Content warning: This article includes information about the deaths of Native children at residential institutions. Viewing the article may be traumatic, especially for survivors and their families.
Across the continent, the truth of our country's colonialist history is being exposed: and it's not the history we were taught in schools. This summer, two researchers in Oregon brought forth their years of research: the Chemawa Indian School outside Salem is the final resting place for at least 270 students, who died in the custody of the school between 1880-1945. Many of the students of Chemawa have (and continue to be) from local tribes- Warm Springs, Paiute, and Wasco- as well as from tribes in Alaska, Washington, Montana, and across the United States.
Chemawa is an active residential school to this day, operated through federal government's Bureau of Indian Affairs. It is the oldest, continuously operated boarding school for Native American students in the United States and one of four of its kind in the country today. With many stories of modern death and abuse at the hands of the school, it is a wonder why and how these schools still operate.
The United States government has never apologized for its role in the history of residential schools or sought to investigate and identify the children buried at these schools, perhaps until now. According to USA Today, the "Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in June called on the U.S. government to investigate the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of Indian boarding schools. Through December, the Department of the Interior will engage with Indigenous communities to gather feedback and begin the work to protect burial sites."
Uncovering the history of Chemawa
In 1996, when SuAnn Reddick, a scholar, writer and historian, was hired by Chemawa to create a recreational course on the school's property, she noticed an overgrown area containing rows of identical metal plates engraved with names of children who died at the school. Determined to learn more, she reached out to those currently and formerly employed by the school for more information. She soon discovered that the original cemetery was destroyed in the 1960s, much to the dismay of local tribes. Two staff members at the time were also infuriated by the decision, and worked together to map the locations of the graves and create metal plate headstones through the school's shop class.
Reddick's curiosity led her to dig deeper, looking into public records and talking to locals, compiling data into a spreadsheet that includes each student's name, enrollment date, date and cause of death, grave location and often a piece of personal information. The research began to snowball when Eva Guggemos, an archivist and associate professor at Pacific University, reached out to Reddick after learning about her research from her student archives assistant Shawna Hotch, who graduated from Chemawa.
Reddick and Guggemos were encouraged to make their research public this summer- after spending a collective 35 years compiling public records related to the graves found at Chemawa, because of the recent publicity and traction of other residential school gravesites across Canada. All of the information is available to the public through Pacific University (here).
We encourage all residents of Central Oregon to continue to learn about the place that they call home, to understand the difficult colonialist and racist past and present of our area, and to challenge themselves to have difficult conversations with their communities about these truths.