a community, says Amanda Wixon.
“That is the healing that's done,” says Wixon. “And having Native youth and the next generation see [alumni] so prominent in the community and occupy such an important place in Southern California.”