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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

To ease the historic trauma of boarding schools with a new campus, the Salish School of Spokane found an unlikely partner: Catholic Charities

Leaders of the Salish School of Spokane ducked under ponderosa pine boughs and maneuvered around thorny shrubbery as they planned a brand new campus earlier this month.

A sweat lodge here, a meat drying rack there. Maybe the kids could scrape hides for their moccasins over there. In a quiet, forested area in west Spokane, leaders are also planning how they are going to revive the culture of the Salish people.

But to build the necessary infrastructure, they need to cooperate with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington and take into consideration a complicated and traumatic history with the church.

“Because of the trauma associated with the Catholic Church, our community was predictably skeptical of the project,” said LaRae Wiley, executive director of the Salish School. “But we decided we can do this, and we want to do this.”

The project, called River Family Haven, is planned to include multifamily affordable housing, a new school, recreational space and more, and it will be a $21 million gift to the Salish School, according to Rob McCann, president and CEO of Catholic Charities.

For Indigenous people across North America, Catholicism meant forced assimilation, abuse and cultural eradication.

McCann acknowledged the past atrocities.

“They abused children. They weren’t allowed to speak their language, their heads were shaved and they were told that they had to forget their entire culture,” McCann said. “It was Catholic entities that did that.”

The Catholic Church operated more Native American boarding schools in the United States than any other religious group, according to a 2022 list compiled by the United States Department of the Interior.

The government investigation identified 408 schools that received federal funding from 1819 to 1969, and another 89 schools that did not.

Altogether, about 83% of school-age Indigenous children were attending boarding schools by 1926, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

The effects remain to this day.

Indigenous Spokane County residents were among the poorest demographic at a median household income of $55,219 compared to $69,070 for Spokane County residents as a whole, according to Eastern Washington University data from 2022.

From 2018-22, the poverty rate for Spokane County Indigenous residents was the highest of any demographic at about 26%.

KFF, formerly the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health policy nonprofit, found Indigenous Americans have the shortest life expectancy of any demographic in the United States at about 68 years.

Indigenous people were also most likely to experience hunger, the least likely to be insured, have the highest suicide rates and are the most likely to be hospitalized by the coronavirus.

The intergenerational trauma has heightened with the discovery of unmarked graves of children who died at boarding schools.

So far, the U.S. government’s investigation has found the remains of more than 500 children who died while in school custody, but researchers anticipate finding thousands more. They have also identified 53 burial sites across the country.

At some of the locations, the deceased were given proper recognition, such as marked graves. At others, such as the site where 215 unmarked graves were found near the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Catholic boarding school leaders didn’t bother.

Today, there are only two surviving elders in the U.S. whose first language was Colville-Okanagan Salish, or Nsəl̓xčin/Nsyilxčn̓, according to Wiley.

“There’s still trauma around the boarding schools in my family,” she said. “I understand it.”

Wiley was referring to her grandmother who, as a child, was enrolled at St. Mary’s Indian Mission School, a boarding school near Omak that was operated by the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

The Jesuits settled with former students of the school for $4.8 million and have settled other Native American school abuse cases for more than $160 million.

“I also understand that my grandmother survived so that I could give this language,” Wiley said, sitting in a small classroom at the Salish School along North Maple Street, before she was cut off by a thunderous, rhythmic thumping in the background.

Raising her voice, she said, “What I always keep in mind, is now my grandchildren are speaking the language – they know who they are, and they know they are moving it forward.”

The unison drumming and singing grew louder, emanating from a small courtyard at the midpoint of the school’s few buildings. The performance is repeated every morning by the small community of teachers and students. It’s meant to greet a new day and otherwise do exactly what the founders set out to do: revive the Salish lifestyle.

A long time coming

Wiley and four other Salish women founded the school in 2010.

Wiley is from the Sinixt band of the Colville tribe, whose members contribute to the larger Salish people. The Salish were once spread across the Pacific Northwest. There were about two dozen separate languages spoken by the Salish people; all are endangered and some are extinct, according to Wiley.

The Salish School of Spokane’s teachings involve the four Southern Interior Salish languages.

At their north Spokane facility, in the handful of low-ceilinged classrooms, a few hundred children have begun to learn their ancestral tongue, in addition to arithmetic, English literacy and scientific coursework that are typical at other institutions.

“They’re speaking their language, they’re living their culture. It’s in them, it’s their identity,” Wiley said. “That’s what was missing in my education.”

Packed into a property smaller than 1 acre at 4125 N. Maple St. are three buildings, updated playground equipment, a lush green field and gardens crowded with strawberries, serviceberries, chokecherries and kinnikinnick. But it noticeably lacks updated infrastructure and educational equipment that is commonplace in contemporary classrooms.

There isn’t a room large enough for its 35 students and staff members to convene at once.

“Our students deserve to have a nice gym. Our students need to have a state-of-the-art school, and our language needs a place that is sacred,” Wiley said. “This project is a good opportunity for that.”

Wiley noted the conflict within the Salish community regarding the partnership with Catholic Charities.

“Some say it’s just not appropriate, that we should do nothing with anybody or anyone that says the word ‘Catholic,’ given the history of genocide and colonization and those children being found in those unmarked graves across the continent,” said Wiley’s husband, Christopher Parkin. He’s also the principal of the Salish School of Spokane.

McCann, of Catholic Charities, said he recognizes the position.

“Some Catholics tell me to stop talking about the Native American boarding schools that Catholic church organizations ran, because they’re in the past. But wounds are clearly not in the past,” he said. “There’s 160 Catholic Charities in the U.S.

“In my mind, everyone should be doing something like this to offer one little drop in the bucket in terms of making it right.”

Planning a haven

The project, to be called the River Family Haven, has not yet been formally submitted to city planners for permit approval.

The roughly 6-acre site in west Spokane is owned by Catholic Charities and located on a peninsula bordered by the Spokane River and Whistalks Way.

Surrounded on three sides by the Three Islands Conservation Area, a roughly 33-acre untouched forest, the property is perfect and a far cry from the school’s current location, Wiley said.

“We’ve talked about having a site on the river for a long time,” she said. “Right now, we’re on a main road and it’s noisy. But over there by the water, it’s quiet and wooded – I think about all the environmental opportunities that our students will have.”

The first phase of the project, at 1960 Holy Names Drive, comprises four buildings, three residential structures combining for 72 units of affordable housing, supportive services like counselors and case managers, and a community center. Catholic Charities is gifting the property to the Salish School when the facility is completed.

The largest of the buildings will be four stories tall, encompass about 9,500 square feet and consist of 32 units.

The other two residential structures will be three stories tall, encompass about 9,000 square feet and be conjoined by a 2,500-square-foot covered patio.

While one of the connected structures will consist solely of residential space, the other will host residents on its upper floors. The street-level floor will be home to the Salish School of Spokane.

The fourth structure, a roughly 3,500-square-foot community building, will only be accessible to the Salish School.

Wiley said Catholic Charities will have no influence on the operations of the Salish School.

She is unsure what will be done with the school property on North Maple.

At the project location, Wiley held her husband’s hand as they maneuvered between shrubs, saplings and large rocks.

“Our elders say that the River speaks Salish; that the land still speaks Salish,” she said with a slight grin. “The land is lonely for our language.”

“And the River is lonely for our salmon,” Parkin added. “It sounds hippie-dippie, but that’s the game. The salmon are going to come back up the Spokane River, and Salish speaking people are going to be back on the river.

“That’s what we want for our grandkids.”

The location is ideal from a spiritual and logistical standpoint. Students already study nearby with the Spokane Riverkeeper, catching crawdads and sampling algae.

A condition for a student’s enrollment at the Salish School is that parents also learn the language. They have to take 60 hours of classes every year in conjunction with Spokane Falls Community College, a few minutes’ walk from River Family Haven.

The cost of the project is estimated to be $21 million, according to plans, and Sen. Patty Murray secured $3 million of that, noting in a statement that it “couldn’t be more important.” This sum does not include the $10 million build-out of the Salish School.

But it won’t cost the school.

So far, Sen. Maria Cantwell has raised $2.7 million of federal funds for the build-out of the project .

Murray said she was proud to support a project that provides services to struggling families, and that it “couldn’t be more important.”

Cantwell said in a statement that funding the project will help the Salish School “preserve the Salish language that remains so vital to tribal culture.”

Though millions more are needed, McCann is confident the project will be fully funded.

“We’ve got our pitch documents, we know who we’re going to ask, and we have a pretty good feeling,” he said. “This project checks a lot of boxes for a lot of funders, so I don’t think we’re going to have any problem raising this money. I mean, there’s nothing like this in the country.”

The uniqueness of the project is how it’s funded.

It qualifies for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, a Washington state Housing Finance Commission initiative that gives incentives to funders of affordable housing projects. In return, they enjoy a 9% deduction of the project’s property taxes for a given time frame, usually about 15 years.

Catholic Charities has been pursuing tax-credit housing projects since McCann started at the organization about 25 years ago.

But River Family Haven will be different.

“A lot of the projects that I built 20 years ago have matured past the 15 years – we now own them. Those are now an asset that we can leverage to build more housing,” he said. “But in this case, the first time ever for us, the Salish School is going to own the whole asset. In 15 years, this is going to be worth $20 to $30 million.

“They can then leverage that to endow their school forever.”

Knowing this, it was hard to convince the Salish community that the partnership could be a good idea, according to Parkin.

“This partnership is utterly unique, and took bold leadership on their part,” he said. “But I think our leadership was bold too, given how dramatic it was for some of our community members, to consider it, to negotiate it and to accept it.”

Not all community members sided with Wiley and Parkin.

Parkin describes himself as the school’s principal, business manager, grant writer and curriculum developer.

He also describes himself as a white man.

“I’m just an Irish American guy from Deer Park who married the boss and founder,” Parkin said.

The two met during their studies at Western Washington University and have been married for 40 years. Since the school’s inception, Parkin has played an integral role to everyday operations and growth , but his presence has not always been accepted by the Salish.

“We are not universally loved everywhere,” Parkin said with a smile, which elicited a laugh and nods from Wiley. “We get it all time.”

As Parkin passionately defended his family, Wiley’s expression progressed from whimsical to endeared. It settled on severe, before she spoke.

“Our marriage is controversial, and this project is controversial, but you have to ignore the hate,” she said, with an index finger planted firmly on the table in front of her. “We’re building an asset for the community and a future for our kids and grandkids.

“It’s hard to build a legacy.”