How Indian boarding schools left emotional scars that remain – Record Searchlight

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Clockwise from left: Spokane students taken from their tribe are photographed in 1881; a classroom is re-created at Heard Museum in Phoenix; April Carmelo's father, Daniel (No. 35), poses with teammates.
The legacy of Indian boarding schools and their cruel treatment of Native American children has only recently been brought to light.   
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has made it one of her missions to examine the schools' past, where Native children were forced from their families and deprived of their culture.
Each Sept. 30, tributes are paid to the children who died at the schools and the ones who survived as part of an annual day of remembrance.
An investigation by the U.S. Interior Department identified 408 federal schools in 37 states or territories that operated from 1819 to 1969. The report revealed the existence of marked or unmarked burial sites at more than 50 of the schools.
“The consequences of federal Indian boarding school policies — including the intergenerational trauma caused by the family separation and cultural eradication inflicted upon generations of children as young as 4 years old — are heartbreaking and undeniable,” said Haaland, who's the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary. 
Shasta County Indian Education Specialist April Carmelo of Shasta Lake has a direct connection to the schools. Her mother and father, Anna and Daniel, voluntarily attended an Indian boarding school. She also attended two schools after reforms were put in place.
"That's America's dark past. It really is. (The country) needs to face that dark past so we can move forward as well," Carmelo said.
"When you look at the history of it — why did they really start Indian boarding schools — it's because they wanted to colonialize us and they wanted to form us into them and to leave all of our cultural ways behind," she said.
In addition to her work as an educator, Carmelo is an enrolled member of the Greenville Rancheria in Plumas County and can trace her lineage to her ancestors' arrival in what is now California.
At the Salem, Oregon, campus, some 300 Indigenous students died and were buried there, as detailed in a USA TODAY investigation published in the Salem Statesman Journal.
Many of the students had suffered abuse and went hungry while enduring unsanitary, overcrowded conditions. They were exposed to tuberculosis, influenza and other outbreaks. Carmelo remembers a teen boy who took his life at Sherman Indian High School in Riverside during the year she attended that school as a junior.
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Chemawa Indian School: A 142-year history
Here's a timeline of the Chemawa Indian School in Salem, the oldest continuously operated and federally run Indian boarding school in the country.
Despite a cruel history of family separations and cultural desecration, by the time Carmelo transferred to the boarding schools in the 1980s, they had changed to respect and celebrate tribal sovereignty. 
"Maybe the federal government saw the error of their ways. The Bureau of Indian Affairs said this has been an ongoing issue," she said.
Carmelo's experience provides her with a unique perspective, one that she uses today with her work in making the public school system more inclusive of Native American students in Shasta County's elementary and high schools.
In 1879, Brigadier General Lieutenant Richard Henry Pratt founded one of the early federally-funded Native American boarding schools, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.
His policy was, “Kill the Indian, save the man.”
The goal was to turn the Native population into a uniform people by any means necessary, said Paul Geck, a social scientist and history lecturer at Cal Poly Humboldt.
By severing Native children’s physical, cultural and spiritual connections to their tribes, Pratt thought he could assimilate them into Euro-American society, preparing boys to work in manual labor and farming, and girls to learn domestic work. 
The policy was adopted around the country. More than 350 government-funded and church-run boarding schools opened. In California and Oregon, there were at least 19, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS).
Traumatic stories about what Native children at these government-sponsored boarding schools endured only became public recently, when in May 2021 an Indigenous community in Canada discovered the remains of 215 children buried near a defunct residential school in British Columbia.
After the grisly discoveries, Interior Secretary Haaland announced plans to investigate the history of Native American boarding schools in the U.S. And in May, her department released the report that identified marked and unmarked burial sites at or near 53 federal boarding schools.
The department said it will continue its investigation and expects the number of burial sites to increase. Officials said the number of children who died at the schools could be in the "thousands or tens of thousands."
Native people have always known about the schools' notorious history, Carmelo said. That trauma is still shaping lives today.
There were periods of time when the federal government withheld rations to force families to send their children, writes Denise K. Lajimodiere, an NABS board member of the National Native America Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Government agents snatched hundreds of thousands of children from their families and placed them in these institutions, Lajimodiere writes. 
By 1925, more than 60,000 Native children were in boarding schools. Their hair was cut or shaved. They were punished for speaking their mother tongue, banned from cultural practices and stripped of traditional clothing and personal belongings.
The great uncles of tribesmen like Russell Attebery have talked about what it was like to be sent to boarding schools such as Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, but only scarcely.
As the Karuk Tribe chairman in Siskiyou County, Attebery said he understands the result of multigeneration trauma because of his elders.
Some of them hid. Some of them changed their names to protect their children from being taken. To this day, they are reluctant to speak their language publicly, he said.
“For our tribal elders, we always give thanks that they persevered through and kept the language, ceremonies, and customs alive,” Attebery said.
Those who are living with the trauma are fortunate, Geck said. Countless children suffered abuse and neglect and never returned home; they have yet to be accounted for by the U.S. government.
At Sherman High School in Riverside, there are 65 graves. At Chemawa, over 300, with 14 identified as Hoopa tribal members from Humboldt County, according to a report in the Two Rivers Tribune.
After nearly a century, in 1975, boarding schools evolved into safe spaces that celebrate the cultural heritage of Native youth, according to the Bureau of Indian Education. Attending them was no longer mandatory. 
By the time Carmelo applied in the 1980s, a majority of the Indian boarding schools had closed. Sherman and Chemawa remain open as residential schools. Only four schools exist today: Chemawa, Sherman, Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota and Riverside Indian School in Oklahoma.
Like Attebery, Carmelo was raised listening to stories about how her ancestors assimilated to survive. They escaped from soldiers, leaving their homes behind and silently preserved as much of their way of life as they could, Carmelo said.
Her mother and father, Anna and Daniel, met and married at Sherman. Her seven older siblings attended the boarding school before her.
Going to Sherman helped Carmelo find a sense of direction, she said. At times, it was eerie to be in schools with visible, painful scars of the past. But it helped her feel connected to her ancestry, and to herself, she said.
Carmelo transferred to Chemawa in her sophomore year, and later to Sherman, where she would graduate in 1985.
During her three years at the boarding schools, Carmelo raised her grades, excelled at sports, participated in ceremonies and found guidance through her teachers.
For any Native person, historical trauma is a part of their story and passed through generations, said Vanessa Scholfield, a clinical social worker at the Redding Rancheria.
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Scholfield treats as many as 20 youth and adult clients per week. A common issue she sees among them is a “huge detriment to their sense of identity,” she said. 
Forming an identity is a critical part of a youth's development, Scholfield said. 
“It’s how we relate to ourselves and others,” she said. “When there is a loss of identity, it leads to a whole lot of problems when it comes to developing and understanding what you’re most interested in, where you want to go with your education and career, and your sense of belonging, which is core to who we are.”
Trauma is passed down through generations but as individuals, people don't really realize traumatic parts of their story, she said. Scholfield uses a holistic therapy model and traces her clients’ family history while counseling them.
“I go back in a genogram that includes deaths in the family. And then you’ll see issues come up like there was alcoholism in the next generation. Or anger issues. I teach a client how historical trauma is a part of their story but they’re just not aware,” she said.
Most of her clients don’t understand what intergenerational trauma is, means or looks like. But as they gain insight, they start to heal, and some show progress, she said. Her adult clients talk about what understanding their family history means to them, but youths show progress in other ways, she said.
"With younger kids … it’s more about behavior. It gets better. Their grades improve and they develop better attachment with people. If they communicate better with anyone, it’s their friends and it’s what parents can observe,” she said.
Anger is the natural response of a child who has learned about the mistreatment of their relatives and family line through boarding schools or other means, said Katherine Evans, associate professor of education at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia.
If a student learns their great grandparent was taken from their home and placed in a boarding school, or that his family was driven off their land, but reads a "white-washed version" of that story in a textbook, "that child is going to feel less connected to that environment and the consequence of that is behavior challenges, checking out, being angry,” Evans said.
Nada Atieh is a Report for America corps member (2020-22) and an education reporter formerly at the Record Searchlight in Redding, Calif. Her work at the newspaper focused on childhood trauma and the achievement gap. Mike Chapman is an award-winning reporter and photographer for the R-S. His newspaper career spans Yreka and Eureka in Northern California and Bellingham, Wash.
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