I still remember the first time I stepped inside the Sherman Indian High School’s museum vault. I was a new graduate student at UCR, and I had come to the museum to research Hopis who attended the school. Inside the vault, Lori Sisquoc, the director of the museum, showed me documents of all kinds. Items in the vault included photographs, pottery and beautiful paintings.
During my graduate program, I returned to the vault on many occasions. (When I was an intern at the museum, I made a digital catalog of the vault’s 100 trophy cups. Hopi runner Philip Zeyouma had two first-place trophy cups; he could have competed in the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden, but instead returned home to his village on the reservation.)
The school and the museum’s collections have special meaning for Native people. While the U.S. government created Sherman to weaken American Indian cultures and assimilate indigenous people into mainstream American society, Native students learned to navigate through federal Indian policies, and many of the students took advantage of their time at the school. My grandfather, Victor Sakiestewa Sr. from Orayvi and Upper Moencopi, and his brothers and sisters were among the first group of Hopi students to attend Sherman in the early 1900s. By examining documents in the vault, I learned that my grandfather received high marks in the school’s Laundry Department, and that his sister, Blanche, worked as a housekeeper in the girls dormitory, the Minnehaha Home. This information may seem insignificant to some scholars, but it provides my family with a glimpse of my grandfather’s and his sister’s early experiences at the Indian school in Riverside.
Providing Hopis with documents that I uncovered in the museum’s vault was an important part of my research. Not long after I started graduate school, I received permission from the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office to conduct interviews on the Hopi Reservation with former Hopi students. I interviewed Samuel Shingoitewa, who went to Sherman in the 1920s. He talked about the school’s military structure. I also interviewed Bessie Humetewa (Talasitewa) who went to Sherman from 1920 to 1928. During our interview, Bessie mentioned that she had stayed at Sherman “all eight years without coming home.” She recalled how her mother wept when government officials loaded her and other Hopis on a wagon for Winslow, Ariz.; a rare occurrence, since Hopi mothers rarely showed this level of emotion in public. While she had a traumatic departure to Sherman Institute, Bessie learned to adapt and excel at the school. She met new friends, but always kept close to other Hopis from her community.
I used most of my research in the Museum’s vault to write a dissertation, articles, and eventually a book. But just before I graduated from UCR, I had an opportunity to co-produce a 30-minute documentary film on the Hopi boarding school experience. The museum’s vault played a major role in the production of the documentary, which I titled “Beyond the Mesas.”
My experience at the Sherman Indian Museum has left a lasting influence on me as a Hopi person. I learned the value of working together with many individuals associated with the museum, students and faculty at UCR, and my community on the Hopi Reservation. Although a growing number of students and scholars, including myself, have had the privilege of basing our research on documents and other items in the vault, many more studies have yet to be conducted. The vault is not finished sharing the voices of those students who left their families and homes to attend Sherman. Their stories of assimilation, resistance and accommodation still remain in the museum. They wait for the next wave of researchers to release their voices so others might hear. This was the most rewarding aspect of conducting research in the vault. It is also the purpose of our book and the reason why Lori has kept the vault open to researchers of the past and will continue to keep it open for those students and scholars of the future.
Gilbert is enrolled with the Hopi Tribe from the village of Upper Moencopi in Arizona. An associate professor of American Indian studies and history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he is the author of “Education beyond the Mesas: Hopi Students at Sherman Institute, 1902-1929.”