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‘All these children matter’: Discovery of Indian boarding school graves shines spotlight on cultural genocide, with ripple effects felt in Spokane

UPDATED: Sun., Aug. 1, 2021

Matilda Sampson remembers her grandmother telling stories about hiding her kids in the cellar so they wouldn’t be taken away to the Indian boarding school.

Eventually, the children had to go anyway. When Sampson was about 10, she, too, went to the Kamloops Indian Residential School, roughly 35 miles from her home in Chase, British Columbia.

But she barely remembers any of it.

“I guess it’s a good thing I can’t remember,” Sampson said. “I think I don’t want to know.”

She recalls seeing row after row of beds, having her long hair chopped short and wearing a black and white school uniform with ugly white and brown shoes. She remembers the big cafeteria at meal times, full of Native children from different bands. She remembers a metal staircase somewhere on campus, and a big white barn with lots of windows.

“It just looked eerie,” Sampson said, “that big, white building.”

Besides a handful of disjointed snippets, her time at Kamloops is a black hole in her memory.

Sampson, a member of the Adams Lake Band who lives in Spokane, went to the Indian boarding school for a couple of years in the early 1970s. She can’t picture a single teacher’s face or recall anything from her classes.

Given what happened to other students at Kamloops, Sampson thinks she blocked out the memories.

In May, the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation announced it had discovered 215 children in unmarked graves at the Kamloops school, found with the help of ground-penetrating radar.

Other discoveries have followed. Last month, the Cowessess First Nation announced it had found 751 unmarked graves at the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, and the Lower Kootenay Band in British Columbia shared the discovery of 182 unmarked graves near the St. Eugene’s Mission School in Cranbrook, north of Bonners Ferry.

From the 1800s until the 1970s, thousands of Native children in the U.S. and Canada attended Indian boarding schools, often against their parents’ will. The schools existed to assimilate children into white society and strip them of their tribal traditions and practices.

Being torn away from their families at young ages traumatized generations of children. Abuse at the schools was common. Kids were beaten for speaking their native languages, playing traditional games or practicing their religions. Deadly outbreaks of smallpox, tuberculosis and other diseases killed thousands.

Despite the abuse and cultural destruction the schools caused, the institutions have been mostly ignored in U.S. history classes, kept out of sight and mind for the general public.

“I do not think that the story has been told,” Spokane Tribe of Indians Chairwoman Carol Evans said. “I do not think that the people outside of the Indigenous community really know what happened to our people with this boarding school policy. … It’s not in textbooks.”

The recent gruesome discoveries have put the schools in the global spotlight. Tribal leaders say they expect many more revelations soon, on both sides of the border.

In June, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland – the first Native American to lead the federal agency that oversaw the U.S. boarding school system – launched an investigation into the schools. The secretary, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, asked her department to consult with tribes during the investigation and produce a report by April 1.

Many Native people in the Inland Northwest have personal connections to the Kamloops school, 330 miles north of Spokane, or St. Eugene, 50 miles across the border. Even if they didn’t have family members who went to those places, they likely have relatives who attended one of the boarding schools in Eastern Washington or North Idaho.

Native Americans have been talking about the deaths and unmarked graves for decades. Many say they hope the recent findings will force white Americans and Canadians to finally confront the horror, cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma the schools caused.

“All these children matter,” Sampson said. “Now we can say we were telling the truth. We weren’t lying.”

‘Kill the Indian, save the man’

In 1879, Capt. Richard Pratt founded an Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Pratt’s goal was straightforward. He believed that for Native Americans to survive, they had to abandon their traditional ways and assimilate into American society.

At the time, Pratt’s philosophy and the Carlisle school were seen as relatively progressive. While many white Americans felt Indigenous people should be exterminated, Pratt proposed an alternative that he famously summed up in an 1892 speech.

“All the Indian there is in the race should be dead,” Pratt said. “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

Whatever the intentions of Indian boarding school creators, the results of their efforts were disastrous.

“They thought it was the best thing for us, and it was the worst thing for us,” said Warren Seyler, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians who gives presentations on tribal history.

From the 1800s until the 1970s, the federal government and Christian churches ran 367 Indian boarding schools in the U.S. There were about 150 schools in Canada, and the schools in both countries largely mimicked Pratt’s strict Carlisle model. Attendance was often mandatory, and hundreds of thousands of children went to the schools.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. government’s stance toward Indian boarding schools was unabashedly racist. In annual reports, Bureau of Indian Affairs leaders said the objective was to wipe out Natives, not by killing them, but by assimilating them into white society so thoroughly that Natives and “the Indian problem” would cease to exist.

William Jones, who served as U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs from 1897 to 1904, wrote that it was critical to destroy Native traditions and customs in boarding schools.

“The cutting of short hair by the males will be a great step in advance, and will certainly hasten their progress toward civilization,” Jones wrote. “Indian dances and so-called Indian feasts should be prohibited. In many cases these dances and feasts are simply subterfuges to cover degrading acts and to disguise immoral purposes.”

Boarding school proponents said eradicating Native languages was key to assimilation.

“So long as the American people demand that Indians shall become white men within one generation,” an 1881 Bureau of Indian Affairs commission report read, “(Indians) must be compelled to adopt the English language.”

In 1892, Colville Reservation Indian Agent Hal Cole wrote in his annual report to the Bureau of Indian Affairs that the government should create a boarding school at Fort Spokane.

“If they (Natives) are wards of the Government the Government certainly ought to provide school facilities, and not allow them to grow up in ignorance and vice,” Cole wrote.

Over time, public perception of the schools changed. Instead of seeing them as benevolent, more Americans and Canadians viewed them as an atrocity.

By the end of the 1970s, most of the schools had closed, but they’d already done enormous damage. Natives who attended the boarding schools, and their descendants, are still working to reclaim languages and customs the schools tried to take away.

Tribal leaders requested the creation of some schools. For instance, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe lobbied for what became the Mary Immaculate school, which opened in 1878.

Some who attended the school in DeSmet, Idaho, before it closed in the 1970s remember fondly the Catholic sisters who taught there. The former school building burned down in 2011, and the land where it once stood is home to an interpretive site.

Bernie LaSarte, a Coeur d’Alene Tribe elder, went to Mary Immaculate in the 1960s. She arrived as a 10-year-old and does not remember the nuns fondly. She said she “survived” the school.

“It was traumatic for me,” LaSarte said.

LaSarte’s parents sent her to DeSmet voluntarily, but it was hard to leave home so young. She focused her energies on studying and looking after her 6-year-old sister, who went to the school with her.

Mary Immaculate was structured almost like a military academy, LaSarte said, and the nuns could be cruel.

“I certainly didn’t see people being beaten,” LaSarte said. “But I can tell you there was a lot of verbal abuse that went on, and a lot of degrading of children. … Children were called names, like ‘stupid’ or ‘dumb,’ and ‘you’ll never amount to anything’ and humiliated in front of everybody.”

By the time LaSarte arrived, the school was just for girls. LaSarte said for some, the school was better than living in their dysfunctional homes.

The children were well fed and cared for – at least physically – LaSarte said. But she pointed out that the school was worse when her parents attended.

“They were not allowed to speak their Native language,” LaSarte said. “The language was actually lost during my generation.”

When children were able to learn white customs while retaining their own, boarding schools had some value, Native leaders say. They provided an education children might not have received otherwise. Plus, learning English and skills such as farming and sewing equipped kids for survival in white society.

“I don’t want to paint a total dark picture,” said Rodney Cawston, former chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation. “There was a lot of darkness, but there was good there, too.”

Still, in general, Native families feared and despised the institutions created to erase their identities.

Buzz Gutierrez’s mother went to an Indian boarding school in Ward, Washington, near Kettle Falls.

Historical records give several names for the school, which was open from 1874 to 1920. It’s often referred to as St. Francis Regis. Attendance at most boarding schools fluctuated dramatically, but in some years, St. Francis Regis had 70 students, male and female, making it roughly the same size as Mary Immaculate.

According to a story in the winter 2017-18 issue of the Sisters of Providence archives newsletter, the school experienced a slew of disease outbreaks: brain fever in 1874, scarlet fever in 1903, diphtheria in 1908 and Spanish flu and smallpox in 1918.

Gutierrez remembers hearing the story of how his mother was taken away to St. Francis Regis. She was playing with her siblings by a creek near Ford when the Indian agent from Wellpinit showed up.

The agent told Gutierrez’s grandfather, Ben Moses, that all of his children had to go to the school.

“The agent kept telling him, ‘No, you’ve got to, you have no choice, you have to send your kids,’ ” Gutierrez said.

Moses refused, so the agent relented. Moses didn’t have to send all of his kids, but he had to send at least one, the agent said.

Sally Moses, Gutierrez’s mother, was the one.

Gutierrez said his mother was treated terribly at the school. She received the typical Indian boarding school treatment: Her traditional clothes were swapped for a scratchy uniform, her hair was cut and she was punished if she practiced her spiritual customs or spoke her language.

After a year, Sally Moses returned home, but the school had changed her. When she arrived, her family greeted her ecstatically, but she didn’t respond. She’d forgotten how to speak Spokane Salish.

“She almost couldn’t understand,” Gutierrez said, choking up. “I can see her in my mind now, looking at her siblings with wonderment, ashamed.”

Thankfully, Sally Moses was young, Gutierrez said, so she relearned Spokane Salish quickly. But the experience at the school haunted her for the rest of her life.

“She would tell me, ‘Everything I tried to hang on to, they tried to take away,’ ” he said. “I still suffer historical trauma from the stories that she told me.”

Stories like Sally Moses’ were common, and she was luckier than some kids.

Evans said her grandmother went to Mary Immaculate with two older siblings. The siblings caught tuberculosis at the school and died. Seyler said that around 1882, 25 children from the Spokane Indian Reservation were sent to what is now called the Chemawah Indian School in Salem. Only five returned.

Cawston’s father went to the St. Mary’s Mission School in Omak, Washington, when he was 6 or 7. The school still exists, but is known as the Paschal Sherman Indian School and is Native-run.

The school was horrific, Cawston said.

St. Mary’s received national attention about a decade ago when former students shared stories of widespread sexual abuse and sued the Jesuits’ Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuits, who own Gonzaga University, settled with former students for $4.8 million and have settled other Indian school abuse cases for more than $160 million. Father John Morse, one of the priests accused of rape at St. Mary’s, spent his retirement years living at Gonzaga.

As terrible as the school was, kids still managed to cling to who they were, Cawston said.

Like students at many Indian boarding schools, the kids had to perform chores. Their favorite chore was tending to the livestock.

“It would bring them away from the school and they would talk Indian the entire time,” Cawston said. “It was the only safe place they could do that.”

Many children ran away from the schools. If they were caught, the punishments could be severe.

At the Fort Spokane Indian School, which existed from 1900 to 1907 and had a peak attendance of about 300 students, runaways were locked in cramped cells that had been used to punish soldiers at the fort.

Graffiti in the Fort Spokane guardhouse, where Native students were sometimes confined, can still be seen on the walls of a solitary cell. At the Fort Spokane Indian School, all unexcused absences, such as running away, could be punished with several days and nights locked in the solitary confinement cell. Children had to sleep on the cold floor in the same cells that once held soldiers.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Graffiti in the Fort Spokane guardhouse, where Native students were sometimes confined, can still be seen on the walls of a solitary cell. At the Fort Spokane Indian School, all unexcused absences, such as running away, could be punished with several days and nights locked in the solitary confinement cell. Children had to sleep on the cold floor in the same cells that once held soldiers. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The converted military post closed due to allegations of abuse and increased attendance at day schools on the Colville and Spokane reservations. The National Park Service runs a museum at the former school building and guardhouse.

Historical records don’t always make clear whether children were forced to go to the schools.

“A lot of it was just dictated by the Indian agent superintendent, and a lot of tribal people didn’t know they had an alternative,” Seyler said.

Some Colville Indian Reservation agents wrote in their annual reports that Indians were eager to send their kids. For instance, in the late 1800s, Indian agents noted that the boarding school in Tonasket, which had about 60 students, needed funding for expansion because of its popularity. In other reports, agents express frustration because families wouldn’t let their children go.

Denise Bausch, chief of interpretation and education at the Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area Visitor Center, manages the museum at the Fort Spokane school site. She said parents who refused to send their kids to the school were threatened with jail.

Sulustu, a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, once worked as a cashier at the Fort Spokane museum gift shop. He said he’s read correspondence between the Fort Spokane boarding school superintendent and the reservation Indian agent.

Sulustu, whose English name is Barry Moses, said in one written exchange the agent told the superintendent that families were resisting enrolling their kids. The superintendent replied they could simply use armed men to take the children by force.

“There were some documents where the tribal leaders were saying, ‘We’d like to send our kids to school’ and ‘advance our own interests,’ ” Moses said. “But then there were other documents saying, ‘We don’t want to send our kids to the school.’ ”

Legacy of trauma

Sampson’s grandmother spoke Secwepemctsin fluently. Her mother spoke some. Sampson speaks less and tries to learn as much as she can now.

“I think the missionaries and the Indian agents and the government agents – I think they inherently knew that the soul of a people is the language,” Moses said. “So if you can remove the language from the people, you can essentially change who they are.”

Bureau of Indian Affairs records seem to support Moses’ theory.

“It is hard to wean them (Natives) from the wild and exciting life of camp,” Colville Reservation Indian Agent Sidney Waters wrote in his 1885 report. “After their school life is ended they should not be permitted to go back to their accustomed haunts, as they soon forget what they have been taught, and in the presence of their people are ashamed to answer any one when addressed in English.”

Parents and grandparents who attended boarding schools were often reluctant to speak their languages in front of their families.

“My own grandparents, they spoke Salish, but when children entered the room, they reverted to English,” Seyler said. “It was like they thought if we learned it like them, it would hurt us, because for them they were beat when the spoke it when they went to boarding schools.”

Robbie Paul, who studies intergenerational trauma and used to be director of Native American health sciences at Washington State University, said children who experience traumatic upbringings pass that trauma on to their own kids.

Even though few boarding schools remain, Paul said, the trauma they caused still impacts Natives today.

“Trauma’s woven into the DNA,” she said.

Historical trauma’s symptoms can include depression, anxiety, mental illness and addiction, Paul said. She said Indian boarding schools are partially responsible for elevated rates of those issues among Natives.

Paul, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, said she suffers secondary post-traumatic stress disorder from her grandfather’s experience at Carlisle.

Jesse Paul, Paul’s grandfather, survived the Nez Perce War in 1877. After the war, the Nez Perce were exiled to Kansas and later Oklahoma.

Paul’s grandfather and six other Nez Perce children attended the Carlisle school. At Carlisle, Jesse Paul was given an English name – another common practice at the schools – but his Native name was Ka-Khun-Nee, which means Black Raven.

Paul never met her grandfather. But she remembers being devastated when she first saw a Carlisle documentary. She was at a conference in Spokane when she saw what her grandfather had to live through during his eight years at the school.

“That hit me so hard I had to get up and leave the room and literally go throw up in the Spokane River,” Paul said. “That’s secondary PTSD.”

What now?

The U.S., Canada and the Catholic church haven’t done much to atone for Indian boarding schools.

Two Canadian prime ministers have formally apologized for their government’s role – Conservative Stephen Harper in 2008 and Liberal Justin Trudeau in 2017 – but Trudeau’s government is arguing in court it isn’t responsible for the harm it caused.

Congress quietly passed a resolution in 2009 calling for President Barack Obama to apologize for “the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States,” but Obama never made a public apology.

Asked whether President Joe Biden would issue a similar apology, the White House did not respond.

“They are afraid to admit what they’ve done and continue to do to the Native American out of shame,” Gutierrez said.

The Catholic Church, which ran the majority of the nongovernment boarding schools, has yet to formally apologize, despite repeated requests from tribes. The pope will meet with First Nations members in December. The Presbyterian, Anglican and United churches have apologized for their roles in the schools.

Many Catholics aren’t eager to talk about their church’s involvement.

The Catholic Church Diocese of Spokane declined to make anyone available for comment for this story, instead deferring to a Tuesday news release by the Archdiocese of Seattle Bishops.

“The recent discovery of the unmarked children’s graves in Canada is heartbreaking, not only for those nations but for all people,” the release said. “We wish to stand in solidarity with them as the story behind these graves comes to light.”

The archdiocese expressed sorrow in the release, and said it plans to better understand the church’s role in the schools, but stopped short of apologizing.

“Our relationship with different tribes over time has been both positive, and sadly, potentially harmful at times,” the release said.

Gene Fadness, communications director for the Catholic Diocese of Boise, said the diocese feels regret for any children who were abused or improperly buried at boarding schools.

“Obviously, a current-day Catholic would look at that and be horrified at some of the things that went on,” Fadness said. “I also think there are a lot of good things that might not be talked about so much.”

People can’t heal until there’s acknowledgment of what happened, Native leaders said. Apologies would be welcome, but more than that, they said they just want people to know the truth.

The grave discoveries are a start, and many would like to see ground-penetrating radar investigations like the one at Kamloops at all boarding school sites.

Finding all the unmarked graves could draw even more attention to the little-known history, but it will be difficult to uncover the full details of what happened. Many former students didn’t or don’t talk about their time at the schools, like veterans unwilling to talk about what they saw in war. Plus historical documents, when they exist, are scattered.

“We don’t know where a lot of those records are,” Paul said. “That’s a big issue, trying to find information.”

Tribes and First Nations could seek justice in the courts in the wake of grave findings. Cawston said the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation should do its due diligence and consider litigation.

“For those victims that are still alive, we need to do this as soon as we possibly can,” he said.

‘We’re still here’

Sampson wasn’t surprised when she heard about the 215 graves at Kamloops. White Canadians and Americans might have been shocked, but she’d heard about the bodies.

Still, the news hit her hard.

“I just cried,” she said. “I couldn’t work the rest of the day. … 215 kids. And I could have been one of them. I was grateful but guilty at the same time.”

A few days after learning about the graves, Sampson had “215” painted on her thumbnails to honor the children. She cut off 4½ inches of her long, black hair. Unlike the traumatic haircutting done at the schools, Sampson was practicing an important tradition.

“Part of mourning for our tradition is cutting our hair,” Sampson said. “Mostly it’s for immediate family, my mom, dad, brother and sister. But since it was such an enormous amount, I went and did it.”

Matilda Sampson, a member of the Adams Lake Band, wears the number 215 on her fingernails to honor the victims found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential Indian School.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Matilda Sampson, a member of the Adams Lake Band, wears the number 215 on her fingernails to honor the victims found in a mass grave at the Kamloops Residential Indian School. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Despite her difficult childhood, Sampson loves to joke and is quick to tease. Her voicemail is a prank. “Hello? … Helloooo?” she says, tricking the caller into thinking she’s really on the other end.

She’s a social worker, with a master’s degree from Eastern Washington University, helping people deal with drug and alcohol addiction. She struggled with alcoholism when she was younger, but has been sober 29 years.

Yes, Sampson said, the boarding schools are a big part of the reason she can’t speak her language fluently. They’re why she doesn’t know as much about her band’s ways as her grandmother did, and part of why she felt so lost when it came time to raise her own children.

But even though the schools tried to snuff out Native cultures, in the end they failed, Sampson said. More and more Native children are learning their ancestors’ customs and learning their languages.

The traditions haven’t died.

“We survived,” Sampson said. “We’re still here.”

Spokesman-Review reporters Ted McDermott and Orion Donovan-Smith contributed to this story.

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