The Job of Honoring the Dead at an Oklahoma Native School has Fallen to the AlumniBreaking News
tags: racism, Native American history, Indian Residential Schools
A few miles from the Kansas border, a handful of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School alumni drove down a long dirt road on a warm July morning to tend to parts of the sprawling but now-crumbling campus. While much of the grounds are overgrown with weeds, the school’s graveyard, near Newkirk, receives precise manicuring.
Chilocco alumni only knew of 10 graves at the school when they began taking care of the site more than 20 years ago, but they’ve since uncovered 57 additional burials that occurred between 1884 to 1937 — all unmarked.
“It is a sacred ground, and it should be treated as such and respected as such, particularly when you know that a lot of the people who are buried there are former Chilocco students, from the very school that we call home,” said Jim Baker, president of the school’s national alumni association.
The graveyard at the former federally-funded school is likely to become part of a nationwide Department of the Interior investigation aimed at locating the unmarked graves of native students at boarding schools.
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new inquiry into the legacy of Native American boarding schools in the United States after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves in Canada.
Including Chilocco, Oklahoma has 83 former and current Indian boarding school sites, more than any other state, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Many of the schools were operated by religious groups and received funding from the federal government as part of systemic efforts to dissolve Native American cultures and languages.
Ahead of the federal investigation, boarding school alumni, tribal leaders and activists described a complicated relationship between tribes and former schools, and the impact the institutions will continue to have on the state’s Native American communities even after the investigation is complete.
Students who died at boarding schools didn’t receive proper burials in accordance with tribal traditions, said Gordon Yellowman, director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ language and culture program.
“(Tribal members) were never ever given the opportunity to do what we have to do when a child dies,” Yellowman said. “They were never given the love and the dignity that they deserve, and respect that they deserve.”
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