WARNING: This story has disturbing details about American Indian boarding schools. Here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
In 2009, Redding resident Rick Crowley (Chukchansi, Yokuts) and his mother Rosie traveled to Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon as part of a “forgiveness journey” to promote community healing from the historical traumas associated with American Indian boarding schools.
During the event, Rosie spoke about her own experiences at Chemawa, which still exists as a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. A White Bison newsletter recounts some of those shared memories, such as being forcibly separated from her parents and suffering severe paddling for wetting the bed. Rosie said during the event that she eventually turned the “hatred, anger and fear” that stemmed from her boarding school days on her own children.
“It was the first time I heard my mom talking about her experience,” Crowley, a health program facilitator in Shasta County, said in an interview with Shasta Scout.
He remembers one Native woman singing a wailing song of grief at that event as part of a ceremony for the children buried in Chemawa’s cemetery. “It was a healing prayer to ask those children to forgive us for not remembering them, for forgetting about them,” Crowley said.
“There was a spirit of people who were hurting and trying to find healing. Everyone in that auditorium was going through a plethora of emotions,” he said.
In recent months, American Indian Boarding schools have become the focus of national attention after researchers located nearly a thousand unmarked graves at several Indian residential schools in Canada. In response, Deb Haaland, a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico and the first Indigenous U.S. Department of the Interior secretary, has launched a federal investigation into the legacy of the boarding schools.
Locally, Native people express cautious hope that new attention could spur the legal and policy reforms and historical truth-telling needed to help their communities more fully heal from the boarding school era. Many Native children from the area now known as Shasta County attended these American Indian boarding schools, which were operated by the American government and churches for most of the 19th and 20th centuries.
“I don’t want to be told it’s ‘all in the past,’ says Kenwa Kravitz (Wintu/Madesi Band of Pit River), a longtime Shasta County resident who is currently attending Northwest Indian College in Washington state. “How can we move past the past if we never acknowledge it? The truth needs to be told.”
The government-sanctioned boarding schools were a part of President Grant’s 1869 “Peace Policy” and, at the time, were seen as a benevolent and cost-efficient alternative to the outright physical extermination of Native peoples. In the late 19th century, the Department of the Interior secretary estimated it cost $1 million to kill an Indian in warfare, but only $1200 to civilize one through education.
Native children were sent to more than 350 of these boarding schools in the United States after being removed from their families through force or coercion. Student deaths at these schools, often the result of disease outbreaks due to deplorable health conditions, were so common that in 1916 the Commissioner of Indian Affairs Cato Sells wrote, “We cannot educate (Indian) children unless they are kept alive.”
Children died at the schools in large part due to inadequate funding and indifferent oversight, as well as the mental, physical and spiritual abuse common there.
The schools were created to strip Native children of their languages, cultures, and religious beliefs and to assimilate them into white, Christian society as tradesmen and homemakers. Boys were typically trained in farming, blacksmithing, carpentry, and other trades while girls were trained in sewing, cooking, and other domestic tasks, according to scholars, government records, and the oral histories of survivors.
Similar oral histories led to the recent findings of mass graves, according to Shasta County archeologist Cassandra Hensher (Karuk). She says ground-penetrating radar was used to confirm oral histories shared with researchers by Native people, including former students at the schools, who recounted digging graves for their classmates.
“The news made it sound like they went out to the site and discovered burials, but that’s not how it works. It was another case of what Native people have always known, not being taken seriously until it was confirmed by a non-Native scientist,” Hensher said. “It’s heartbreaking that the (oral histories) is what prompted them to go looking. It churns my stomach.”
While it’s unclear exactly how many Native children were sent to boarding schools, it’s estimated that 83 percent of Native school-age children — 60,889 total — were attending boarding schools in 1926, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
In the area now known as Shasta County, many Native people’s parents, grandparents and other relatives were sent to schools in California and Oregon, including Chemawa Indian School, Greenville Industrial School, and Sherman Indian School.
At the Chemawa school cemetery, Indigenous researcher and doctoral candidate Marsha Small (Northern Cheyenne) has been using ground-penetrating radar since 2019 in an effort to reconnect all of the children buried there with their living kin.
“We need to give (the children) the respectful death they deserve, and at least give them a ceremony like they were born into, not the horrible ways they died,” Small says, explaining that there are at least 222 children buried there.
Native culture and language continue to be negatively impacted by the effects of boarding schools
Winnemem Wintu tribal member and Whitmore resident David Martinez noted that the fear of having your children taken away, especially through the child welfare process, still permeates the Native community.
While the Indian Child Welfare Act was passed in 1972 to strengthen tribes’ abilities to keep their children within their communities, agencies don’t always adhere to the law and conservative lobbyists have been campaigning in recent years to dismantle ICWA protections for Native children.
“What if they decide to take a child out of their tribal home and put him in a Quaker or a Shaker home because they decide that’s where they’d be better off?” Martinez said. “It’s always in the back of your mind, it’s a wound in our hearts. It’s the ‘kill the Indian, save the man attitude,’ and they’re still doing it today.”
Martinez says his mother was taken to Chemawa, and ultimately settled her family in the Bay Area even though she hated the city and wanted to move the family back closer to the Winnemem Wintu homelands. But she was afraid that her son would be more likely to be sent from those homelands to boarding schools, Martinez says. The decision continues to impact him.
“If we were raised in Winnemem country, I think I would have been a lot closer to my peers in the tribe. I would have been raised around them and not separated,” he said. “I would have had more of a base to teach my daughter about being Winnemem, and she would be closer to the tribe than she is.”
Hensher says her grandmother and younger brother were also taken to Chemawa. Both ran away several times, she says, likely an indication both of the harsh conditions and of their longing for home. She says boarding schools left survivors with feelings of shame and estrangement toward their ancestral traditions.
“My grandmother didn’t teach (her kids) many of the traditions, even though I think she knew a lot more than she talked about,” Hensher said. “I’m guessing when you’re treated that way for being Indian, you realize you’re safer and your children are safer if you don’t engage with (the culture).”
Barbara Wolfin, a Burney resident and member of the Ilmawi band of the Pit River Tribe, said she has also seen how boarding school trauma continues to harm the passing down of cultural knowledge. On a recent visit to an elder’s home, Wolfin said, she asked an elder to teach some words in her Native language. The elder declined, Wolfin says, commenting that she “would get in trouble.”
“She was in a safe space, her own home, and she had that reaction because she was (raised) in a boarding school,” Wolfin said. “That to me just showed how the boarding schools affect us three or four generations later. We really haven’t come together as one nation to talk about the boarding schools, what they meant and how it impacts us today.”
Several local Native people also noted that boarding schools were often successful not only in converting their relatives and ancestors to Christianity, but also in perpetuating the idea that Indigenous spirituality was sinful or blasphemous. To this day, many tensions continue to exist among traditional Native people, their Christian relatives, and those who are trying to navigate a connection with both religions.
“The huge influx of Christianity and other religions (due to the boarding schools) has really been a huge dividing line in some communities,” Martinez said. “Some people will look down on you because you’re following the old ways.”
Historically, churches were instrumental collaborators with the federal government in national assimilation campaigns waged against Native peoples, including the boarding schools. The 1819 Civilization Fund Act, for instance, specifically funded religious institutions in their work to assimilate Native peoples through education. Researchers at the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) have chronicled how different church groups lobbied the federal government for the right to convert Native peoples to their specific denominations.
“They didn’t just take our culture but forced us to become Christian. Many of the schools were run by churches, who labeled our spirituality as evil,” said Connor Yiamkis, another member of the Ilmawi band of the Pit River Tribe. “The government and churches can’t give us that back; we have to be creative in how we make up for what they’ve done.”
Yiamkis, who earned his master’s in teaching studies and language curriculum from the University of Oregon in 2020, says students in the residential boarding schools were often cruelly punished for speaking their language. He says it’s largely due to the boarding schools that many California tribes now have few, if any, fluent speakers.
Yiamkis is now working to revitalize the tribe’s language teaching practices for a modern context.
“Taking away our languages was one of the main objectives of the boarding schools,” he says. “Somehow the governments and churches, the colonial powers, all knew that if they took our languages, they’d also take away our culture and our world view.”
“People aren’t growing up learning the language,” Yiamkis says, “so you have to find other ways to learn it. And people are dealing with shame, or trauma responses that make them want to stop. It’s really complicated and hard to explain to people.”
Yiamkis also noted that most tribes don’t really have the necessary resources to implement a robust language revitalization program requiring linguists and teaching consultants. While it’s estimated the United States spent $2.81 billion in today’s dollars during the height of the boarding school era to eradicate Indigenous languages, today’s federal funding for Indigenous language revitalization is minuscule in comparison. According to Cherokee writer Rebecca Nagle, the federal government has allocated $250 million for language revitalization since 2005, or about $300,000 per tribe. (Tribes who have been denied federal recognition — such as Wintu peoples — often aren’t eligible for these funds).
“(Learning the language) is helping me reconnect to my culture, the land and our people. It helps me understand our world view and my ancestors more,” Yiamkis said. “For them to offer so little funding is a nice thought, but also a bit of a slap in the face considering how much they spent trying to eradicate our languages.”
Intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools continue to harm Native communities
Winnemem Wintu tribal member and Whitmore resident David Martinez said another lasting legacy of the boarding schools has been intergenerational trauma, a phrase applied to both Jewish Holocaust survivors and Native American communities. Trauma can be triggered or worsened by ongoing experiences such as discrimination in school systems, the destruction of sacred sites, or other contemporary forms of marginalization.
“It’s deep-seated internal pain that we don’t realize is there or understand where it’s coming from,” Martinez said. “The people who abuse today come from families who were abused (in the boarding schools). We have to find a way to break that cycle. Traditionally, we’d seek a spiritual way to alleviate the pain.”
Although it’s a stereotype that Native people suffer from high rates of drug and alcohol addiction (relative to white people, Native people are actually more likely to abstain from alcohol and no more likely to drink heavily), Martinez and Crowley said substance abuse, mental health challenges and other social ills experienced by Native communities stem in part from the intergenerational trauma of boarding schools.
“The solution is to recognize what happened to us and to have the strength to move forward like our ancestors were able to,” Crowley said. “It’s only because of the boarding schools that the resilience of Native people was broken down. We have to start talking about it.”
In his seminal research on intergenerational trauma, Native American psychologist Eduardo Duran argues telling the truth about boarding schools and colonization in mainstream histories is essential for the healing of Indigenous communities. He describes the impacts of colonization as not only leading to a loss of life but also a breakdown of the Indigenous social, cultural, and religious institutions that traditionally provided healing.
In recent decades, local tribes have revitalized numerous ceremonies to promote this kind of community-wide healing — from the Winnemem Wintu’s Balas Chonas to the Pit River Tribe’s Medicine Lake Gathering — though these ceremonies often face legal barriers or threats due to land development.
Unlike survivors of the Jewish holocaust, who could emigrate to other countries or to the nation of Israel, local Native people continue to live among the descendants and institutions that perpetrated the genocide, making healing especially challenging.
Adverse effects of boarding schools continue to affect local educational opportunities for Native children
Long-term adverse effects of residential boarding schools can also be seen in local public education, where Native people say they often encounter hostile peers and teachers as well as problematic curriculum.
For example, Kravitz noted that Native students sometimes struggle to get excused absences for Indigenous ceremonies or cultural events, and many school textbooks and lessons exclude local tribal histories or knowledge, or in some cases perpetuate misconceptions about Indigenous peoples.
“When I look at the larger picture with our students today, there’s still that continuum of assimilation that’s still there (in the public schools),” Kravitz said. “I think our people have developed a distrust of education because of the exclusion of the historical truth and our people’s voices. That means if the children are struggling in school, the parents are not going to trust the teachers to have their best interest at heart.”
Hensher agreed, recalling a past incident at Humboldt County school when her nephew was forced to play an Indian who was murdered by miners for a school video project.
“He had to re-enact the murder and genocide of his ancestors. It’s just so insensitive,” she said. “When you realize your teachers and your textbooks don’t know the facts you know, it’s depressing, and you doubt everything else they say. I imagine that is how a lot of Native students feel.”
Using districts’ own data, a 2019 report published by higher education researchers called Boarding Schools to Suspension Boards concluded Native students are often targeted for suspension and discipline at disproportionate rates throughout California. According to the report, they are far more likely than white students to be suspended for “defiance,” which in many cases may stem from Native students resisting anti-Indian and problematic course materials or teachers’ own prejudices.
The report documents that in Shasta County, Native students represent just four percent of public enrollment, but are nearly twice as likely to be labeled as “chronically absent” and twice as likely to be suspended. Some local districts discipline Native students at even higher rates; the Fall River Joint Unified District, for example, suspends 17.24 percent of its Native American male students.
The report’s authors recommended many interventions including conflict resolution programs as well as more accurate history curricula and culturally competent teaching methods that are more respectful of Native students’ lives and cultures. Fall River Joint Unified School District as well as other Shasta County districts were labeled as being of “urgent concern” in the report.
“Back in my day, if you got in trouble, if you did lousy in school, then they would list you as an ‘incorrigible’ Indian and they would still send you to Sherman. They were still taking kids into the 70’s in California,” Martinez said. “I was one of those kids they could have snagged up . . .”
In March 2019, Shasta County Office of Education (SCOE) Superintendent Judy Flores worked with local Native educators and leaders to form the American Indian Advisory group, which has been working to improve conditions in local schools for Native students. The creation of the group was spurred, in part by a SCOE survey that indicated so-called “chronic absenteeism” among Native students was related not to motivation but to a deeper “disconnect” between Native families and public schools.
The advisory group includes local tribal leaders, educators and community members who are working with SCOE to develop history lessons about local tribes and provide training opportunities for educators to learn more about local Indigenous histories, contemporary issues and world views, as well as the challenges Native students experience.
Wolfin, who is a member of the advisory group, said the effort has been historic because of the way SCOE has held consultations with local tribes and provided opportunities for Native community members to speak directly to school officials.
“I don’t think that meeting would have been possible 10 or 20 years ago, and I think the group is also putting what we’re hearing from Native families into action,” Wolfin said. “When I was going to high school and elementary school, there was not a Native presence, but (the advisory group) is making it open and safe for us to speak.”
Kravitz, who is also on the advisory group, agreed that the trainings have made a significant impact educating teachers and the history lessons have been a long time coming.
“I would definitely say we’re building on decades of work of a lot of elders who’ve advocated for these changes for a long time,” Kravitz said. “It’s really promising work because we collectively represent all the tribes in the area and we have been able to guide the work . . . They’re constantly asking us what we want to do, not telling us what to do.”
Local Native Community Members on Needed Next Steps
In Canada, First Nations and the national government have had an official Truth and Reconciliation Commission that was the result of a class action lawsuit and concluded it’s duties in 2015. It carried out five years of extensive research, listening to residential school survivors and other witnesses, before issuing 94 Calls to Action to make amends to First Nations peoples.
While Haaland’s federal investigation may be the first step towards a similar American effort, local Native people say a great deal needs to be done to appropriately address the boarding schools, which should be seen as a significant human rights atrocity in the vein of the Japanese Internment camps or the lynchings of Black people in the Jim Crow South.
Small, the Northern Cheyenne doctoral student investigating unmarked graves at Chemawa, noted that the archives of the boarding schools are often inaccessible to researchers, making it difficult to identify the children and what happened to them. The archives need to be opened, she said.
Kravitz suggested the need for reparations, especially since Indian children were often provided as cheap or free labor to local white families through so-called “outing programs”.
Martinez said that the local tribes need their stolen lands returned to them in order to expedite the healing process. While both Western science and Indigenous knowledge assert that ceremony can heal, many tribes struggle to maintain their land-based religious traditions because their sacred sites are owned by state, federal and private landowners.
“Ceremony is the way to lasting healing,” Martinez said. “When I’m fighting all these demons, I can kick their ass dancing at the fire, and they don’t follow me home. If I was doing drugs, the demons would come back once I sobered up.”
Yiamkis said not only should there be dramatically more funding and support for Indigenous language revitalization, but he would like to see schools that are designed by Indigenous peoples for Indigenous peoples.
“Hashtags are good for awareness, but it doesn’t impact people who still feel the effects of the boarding schools,” he said. “It would mean a lot to have our own schools that teach the way we learn and are not just a recreation of western education.”
Hensher stated that it’s essential that histories of the boarding schools as well as Indigenous histories are taught in public schools, especially as there’s been a recent rise in white supremacist resistance to teaching accurate history in schools.
“Learning about and talking about different groups of people (in school) is so essential to peace in our community and world peace,” Hensher said. “Every Indian school is going to have these graves and I’m worried that these discoveries will become old news. It’s important we seize the moment . . .”
This story is part of Shasta Scout’s ongoing coverage of local Native communities. If you would like to share your own families’ experiences with American Indian boarding schools or have something else to share, you can email [email protected]. You can submit a correction to this story here.
Disclosure: In his previous position at Shasta County Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA), Marc Dadigan assisted Judy Flores in connecting with potential and future members of SCOE’s American Indian Advisory group. He has no ongoing professional connections with HHS or SCOE
8.1.21, 12:15 pm: This article has been corrected to reflect updated information. Marsha Small’s ground-penetrating radar research at Chemawa was begun in 2019, not 2018.