This post is part of a series of blog posts related to the Autry’s Undisciplined Research Project. To learn more, read the introduction by David Burton, Senior Director of the Autry Institute.
In 2012, a film that Randy Vasquez directed and I produced, called The Thick Dark Fog, was broadcast nationwide on PBS. The film tells the story of Lakota elder Walter Littlemoon’s journey of healing from his American Indian boarding school experiences. During the production of the film, we spoke to many Native elders who had gone to boarding school. We came to believe that all school survivors and alumni who want to tell their stories should have an opportunity to do so, not only for their own healing, but also for the benefit of future generations. Learning about the Native American boarding school experience from those who lived it will be one of the most important ways to understand this complex and sometimes devastating history. Out of this vision, the Boarding School Stories visual history archive was born.
I had long admired The Shoah Foundation, which recorded 52,000 hours of testimony from Holocaust survivors. Dan Leshem, its Associate Director of Research, came on board as an advisor and helped guide our staff through the complexities of such an ambitious project. We also went back to Walter Littlemoon to ask what we should name our nonprofit initiative to collect boarding school survivor testimonies. Inspired by Shoah, the Hebrew word for catastrophe, he suggested The Cante Sica Foundation, (pronounced Shan-tay She-cha). Cante Sica is a Lakota expression that literally translates as “heart bad” and refers to a person’s devastating sorrow. In Lakota culture, members of the community empathize with this level of grief and provide the sufferer with the time and space they need to heal.
This concept is reflected in our mission statement, which reads, “The Cante Sica Foundation’s mission is to create opportunities for healing, understanding and reconciliation around the legacy of the Native American boarding school system, the U.S. Government’s policy of forced assimilation of indigenous peoples between 1879 and 1975.”
To that end The Cante Sica Foundation is pursuing the following three objectives:
- Train young Native Americans to conduct visual history interviews with boarding school survivors and alumni.
- Establish Boarding School Stories, a visual history archive of the interviews to be used by Native communities, scholars, and educators.
- Create an interactive new media platform that educates students of all ages about the legacy of Native American boarding schools.
We brought on board a talented staff, including Brían Wescott (Athabascan/Yup’ik) and DeLanna Studi (Cherokee), who are both accomplished scholars and performers. Together, they reached out to many of the Native community organizations in Southern California and recruited a handful of elders interested in telling their boarding school stories. Brían and DeLanna trained several Native filmmakers and journalists in the art of conducting oral histories, and created the infrastructure for a successful visual history project. This included the development of an extensive pre-interview questionnaire, a culturally sensitive release form, and a list of resources for interviewees in case the experience brings up difficult post-interview emotions. We have now completed thirteen visual histories, with more to follow.
When we first conceived of the Boarding School Stories visual history archive, we knew we wanted to collaborate with an institution that shared our vision of bringing more attention to this little known episode in American history. We approached several universities and museums, and in our discussions it quickly became clear that the Autry National Center would be an ideal partner. The Autry’s decades-long commitment to sharing the stories of this continent’s indigenous people, along with their archival expertise and their commitment to multidisciplinary exhibitions and programming, means that Cante Sica’s visual histories will be shared widely and creatively. The Autry has accessioned our existing visual histories into their library collections and will accession future Cante Sica visual histories as they become available.
Consulting with Liza Posas and Cheryl Miller of the Libraries and Archives of the Autry, we indexed the first round of interviews by cataloguing their content in segments of one– to five-minutes. This way, when watching the visual histories, researchers can search for particular topics such as language, punishment, running away, etc. We decided not to transcribe the interviews, however, because we wanted to make sure that viewers engage with the actual video in order to learn from the elders. These visual histories are now at the core of the Autry’s Institute’s first Undisciplined Research Project.
Since an initial round of funding, Cante Sica has brought in additional grants. The Kalliopeia Foundation is funding another round of interviews with elders living in the Midwest, to be conducted by the students of Professor J. P. Leary’s First Nations Studies class at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. Vision Maker Media, one of the major funders of our film The Thick Dark Fog, is providing start-up funds for our third objective, which is to create an interactive new media website for students. Here again, the Autry is coming to our aid. Director of Education Erik Greenberg is convening a focus group of enthusiastic high school social studies teachers to help us create resources about the boarding school system that 8th- and 11th–grade teachers would be eager to use.
We view Boarding School Stories as an ongoing project to study the impact of complex intergenerational trauma in Native communities, and to highlight the incredible resilience of Native peoples in the face of this history. We look forward to adding many more stories to the archive and are thrilled to partner with the Autry to bring this important work out into the world.
Jonathan Skurnik is an award-winning documentary filmmaker, artist, activist, and founder of The Cante Sica Foundation.