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Lillian Medina combed through every headstone in Chemawa Cemetery, searching for some indication that her great-aunt was there.
She scoured the grounds twice before finding Tillie Franklin's burial site near the entrance. Medina placed her hand on the marker and introduced herself. She poured water over Franklin's name.
"To think that, in almost 100 years," Medina said, "I was the first family to visit where she is buried."
Medina sobbed for every child buried in the cemetery that abuts Chemawa Indian School. When she stood to leave, Medina said she felt like something grabbed at her ankles. She couldn't move.
"We didn't want to leave these children that never got to go home to their grandmothers," she said. "We didn't want them to be without family again."
Indian boarding schools across the United States were founded in the late 1800s to forcefully assimilate Native children into the white, Christian man's image. Richard H. Pratt — founder of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and the person behind the off-reservation boarding school system — operated under the motto: "Kill the Indian, save the man."
This mindset would establish decades of abuse, disease, secrecy, trauma and deaths in Native boarding schools, including at Chemawa Indian School in Salem — now the oldest continuously operated and federally run Indian boarding school in the country.
For generations, Native families have struggled to discover what happened to their ancestors and sought public apologies for those atrocities.
The United States government has never apologized for its role in that history or sought to investigate and identify the children buried at these schools. But that might change now.
Backstory: Feds may investigate Chemawa Indian School after the discovery of Canadian mass graves
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.
They are determining how to handle existing and sensitive records, the potential for repatriations of human remains and the management of former boarding school sites.
A report on the investigation will be submitted to the secretary by April 1 and serve as a basis for additional work.
Though it's just beginning, the federal investigation has sparked renewed hope that those affected — including the relatives of the children buried at Chemawa's cemetery — will get the answers and acknowledgment they've sought for decades.
Read more: Interior secretary seeks answers about the grim legacy of Indian boarding schools
When the announcement of the federal investigation came out, Amanda Ward, Chemawa's superintendent, said she hadn't heard anything about how it could impact Chemawa.
Ward has not been able to comment since then on the investigation and its impact on Chemawa. The Department of the Interior is coordinating all media requests. While the department answered questions from the Statesman Journal regarding the overall investigation, it declined to answer questions specific to Chemawa.
'She never saw Tillie again'
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition documents 367 Indian boarding schools, 73 of which remain open and 15 of which are still boarding.
That number is much larger when you include day schools, which don't board. According to the Bureau of Indian Education, there are 183 federally funded elementary and secondary schools in the United States. Of those, 53 are operated by the Bureau, and 130 are tribally controlled under BIE contracts or grants.
More than 140 years old, Chemawa is one of only four off-reservation boarding schools run by the federal government.
Located just east of Keizer Station and Interstate 5 in Salem, Chemawa had 337 students enrolled as of last school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. In Chemawa's first 96 years alone, archives show more than 30,000 children enrolled.
Medina, who is enrolled as Miwok, grew up hearing about Indian boarding schools from her grandmother, Lillian Franklin Atencio.
Atencio and her siblings were born on the North Fork of the Cosumnes River. But in 1916, when their family home in El Dorado County, California, burnt down, the siblings were put into different off-reservation boarding schools.
Atencio wondered her whole life what became of her sister, Medina recalled.
"I can still hear my grandmother say to me that she never saw Tillie again," Medina said.
Information on these schools' histories is often difficult to access, inaccurate and incomplete.
It took decades for Medina to learn Franklin had been sent to Chemawa, where she died four years later in 1922. Recently posted burial records in the Pacific University Archives show her affiliated with what at the time was called the Digger Indians. Records indicate she died of pulmonary hemorrhage.
Since finding Franklin's grave, Medina was able to read some records, which stated her parents were unknown. Medina said Tillie may have been listed incorrectly in some paperwork as her sister, Alverta.
"I think burying Tillie there was probably cheaper than sending her home," Medina said. "Chemawa is so far to send a little girl from California."
Medina said it felt like her and her family's prayers had been answered when the federal investigation was announced. But it still hurts her to think there was no ceremony for Franklin the day she died, or when she was buried.
"I would feel complete, for my grandmother's sake, to bring Tillie home where she belongs," she said.
'Don't forget me'
Upon arrival to these schools, children were stripped of their own clothing, washed in a chemical lye bath and put into a uniform. Their hair was cut off and they were given Christian names. They were often punished or beaten for speaking their native language or practicing any tribal traditions.
Families were promised the opportunity of a quality "American" education. But during the schools' first several decades, students were forced to work on farms to help fund their school and, in the instance of Chemawa, were used as labor to construct new buildings.
Their health care was often poor, and communicable diseases ran rampant in the dormitories, resulting in deaths from illnesses like tuberculosis and measles. And many were physically and sexually abused by teachers and staff.
Both of Roberta Lynn "Tow-le-kit-we-son-my" Paul's grandparents were taken from their families at a young age and enrolled in Indian boarding schools.
Her grandfather, Jesse "Black Raven" Paul, was taken from an exile camp where his family was in Tonkawa, Oklahoma. He was sent to Carlisle in 1880, where he would remain for eight years.
Her grandmother, Lydia Conditt, was taken from Kamiah, Idaho, to Chemawa, which was known then, in the early 1880s, as the Forest Grove Indian Training School, located nearly 50 miles north of the current campus.
Black Raven and Conditt knew what the treatment of Native children in such schools was like. So when they saw "Indian agents, coming up the hill to collect their own children years later," Paul said, they hid them in an old piano crate and covered it with firewood.
Still, over the years, Paul's grandmother, great-uncle, two aunts and uncle would attend Chemawa between 1883 and 1925. Most of all the Paul children attended a boarding school at some point.
Paul, part of the Nimíipuu or Nez Perce tribe, learned about these experiences from listening to stories passed down, conducting her own research and looking through saved trinkets and records kept in the family for generations.
Paul, who wrote her dissertation on intergenerational trauma, remembers watching the documentary "In the White Man's Image." She said she "had to run out of the room and go throw up in the Spokane River."
But Paul sees herself as one of the lucky ones.
She knows her relatives' names. She knows which schools they went to and when. She has photographs, enrollment records and medical logs.
She has her grandmother Conditt's signature book and calling cards. And she knows what her handwriting looked like.
In a class photo from the late 1880s, Paul's grandmother was the only child out of 33 who historians have been able to identify. Her grandmother's signature book is filled, page after page, with the same message: "Don't forget me."
Paul said she wants others to know these things about their families too. She wants them to be able to heal.
Trauma over generations
Shortly after Paul's 39th birthday, her then-husband told her he was leaving her. Overcome with grief, she tried to take her own life.
Paul recalls her grandfather coming to her that night in a dream and telling her, "It's time to come home." She said she knew she needed to return to her families' ancestral lands and research more about the atrocities they faced.
Paul had lived with depression for years but noted she struggled more than usual around certain dates. She soon learned her ancestors had died in bloody battles, from raging diseases and under the poor treatment of residential schools.
"We know now that we carry it in our DNA, above the gene," Paul said. "(Scientists are) discovering that it is real. I mean, we've known it for generations ourselves, but proving to the science community and others at large that it is there and it is real is part of the journey and telling truth."
As Paul started piecing together information that explained her family's past, she began to heal. Others have not been able to take that journey.
For some, it's because they don't know what happened to their relatives or where their remains are. Churches and governmental agencies have often refused to release records and didn't use the children's birth names, referring only to them by their Christian-given names.
"We lost parts of our story because Christianity came and said that 'you were born anew,' " Paul said. "They said that you didn't need to know your culture and history."
A quest for answers
Eleanor Hadden's grandmother was at Chemawa for more than three years, from about 1912-15.
Several of her grandmother's siblings attended Chemawa, too, including her youngest brother who contracted tuberculosis at the school and was sent to a Nez Perce reservation hospital where he died.
"She would not start a conversation about (her time there)," said Hadden, who is Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian and lives in Anchorage. "But (if) we asked a question about something, she would give a short story."
Hadden remembers her grandmother describing militarized aspects of her time there, such as climbing internal ranks to be a sergeant. She also got paid to work as a picker at a neighboring hops field.
"Those are the only stories that she talked about," she said.
"And that in itself is telling," Hadden added. "When you don't want to talk about something.
"We really don't know what happened to her physically or emotionally."
Hadden said as her grandmother got older and relied on more medications, "a lot of fears came out," including one about "strange men."
"She was always afraid to be in the room by herself," Hadden said. "It was hard to ask, '(Why) do you think (that)?' "
In 1967, Hadden's mother, Mary Jones, sent a note to Chemawa asking if her aunt, also named Mary, a member of the Tlingit tribe, had attended. She hadn't, but the school provided a list of siblings who did.
Jones decided to go to Chemawa and search through her mother's records — still held, at that time, in the campus archives.
She found letters that her aunt had written home but were never delivered. There also were letters from their father, some including money, that were never given to her.
"The plan was to try to take the children away from their parents," Hadden said.
Jones died a year ago, having spent the past several decades constructing their family's history and searching for her aunt's remains. Now, Hadden carries the torch.
"She told me it's my job now to finish finding Mary and finish finding the younger brother that's in Nez Perce country," Hadden said.
Hadden eventually found that Mary was taken to Carlisle with her brother Paul in 1924. She was 9 when she was sent to Carlisle. She died there in 1929 at the age of 14.
Her body was one of 13 with a headstone at Carlisle marked "unknown." Hadden and her family are on a waiting list to have her remains exhumed and returned.
Hadden said her mother began this search at a time when "nobody was really interested." Nobody believed them, nobody wanted to know, she said.
Now that the federal investigation is underway, Hadden said her first thought was, "Thank goodness. Finally, someone is listening."
Hadden spoke of children at the U.S.-Mexican border being taken from their families. "That happened to us as well … there just (wasn't anybody) there to really document what was happening," she said.
Hadden wants people to acknowledge the history of Native children and their families.
"Yes, we've been hurt. Help us through the recovery … instead of judging what social ills are going on now as part of that generational trauma," she said.
"It's hard to know where to start healing. I think it's acknowledging that the United States and churches did these things to us, that's a big one. To understand that they were complicit in what was happening.
"These things should be taught in history, (but) aren't."
'Treated unfairly from the beginning'
Jaliene Singer's grandparents and great-uncle on her father's side attended Chemawa in the 1950s. Some family members have worked there in the years since.
In the 1990s, her grandfather, Samuel Singer, worked in the "sick bay" where students would go if they weren't feeling well; her grandmother, Irene Singer, primarily worked in the kitchen.
When Singer was a child, she remembers visiting. Her grandmother always gave her a cookie.
Singer, 23, who lives in Hillsboro, said her grandparents told her Chemawa was all about discipline and respect. They had both been brought to the school through a pilot program for Navajo students.
Not all of their experiences were bad, Singer remembers her grandmother saying. Irene played in the band. Her future husband played sports.
Meet our Mid-Valley: Chemawa Indian School junior sets her sights on college
But they also remembered their culture being taken away. There are reports of children trying to run away. Singer said they were punished for "looking Native."
"(My grandma) told me it was the white man's way and they could not fight it," she said. "I saw a lot of distress and transformation, from being in your homeland then being relocated to start a new life."
She said her family struggled with that trauma.
"But what they kept is their heritage," she said. "Diné people stayed together."
When Singer heard about the burials in Canada — when 215 unmarked graves were discovered by the Tk'emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School — she thought about those children's families. She said she was filled with anger and confusion.
"The pain and not knowing is the worst," she said. "It made me think about the treatment they endured … all the lost souls who were unnamed and forgotten.
"The level of disrespect towards humans is revolting," Singer said, adding that some Native people chose to go to the school to become educated, but "what they got was death."
"It should be known that Native people were treated unfairly from the beginning," she said. "The graves of these children should not have happened; their families should not have that as their legacy."
Burials under scrutiny
Even in modern times, the emotions surrounding the school are conflicting.
In 2017, Chemawa was featured by NFL Films for rebounding from a winless, pointless season. That same year, the school was at the heart of an investigation by Oregon Public Broadcasting that highlighted allegations of fraud, mismanagement and student deaths.
It has a waiting list annually and serves as a "choice school" for many in the Native community. Yet in 2019, Oregon U.S. Reps. Kurt Schrader and Suzanne Bonamici criticized the school for failing students and the tribes who entrusted their children to the school's care.
And earlier this year, advocates organized a run to raise awareness for the unidentified children still buried there.
Chemawa Cemetery was established in 1886, a year after the school was moved from Forest Grove to its current location. The earliest confirmed burial is from Feb. 5 of the same year. Student Julia Jopps, from the Spokane Tribe of Indians and originally enrolled at Forest Grove, died of pneumonia or possibly tuberculosis.
While it has been through periods of neglect, the cemetery grounds have been protected by a cyclone fence since at least the 1960s, when it was reportedly leveled during a cleanup effort.
Run for the children: Dozens run to raise awareness for the unidentified buried at Chemawa
Delores Pigsley, chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, grew up on the campus in the 1940s and 50s when her parents worked at the school. Her husband and other family members also worked at Chemawa and were later buried in the cemetery.
Pigsley said she doesn't believe any unmarked graves exist beyond the fenced perimeter.
Neither does SuAnn Reddick, a volunteer historian for Chemawa in the 1990s and early 2000s.
About 200 burials have been documented — mostly students, but also school employees and relatives. The exact number varies depending on the source of the list.
Willamette Valley Genealogical Society has a list of names of those believed to be buried at Chemawa Cemetery. A search on Find A Grave can generate another one.
Reddick has her own list she's been working on for nearly 25 years, and it may be the most accurate to date. She's corrected name and death errors and added the tribal affiliation of the deceased if known.
A number of the grave markers have misspelled names. Julia Jopps' last name, for example, is engraved "Lapp" on a marker near the middle of the third-to-last row at the cemetery.
Reddick's painstaking research was recently published online and is now available to the public. The site was made possible through a partnership with Eva Guggemos, archivist and associate professor at Pacific University in Forest Grove.
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The website is hosted by the Pacific University Archives, which also maintains a site on the history of the Forest Grove Indian School. It includes cemetery maps and a spreadsheet with notes, citations, enrollment dates and other information about Chemawa students.
Site records indicate that:
- At least 270 students died in custody of the schools at Forest Grove and Chemawa between 1880 and 1945.
- Approximately 175 of those children were buried in the school cemetery.
- Remains of approximately 40 students were returned home near the time of their deaths between 1880-1945.
- The locations of approximately 50 student remains are unaccounted for, although maps indicate there could be up to 40 plots in the cemetery that contain remains of unidentified students or staff.
Reddick, who lives in McMinnville, has been protective of her list, never wanting to perpetuate misinformation.
With increased scrutiny over burials at residential schools nationwide, she's sharing her research in hopes that it can be used in combination with other work that's been done in recent years or will be done during the federal investigation.
She has reached out to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to offer her research but said she has not been contacted by anyone.
"We've been super obsessive-compulsive about making sure we're extremely accurate — or at least as accurate as we can be," Reddick said. "We're hoping this is going to help families. That's the bottom-line objective."
Lost cemetery records
Reddick's list includes the names of all students for whom at least some evidence has been found that they died in the custody of the school.
Not all were buried at Chemawa Cemetery. The remains of some were returned home.
Many died during the early years when infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and influenza could spread rapidly in dormitories.
Reddick's research shows at least one-third of the students buried in the cemetery reportedly died of tuberculosis. During the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, there were 23 deaths at Chemawa, including 18 people who were buried at the cemetery. Fifteen were students.
The last confirmed student buried at Chemawa Cemetery is Edward Bellinger, who died March 17, 1932. Lyle Young, who died more than two years later, is believed to have been a student but Reddick has yet to match him to a school roster.
While thousands of students have attended Chemawa since, and some have died on campus, it isn't clear why none were laid to rest at the school cemetery. Even in the early days of the cemetery, students' remains were sometimes sent back to their reservations.
There are gaps in the timeline, much like with other historic cemeteries. Information gets lost or destroyed. The people who keep records move on or die. And the cemeteries themselves suffer from neglect.
Most recently, Pigsley and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz Indians helped bring attention to the cemetery after the school, operated by the Bureau of Indian Education, stopped mowing and caring for it because it doesn't own the cemetery. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does.
In an interview with the Statesman Journal, she said her son, who works at Chemawa, mows the cemetery on his own time.
Maintenance has been spotty for decades, some worse than others. In the 1960s, the cemetery had become so overgrown caretakers resorted to leveling the area, presumably destroying any remaining wooden markers from the early days.
The cyclone fence was installed at the time, according to reports in the Spilyay Tymoo, a publication of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.
Charles Holmes, who worked as an industrial arts teacher at Chemawa for many years and was on staff at that time, described to Reddick how they "recreated" the cemetery layout using a grid with stakes and string and noting the placement of fir trees, which weren't nearly as towering as they are today.
All they had to go on was a master plot map created in 1940.
Cement bars affixed with metal plates were placed at each grave listed, although recent investigations conducted by researcher Marsha Small using ground-penetrating radar suggest many of the current markers may not accurately match up with gravesites.
Shop students made the metal plates, and when they copied names and dates, errors were made. A second map was created at that time and is the one Reddick used to begin her research.
At least seven burials since the 1940s, including Pigsley's late husband and other family members in recent years, aren't on the map.
Former employees or students are eligible for burial, but remains must be cremated and only a flat marker can be used, according to Pigsley.
Newer burials are in what is now the front section of the cemetery closest to Indian School Road NE.
Pigsley also knows of three unmarked graves in that area that contain the unidentified, partial remains of multiple Native people from area tribes. Tribal agencies agreed to inter them together.
In honor of all those buried at the cemetery, the Siletz and Lummi tribes worked together to install a commemorative totem near the front arch a few years ago. It depicts a female looking east toward campus, where a male totem is looking west toward the cemetery.
Preparing for tribal involvement
Pigsley is willing to be involved in the federal investigation. So is Reddick.
They have as many questions as anyone, including who will conduct it, when it will begin, and if it will be anything more than an archaeological study.
At tribal meetings Pigsley has attended, some have expressed interest in the repatriation of those buried at Chemawa Cemetery. She said members of her tribe don't believe in exhuming and relocating remains because of rituals and ceremonies done at the time of burial.
Reddick said she would support the idea of some type of memorial, perhaps a wall with student names and tribes.
Calling for acknowledgment
Other countries, such as Canada and South Africa, have held "truth and reconciliation" commissions for past atrocities committed against Native and Indigenous communities.
These tribunals have provided victims, their descendants and survivors an opportunity to share their experiences, process their pain and advocate for next steps. Incidents are documented and recognized as part of history when they were silenced and hidden before.
In Canada, for example, these efforts, in part, led to funding to revitalize languages the children were prohibited from speaking in residential schools.
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition is pushing for similar tribunals in the states. They also support repatriation efforts at schools like Carlisle. And they are advocating that U.S. officials provide more mental health supports and trauma resources as further revelations emerge during the Department of Interior's Federal Indian Boarding School Truth Initiative.
In Canada, resources such as a national hotline are available to survivors of residential schools.
Recently, the Canadian government also committed to spending $107 million on mental health, culture and emotional services to support healing from boarding school intergenerational trauma. According to the coalition, this was part of $321 million in new funding that includes helping Indigenous communities search burial sites at former residential schools.
"The first step we need to take is caring for our boarding school survivors," Deborah Parker, of the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, who serves as the director of policy and advocacy for the coalition, said in a statement.
The coalition is advocating for a Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding Schools, arguing it's the "most complete step toward fully uncovering the truth, uplifting survivors, and charting a path toward healing."
'Got to be more than an apology'
When Paul first heard about the federal investigation, she was angry that "it's taken so long for this to begin to be acknowledged."
Recognizing what countless children and their families went through, and the impacts of those events, Paul said, helps to remove the shame many still feel today.
"It helps to be recognized, that 'I'm not crazy. The trauma really hurt me,' " she said. "It recognizes that there was harm and that I don't have to feel ashamed of who I am as a Native person."
As for those not personally impacted, Paul said it's time to listen and look for ways to be part of the repatriating and healing process.
"90% of healing is being listened to and acknowledge that it happened," she said.
But healing means something different for everyone.
For many, they want the U.S. government to acknowledge the atrocities that were committed. Others want to find their ancestors' burials. Some want their remains exhumed. Some want reparations and a reconciliation commission.
The U.S. Department of the Interior is compiling decades of files and records to begin a "proper review" that will allow investigators to organize documents, identify available and missing information and ensure their records system is standardized, according to Giovanni Rocco, deputy press secretary for the Office of the Secretary.
"The department is also building a framework for how we partner with outside organizations to guide the next steps of review," Rocco said.
In late fall, the department expects to begin tribal consultation, where they will discuss ways to protect and share sensitive information, and how to protect gravesites and sacred burial traditions.
Paul hopes the investigation helps individuals learn what happened to their family members.
"Sometimes they don't even know what they died of," she said.
Paul said knowing allows people to process and grieve, to find some sense of closure. Others may use it as a way to learn more about their families and history.
But she said the government must do more than just acknowledge what happened.
"We need to apologize for what happened — how you treated other human beings," she said. "There's got to be more than an apology; it's got to be more than just words."
Resources, historic archives:
According to Chemawa school leadership, historic archives and records of past students are kept at the National Archives in Seattle, not on the Salem campus.
The Seattle archives can be accessed digitally, though many documents and artifacts are only available in person. To view them, go to www.archives.gov/research/native-americans/bia-guide/washington.html or visit the archives at 6125 Sand Point Way NE, Seattle.
Additional resources include:
- A guide to tracing American Indian and Alaska Native ancestry: www.bia.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/public/pdf/idc-002619.pdf
- Native American newspapers from the late 19th century through the early 20th century: blogs.loc.gov/teachers/2018/11/native-american-newspapers-studying-the-history-through-the-eyes-of-the-community
- The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition: boardingschoolhealing.org
- Mental health facts and resources for Native and Indigenous communities: www.mhanational.org/issues/native-and-indigenous-communities-and-mental-health
- WSU's Plateau Portal, local and regional archives: plateauportal.libraries.wsu.edu
- Archives West, the Charles E. Larsen Chemawa Indian School collection, 1853-1953: archiveswest.orbiscascade.org/ark:/80444/xv50241
- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: www.nps.gov/archeology/tools/laws/nagpra.htm.
- Deaths at Chemawa Indian School, a site authored by SuAnn Reddick and Eva Guggemos and hosted by the Pacific University Archives, includes names, burial locations and cemetery maps: https://heritage.lib.pacificu.edu/s/deaths-chemawa/page/welcome
This project was completed by a team of three reporters and a photographer. It was produced after researching hundreds of archives, conducting dozens of interviews, filing multiple media requests with local and federal agencies, traveling to Deer Park, WA, to speak with descendants, and more. Please support this important work by sharing these stories with others and by becoming a Statesman Journal subscriber.
Were you or your relatives enrolled at Chemawa? We would appreciate hearing about your experiences.
Natalie Pate is the education reporter for the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at npate@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6745, or on Twitter @NataliePateGwin and Facebook at @NataliePateJournalist.
Dianne Lugo is a reporter at the Statesman Journal covering equity and social justice. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, 503-936-4811, or on Twitter @DianneLugo.
Capi Lynn is the Statesman Journal's news columnist. Contact her at clynn@StatesmanJournal.com or 503-399-6710, or follow her on Twitter @CapiLynn and Facebook @CapiLynnSJ.