In a former Native American school in Oklahoma, honoring the dead is now a matter for the elders | Tribal News
A few miles from the Kansas border, a handful of alumni from the Chilocco Indian School of Agriculture took a long dirt road on a hot July morning to tend to parts of the sprawling campus but now in ruins. While much of the land is overgrown with weeds, the school cemetery near Newkirk receives a precise manicure.
The former students of Chilocco knew only 10 graves at the school when they began tending the site over 20 years ago, but they have since uncovered 57 additional graves that took place between 1884 and 1937, all unmarked.
“It is sacred ground, and it should be treated as such and respected as such, especially when you know that many of the people buried there are former students of Chilocco, of the very school we call with us, âJim said. Baker, president of the school’s national alumni association.
The cemetery of the former federally-funded school is likely to be part of a national Home Office investigation to locate the anonymous graves of indigenous students in boarding schools.
In June, US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new investigation into the legacy of residential schools in the United States following the discovery of hundreds of anonymous graves in Canada.
Including Chilocco, Oklahoma has 83 former and current Indian boarding school sites, more than any other state, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Many schools were run by religious groups and received funding from the federal government as part of systemic efforts to dissolve Native American cultures and languages.
Prior to the federal inquiry, residential school alumni, tribal leaders and activists described a complicated relationship between tribes and old schools, and the impact institutions will continue to have on Native American communities in the state. even after the investigation is complete.
Students who died in boarding schools did not receive proper burials in accordance with tribal traditions, said Gordon Yellowman, director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal language and culture program.
â(The tribesmen) never got a chance to do what we have to do when a child dies,â Yellowman said. “They never received the love and dignity they deserve, and the respect they deserve.”
Honoring the dead is now the responsibility of former students of the school
For nearly 100 years, the Chilocco School has welcomed Indigenous students from over 127 tribes in the western United States.
The National Association of Chilocco Alumni began maintaining the school’s cemetery in the late 1990s after it had been neglected for decades. Jim Baker graduated from the school in 1960. He was also the school’s first alumnus to serve as superintendent from 1973 to 1978. The alumni association’s desire to honor deceased students compelled the group to maintain the cemetery, he said.
Jim and his wife Charmain Baker, who is also a former student of Chilocco, have found dozens of graves at the school that date from 1884 to 1937 through archival research and the use of speed cameras. Originally none of the school’s graves were marked.
Most of those buried in the cemetery were students from Chilocco, although one grave belongs to the child of a faculty member.
Many of the students buried in Chilocco were orphans who had no one to claim their bodies after they died, Baker said. Even though the students had family, transportation was often too slow for the body to be brought home in time to preserve it, leading to a school funeral.
The scattered records made the process of identifying graves even more complex.
Of the 67 graves they identified at the school, eight remain unnamed. Charmain Baker is concerned that 50 people buried at the school have unknown causes of death. Several students died from infectious disease outbreaks like the 1918 influenza pandemic, she said.
While she said she knew the records were “sketchy,” she wonders if authorities have deemed the truth of some of the deaths too morbid to be made public.
âWe cannot say that no child was killed,â Charmain said. âWe just don’t know. “
Canadian discovery sparks new scrutiny
The anonymous graves of 751 people, mostly Indigenous children, were discovered in June at a former Saskatchewan residential school. Another 375 graves have been found in British Columbia, spread across the former residential school sites of Kamloops and Kuper Island.
The U.S. Anonymous Graves Investigation will include the identification and collection of records related to the federal government’s residential school monitoring and tribal consultation to discuss ways to protect the burial sites.
Yellowman said there were originally several boarding schools run by the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes and on tribal lands many students also attended off-reserve schools like Chilocco. Several of the Cheyenne and Arapaho schools were consolidated in the early 1900s, and more tribal students were transferred to Chilocco.
While there have been a few success stories in residential schools, Yellowman said a lot of intergenerational trauma also came from schools like Chilocco.
He described the harsh punishments inflicted on administrators in many schools for behaviors such as speaking Indigenous languages, and the stifling effect these have had on Indigenous culture. Yellowman never learned more than basic words in the Cheyenne language because his grandmother – who attended Concho Indian Residential School near El Reno – stressed the importance of speaking English.
During the 1960s and 1970s, changing social conditions posed a threat to residential schools, and Chilocco was no exception. Faced with a host of problems, including declining enrollment and a lack of federal funding, the school closed in 1980.
The quality of academic programs at Chilocco has improved and students have had more freedom and better living conditions in the last few years of the school’s history, according to testimonies collected by the Research Program on l oral history of Oklahoma. Jim Baker described fond memories of Chilocco and the myriad amenities it once housed, including a thriving farming program and plenty of sports facilities. He was sad to see the school close, he said.
âWhen something is too good, it makes people jealous,â he said.
During his tenure as Superintendent, Jim Baker was known to work in the fields with students who participated in the school’s agricultural program. Although the crops in the fields are now dominated by weeds, Jim was again the first to start work on a recent visit, cutting the school grass on a lawn mower and eventually heading out. towards the school grave.
The cemetery is a small, unpretentious lot about half a mile from the main campus, with bricks set in the ground as tombstones and commemorative crosses leaning against the fence. For years Jim and Charmain Baker have led efforts to maintain it and locate and identify the graves. They also concocted funds from a patchwork of donors and grants to honor the school dead.
Chilocco Cemetery is now owned by the Kaw Nation, a federally recognized tribe of approximately 3,100 registered members headquartered in Kay County. A memorial to the dead is a large block of stone with 67 entrances for those buried engraved on it – though many lack names, tribes, and years of burial. The prints are surrounded by child-sized hands and footprints.
The Kaw Nation received $ 40,000 from the MICA Group Cultural Resources Fund to pay for the memorial and a new fence around the cemetery.
A former student who owns a flower shop provides an annual flower arrangement for the memorial.
A grant of $ 3,100 from ConocoPhillips funded the construction of the fence around the cemetery. Workers using radar to build the fence found “anomalies” at the site – possibly dead animals or more anonymous graves. The elders ultimately hope to find enough funds to pay for another radar scout, possibly in coordination with the Kaw Nation or other entities.
New hope for answers from anonymous graves
Indigenous groups hope the new federal inquiry will trigger a toll of the lasting damage to the US residential school system.
Community activists Redbear and Soulowla Williams, who are from the Seminole Nation near Bowlegs, are helping organize an honor march for Native American children who died in residential schools in Oklahoma but have not yet been found. They said they believed there might be a local find of anonymous graves as important as the finding of hundreds in Canada.
âThese babies are a wake-up call,â Soulowla Williams said. “And here Oklahoma is going to have a rude awakening when they start finding bodies here.”
The 30 mile walk will begin July 31 at the Mekusukey Mission in Seminole and end at St. Gregory University in Shawnee, the successor institution of Sacred Heart, a former Native American residential school in Pottawatomie County.
Tribal leaders have tried to launch new investigations into anonymous graves in boarding schools for decades to no avail, Soulowla Williams said, which has been frustrating for families with lost loved ones.
Yellowman said he believed the Home Office investigation was necessary to explain the government’s wrongs, and that it should include a search for graves at all former residential schools in Oklahoma.
Identifying and sending any recovered remains to the tribes would be an intensive process, and Yellowman believes the decision to do so will have to be made later. But one of the top priorities should be providing proper burials, he said.
Jim Baker said he believed there were still undiscovered burial sites in Chilocco. He welcomes the Interior Ministry’s investigation, which he hopes will uncover the exact number of people buried at the school and more information on their deaths.
Ultimately, he wants the Home Office to play a bigger role in keeping Chilocco up.
“I hope that they will take possession of the cemeteries, especially in those closed and off reserve boarding schools … or perhaps the responsibility for their abandonment, and provide the necessary resources to continue to maintain these cemeteries with respect,” he said. -he declares.
Yellowman is hopeful that the federal government will face some consequences of its actions as a result of the investigation, although he is not sure what form they will take. He would also like the United States to recognize responsibility for the deaths of indigenous students.
But he hesitates to say that the finds of remains will lead to any great emotional healing.
âIt doesn’t end because we forgive but we never forget,â he said.