Chilocco Indian Agricultural School should remain 'a site of conscience'
The discovery of hundreds of graves of Native children who attended a residential school operated by the Canadian government has brought painful questions to the surface about boarding schools in this country. But, the legacy of one of those schools is more complicated.
It's cold and rainy as Jim and Charmain Baker pop open an umbrella at the cemetery of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School. They’re the caretakers for these burial grounds just outside Newkirk in north central Oklahoma.
Jim carefully opens the gate to the cemetery grounds, but waits before walking in.
"What we normally do is we let them know we're here," Jim explains about those who are buried in the cemetery. "But we're not here to disturb them, and then once we get done, we'll be going on our way."
The Bureau of Indian Affairs abandoned the cemetery when the school closed in 1980 after operating it for nearly 100 years. Jim and Charmain spent years trying to find out the names and tribal affiliations of the people buried in the 67 unmarked graves. Many were just children.
"The cemetery is a sacred ground," said Jim.
Federal policy of assimilation
Oklahoma was once home to 83 boarding schools. Some of those schools were run by the tribes, but others were run by churches or the federal government.
For years after Chilocco opened in 1884, the school was known for harsh, authoritarian discipline. Many Native children were rounded up by wagon and sent here against their will.
K. Tsianina Lomawaima says it was part of a federal policy of assimilation.
"I think it's been a longstanding agenda of the U.S., as well as Canada, to extend their jurisdiction over land, to acquire land," said Lomawaima, a Muscogee Nation descendant, an author and an educator. "And all the land that the U.S. is built on today is Native land. So, that meant dispossessing native people."
That meant stripping kids of their Native culture, language and identity.
Lomawaima’s dad ran away from Chilocco when he was a teenager. She wrote a book documenting the experience of students, including her dad and uncle.
Boarding schools were part of a federal policy of assimilation. In 1887, Congress passed the Dawes General Allotment Act, which broke up collectively owned Nation land into individual allotments. That left the "surplus" land to be sold to white settlers.
Ahead of its time
But, after the federally commissioned Meriam Report came out in 1928 that detailed the harsh conditions at the school, things started to change. Students in the later years say the school strengthened their cultural ties as they learned a trade and got an education.
Alumni also credited a new superintendent named L.E. Correll, who was an agrarian and implemented many reforms at the school.
"I always tell people that Chilocco was ahead of its time," said Jim Baker. "In essence, that was true because of the 20 something vocational and agricultural programs the students had access to on campus.”
Students could also participate in a plot program that allowed them to grow their own crops, sell them and keep the proceeds.
Jim is a Choctaw citizen and a fluent speaker of the language. After his experience as a student, he became Chilocco's superintendent, and he’s proud of the changes he made.
The students bred Morgan horses and developed a soil erosion program with Oklahoma State University that is still used.
Claudine King was the school's registrar after she graduated. And she wanted to be a student because of the school’s reputation.
"We heard stories before we came about how good Chilocco was to the students and everything, and I found that to be true," King said. "I liked the classes. We had half day academics and half day vocational if you chose."
Seeking answers and help
Despite Chilocco's reputation in its later years, a shadow has been cast on boarding schools after hundreds of graves were found this summer at similar schools in Canada.
That prompted Deb Haaland, the nation's first Native American Secretary of the Interior, to launch an initiative to work with tribal nations to help identify their relatives who are buried at federally run boarding schools here in the U.S. and bring their remains home.
Jim and Charmain want the Bureau of Indian Affairs to help maintain the cemetery at Chilocco.
Charmain said she found letters in the National Archives that were sent home to students’ families, telling them of their death.
"One of them even said that they had suffered a lot and so death came as a relief," sobbed Charmain.
Jim thinks there could be more graves – he's even asked for ground penetrating radar equipment to survey the land outside of the cemetery gates.
Whether the children are identified or not, Charmain says she and Jim will continue to take care of the students buried here.
"I went over those records every day for a month, and it made me cry every day," said Charmain.
Those records, however, contained little detail.
"Like that little girl just has a first name, it doesn't have the year, it doesn't have her last name…and the amount of disrespect that they had for our children, is just incomprehensible,” said Charmain. How could you treat someone like that, like no last name, no tribe, no nothing."
Jim says the students who were buried here won't be neglected or forgotten.
The school’s alumni went to the Kaw Nation to raise money for a monument that has all the names of the students who died at Chilocco, along with their ages and tribal affiliations. Children's hands and footprints are imprinted on the side of the monument.
Right now, the Kaw, the Otoe-Missouria, the Ponca, Pawnee and the Tonkawa tribal nations are trustees of Chilocco.
Claudine, Jim and Charmain hate to see Chilocco in its current state. Some buildings have collapsed, others are structurally unsound and the grounds, while unkempt, are not what they remember when they attended dances and skating parties on Friday nights.
"It grieves my soul to see the place like this," said Claudine.
More than that, Lomawaima wants the schools to be remembered – not just as places of death, but for the thousands of kids who showed resilience.
"Chilocco is a site of conscience in that international human rights, global thinking…these schools are sites of conscience," she said, noting that not many boarding schools from the era of Chilocco are still standing. "I think that's another intentional piece of the erasure, the elimination of the Native history."
Lomawaima wants the struggles of this site to be used as a lesson today. So people never forget what happened here.
Since 2006, Chilocco Indian Agricultural School has been on the National Register of Historic Places. Jim says there are fewer than 1,000 alumni still alive, but they are working to turn the school building into a cultural center to honor the kids who attended and those who died, and provide a place for descendants to work through this complicated past.
This story was produced in partnership with Newsy's documentary program In Real Life.