A local exhibit takes viewers through the years of Haskell Indian Nations University, from its origin in 1884 as a boarding school to its role as the sole intertribal university in the country.
Watkins Museum of History, in partnership with the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum, is hosting the exhibit, “From Then to Now: A Student History of Haskell Indian Nations University.” The display uses artifacts, photos and cultural items from the Haskell Cultural Center to tell a visual story of Haskell students past and present.
Geoffrey Pate, enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and unenrolled member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe and Chickasaw Nation, designed the exhibit as part of his Humanities Kansas internship through the Watkins Museum.
He said he hopes the exhibit serves as a reminder that Haskell is alive in this community.
“You can come to the exhibit here in the museum and you can see everything and then just down the street is where it is happening,” Pate said.
Brittany Keegan, curator of exhibits and collections at the Watkins Museum, worked closely with Pate and the Haskell Cultural Center.
“The trick with any exhibit is there’s always more research than what will be able to go into the exhibit, and it’s about kind of finding the facts you want to share in that particular moment,” Keegan said. “Little things, like using visual elements to tie back to the theme, were really interesting and came together in a nice way. [The exhibit] is meant to take visitors through the different areas of Haskell history – it traces the change over time.”
Most cultural items included are contemporary and handmade by Haskell students, Pate said, but some date back to the 1940s and 50s. There’s a traditional headdress featured in a glass case as well as an old band uniform and letterman jacket to show elements of student life. There are flags representing various tribes and nations and a crest from the junior college era.
Pate is a 2022 Haskell graduate whose father attended Haskell when it was a junior college. He reflected on stories his grandmother would tell about her time at Haskell as a child when it was a boarding school.
Haskell first opened in Lawrence as the United States Indian Industrial Training School for children in grades in 1884. It was later called Haskell Institute and expanded into a high school. Through residential schools, Native American children were forced to assimilate to white standards and often were abused. A federal report released in May 2022 found residential schools in the United States, like Haskell Institute, were responsible for the deaths of more than 500 students between 1869 and 1969.
Today, 103 Native American children buried between 1885 and 1943 remain at Haskell Cemetery.
Haskell began offering college curriculum in 1970 and became Haskell Indian Junior College before it finally became a four-year university in 1993. Today, Haskell serves as the only intertribal institution representing students who identify with the more than 500 federally recognized tribes.
Pate said the opportunity to earn a degree while being submerged in Indigenous culture can be healing for Haskell students.
“It’s a good opportunity, and a lot of the students come from very poor tribes where it’s well below poverty,” Pate said. “There’s a really small student body, and a lot of times when they go out in the city and hang out and everything, they still practice a lot of their traditions and dances, like we’ve got the pow wows and everyone has fun at the pow wows. There’s a lot of history and still there’s traditions, so I think we were able to get a lot of that through with the exhibit.”
Pate, who grew up here in Lawrence, hopes the exhibit amplifies the presence and people of Haskell, which are woven into the town’s history.
“I went to high school at Free State and [attended] KU, and a lot of my classmates weren’t even aware. A lot of people don’t know there’s a second college in Lawrence,” Pate said. “Also with the history of the college — it’s not a traditional college that’s always been [for] higher education. It started out as a boarding school. I think a lot of people just don’t even realize that it’s here, so just letting other people understand that there’s a college and it’s got history behind it.”
The exhibit is currently open and will remain available for viewing until April 30 on the second floor of Watkins Museum of History, 1047 Massachusetts St. in downtown Lawrence. Viewers can visit the exhibit for free during Watkins Museum’s open hours, 10 a.m. to 4p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Visit the Watkins Museum website to learn more about the exhibit.