PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – As the first step in coming to terms with the nation’s controversial history, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland launched the first investigation into federally run Indian boarding schools last summer –an investigation with strong ties to Oregon.
“For more than a century, tens of thousands of indigenous children were taken from their communities and forced into boarding schools run by the US government,” Haaland stated after the Department of the Interior published the first volume of the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative in May.
The nearly 100-page report found 408 Federal Indian Boarding Schools – nine of which were located in Oregon.
“To address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities,” Haaland stated. “We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past.”
Following the release of the report, Haaland announced a year-long “road to healing” tour, to offer resources to native communities.
Cheryle A. Kennedy, Chairwoman of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde told KOIN 6 News the schools have left lasting impacts on her community, as she claims they were designed to sever entire generations from their families, language, customs, and culture.
“The thinking behind all of that was to mainstream our children and divorce them from their culture, their identity, therefore they no longer will be a threat to the government,” she said.
In addition to the healing tours, the Department of the Interior claims the next step in their initiative is to conduct a thorough investigation of burial sites found in and around recognized school grounds.
“The Department’s investigation has already identified marked or unmarked burial sites at approximately 53 different schools across the Federal Indian boarding school System,” the report stated. “As the investigation continues, the Department expects the number of identified burial sites to increase.”
Researcher and MSU Doctoral Student Marsha Small said she believes one of those sites is located in Oregon.
“A lot of people don’t know about these tragedies, these atrocities,” Small said. “I ask, ‘what if it was your children?’ And that’s how I approach every cemetery.”
Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to survey burial sites across the US, Small has devoted years to researching sites to help locate the unidentified remains of native people.
According to Small, surveys conducted on the gourds of Chemawa Indian School in Salem have detected more than 200 remains.
While Small said she believes in the importance of her research, she told KOIN 6 News, “I used to be able to go in there and come out pretty okay, but it’s getting more hard to do that.”
As the only Federal Indian Boarding school still running in Oregon, Chemawa Indian School operates differently than it used to. But Small says evidence of the school’s brutal history can still be found at the nearby school cemetery which she claims holds marked and unmarked graves.
Out of respect for those buried, and fear of ‘sensationalizing’ her findings, Small declined to give an exact number for the remains discovered. However, she told KOIN 6 News she intends to continue to conduct GPR surveys of the school and she expects her findings to grow.
“We have remains in there which are historic,” Small stated. “These are over a 100-year-old remains, so we’re going to find more. And more than likely, there are going to be more reflections than there are markers.”
Despite criticisms that the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative could be re-traumatizing for Indigenous people, both Kennedy and Small said they are glad the US Government is finally digging into the hard truths surrounding its history.
“Unless you have a sound resolution, it would be pretty futile,” Kennedy said. “But if you have in mind that this is a moment of healing on both sides, so that when the blanket is pulled off on these secrets there has to be ownership and reconciliation … and that’s the only way I can see it going forward.”
A sentiment echoed by Small, who told KOIN 6 News, “Without healing the native, without healing the original inhabitants of these lands, then America itself will not heal.”
KOIN 6 News reached out to the Chemawa Indian School and the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) about Small’s research and claims regarding remains found on school grounds, neither agreed to comment.