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Life And Death At Chemawa Indian School

Three students came from three different tribes to attend Chemawa Indian School. Now, their mothers are still struggling to understand how their children’s futures fell apart — and what role the federally run boarding school played.

Photo: Rob Manning/OPB

Marshall Friday came to Oregon looking for a better life.

For Melissa Abell, it was to grow up.

Flint Tall came for love.

The three students came from three different states and three different tribes to attend Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. Now, their three mothers are struggling to understand how their children’s promising futures fell apart — and what role the federally run boarding school played.

Chemawa Indian School is located just north of Salem off of I-5.

Chemawa Indian School is located just north of Salem off of I-5.

MacGregor Campbell/OPB

Chemawa occupies a unique place within the Bureau of Indian Education, a federal agency that has long struggled to properly supervise schools for Native youth.

Chemawa is the oldest of four off-reservation boarding schools still operating. The schools share a complicated history, dating back to the late 19th century, when their goal was to assimilate Native children into American society, sometimes by force. Through the last century, federal and tribal leaders refocused schools like Chemawa to support teenagers’ Native culture and prepare them for college and careers.   

Students come from hundreds of miles away. Some follow generations of relatives who have attended the school. Others are trying to escape difficult situations — foster care, gang violence or juvenile detention.

Lummi tribal member Freddie Lane graduated from Chemawa in 1986 and still calls the school his “home away from home.”   

“Some kids were sent to the school as a ward of the court, I guess,” Lane said. “They were sent there because their communities couldn’t deal with them. But then you’d see students really rebound from being in these situations. Some students didn’t have a mom and dad. They didn’t have someone that said ‘I love you.’ Basically, they were thrown out and Chemawa was the place they were able to go.”

Superintendent Lora Braucher said Chemawa takes pride in giving the students discipline and structure they might not find elsewhere.

“Not only are we able to offer education, but we’re also able to offer a safe environment,” Braucher said. “One that is structured and well balanced between educational opportunities, cultural and traditional opportunities, and recreational opportunities.”

But based on dozens of interviews with former staff, students, tribal advisors and parents, Chemawa is breaking its promise to support and educate Native students.

For years, teachers complained about students being expelled for questionable causes, jeopardizing their education or sending them to unstable situations when they were safer on campus. Meanwhile, others who remained at the school fell into cracks in the system as their physical and mental health deteriorated.

As the parents of Marshall Friday, Melissa Abell and Flint Tall learned, the results can be downright tragic.


A Death On Campus 

Abell arrived at Chemawa from Nampa, Idaho. She was a shy Alaska Native teen with glasses, whose grandfather had attended the Oregon boarding school.

“She was kind of a quiet kid, so I wanted her to be a little more independent, and grow a little bit,” said her mother, Treasa Keith.

Abell enrolled in 2013 as a junior. Keith was eager to get her daughter out of a public school system in Idaho facing a budget crisis.

Where Are Chemawa Students From?

Enrollment data for 2014-2015 shows that Chemawa students come from all over the west.

Source: Chemawa Indian School, 2014-2015

A year after Abell arrived, Chemawa welcomed its new superintendent, Lora Braucher. She was the most recent in a revolving door of school leaders. The ninth in 11 years, she said.   

Then, just months after arriving, Braucher got the worst news she could have imagined: A student had died on campus.

She discussed the death during a talk at Corban University last March.

“My first year — it was six months in … in December — we had an 18-year-old student and she died in my dormitories,” Braucher said. “That was a phone call I never want to make again, for sure.”

The dead student was Melissa Abell.

Keith was on the other end of Braucher’s phone call.

“They said her heart gave out,” Keith said. “I didn’t understand that.”

Keith requested the police reports and autopsy, which showed the official cause of death as a “sudden conduction defect with sudden cardiac arrest.” The more she learned about the circumstances of her daughter’s death, the more convinced she became the school should have done more.

Melissa Abell

Melissa Abell

Courtesy of Treasa Keith

Abell’s roommates heard her gasping for air just after 7 a.m. on Dec. 14, 2014. Staff misunderstood a call for help as a fight, rather than a medical emergency, according to the reports. That wasted precious minutes as Abell struggled to breathe, Keith said.

“That bothered me,” Keith said, after reviewing police reports.

Emergency records show a 911 call at 7:16 a.m., more than 10 minutes after roommates first said they heard Abell struggling.

Chemawa dorm staff detailed their actions to police: They suspected Abell was having a seizure so they “didn’t restrain her.” They turned the girl on her side to help her breathe. They wiped her mouth. They placed a towel on her forehead. The police interviews don’t mention whether anyone performed CPR, though Braucher said all staff on campus get CPR training every year.

“That young lady was audibly moaning before EMTs arrived on our campus, and she was alive,” Braucher said in an interview with OPB. “That being said, if someone is alive, you would not start CPR on them.”

Medical personnel reached Abell’s dorm room at 7:25 a.m.

She didn’t have a pulse.

She was pronounced dead at 7:58 a.m.

No charges were filed in the death and the Marion County Sheriff’s Office said at the time there were “no signs of any foul play.”

Keith, who admits she has the perspective of an “upset mom,” questions the level of staffing and the training for dorm workers. She said her daughter had no history of heart trouble.

“Where was somebody that was supposed to take care of my child?” she said. “I entrusted them in being there for her, because I wasn’t.

“Yes, I think they could’ve done more and they should have been there,” Keith said.

Her daughter would have graduated in May 2015.


Challenge Of Protecting Native Youth

It’s possible nothing would have saved Abell.

Sudden heart trouble is a documented killer of young people, though it’s rare. According to 2016 National Vital Statistics Reports, “diseases of heart” were no more likely to kill an American Indian teenager than teens as a whole.

But Native youth are up to five times more likely to die before adulthood than young white people, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Overall life expectancy for Native Americans is nearly five years less than the general population.

Chemawa leaders view Abell’s death as an unavoidable tragedy.

But the health and safety risks facing Native youth point to how little margin for error there is for Chemawa and other Bureau of Indian Education boarding schools.

In some ways, the challenges have gotten more difficult as federal budgets and regulations have tied administrators’ hands.

A tight budget and a federal hiring freeze after President Trump took office have hindered the school’s ability to care for its students: Braucher said she cannot fully staff Chemawa’s dorms. A 2016 school directory showed the school had 37 people on its residential staff for eight dorms.

“I have 18 vacancies — eight of them are in the dormitories,” Braucher told the audience at Corban University last March. “I am on constant emergency status.”

Former staff say Chemawa’s leaders live in fear of another emergency. Their strategy, according to former staff, is to limit what students are allowed to do — and to kick out kids for sometimes minor offenses.  

Mid-year suspensions or expulsions can be even more devastating for Chemawa students than for kids at local public schools. Most boarding schools wouldn’t need to worry about re-entry. Chemawa does. Students may return to homes and school systems across the country that aren’t expecting them, and they may go back to the reservation facing even more obstacles than when they started at Chemawa.


‘Don’t Send Him Back’

Fourteen-year-old Flint Tall asked his mother if he could go to Chemawa in 2010. The handsome, dark-haired boy was the eldest of four children Rachel Bissonette was raising by herself on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation.

Flint Tall

Flint Tall

Courtesy of Rachel Bissonette

“He met this girl,” Bissonette said. “This girl went to school at Chemawa. I thought, ‘Why would you want to go off to school?’”  

Bissonette was convinced her son was serious when she found him filling out the school’s application papers on his own.  

Bissonette and her brother had attended one of Chemawa’s counterparts, the Flandreau Indian School in South Dakota. So she thought she knew what to expect.

But Chemawa was a different type of environment by the time Bissonette’s son arrived. Tragedy on campus seven years earlier had prompted new rules and a cultural shift.

In December 2003, 16-year-old Cindy SoHappy from Oregon’s Warm Springs reservation died of alcohol poisoning in a dormitory isolation cell. The isolation cells were closed following investigations, campus security tightened and the federal government settled a wrongful death lawsuit with SoHappy’s family for $1.8 million.

Concerns about student safety led Chemawa to contract with the Marion County Sheriff’s Department in 2005. Three deputies work around the clock at Chemawa, and they’re kept busy.

Between 2010 and spring 2017, deputies responded to more than 1,300 incidents at Chemawa, including more than 200 alleged acts of violence — including assaults, fights and sex abuse, according to a summary provided to OPB.

Incidents at Chemawa

These are police incidents recorded at Chemawa Indian School from 2010 through fall of 2017.

Source: Marion County Sheriff’s Office 2010-2017

Former staff members say the SoHappy tragedy also fueled worries about potential liability and intensified what they describe as Chemawa’s culture of secrecy.

Former Chemawa counselor Marnie Grimmell said one question casts a shadow over the school: “What if something bad happens?”  

“There is a concern about your livelihood — you could lose your job,” said Grimmell, who worked at Chemawa five years ago and is now at the Oregon Department of Education. “And so it means that people aren’t willing to give kids a little breathing room, because there’s a constant desire to mitigate liability.”

That’s the Chemawa Flint Tall entered in 2010, when he flew out from South Dakota. He landed in English class with teacher Joy O’Renick in her first year at Chemawa.

“He was kind of a nightmare,” O’Renick said with a laugh. “He just sat in the back of the classroom, and he wouldn’t talk to me and wouldn’t look at me — and that was a few of the students, they didn’t trust me right away.”

But Tall and O’Renick would form a connection — the kind of relationship teachers say can be crucial to student success.

“He went from having a zero percent F in the first quarter to ending up having As,” she said. “I nominated to have him moved into honors English.”

Bissonette heard no complaints from the school about her son’s behavior. Staff said the worst you could say about Tall was he was a bit of a “class clown” and spent too much time with his girlfriend.

Both mother and teacher were shocked that winter when they learned that Tall was about to be expelled.

“When I was told that he was going to be sent home, or that they were considering that, I said, ‘No, no, no. You can’t do that, this kid has come so far,’” O’Renick said.

Joy O'Renick was an English Teacher at Chemawa.

Joy O’Renick was an English Teacher at Chemawa.

Tony Schick/OPB

O’Renick would become one of several former staff members to contact OPB with concerns about Chemawa. Chief among those concerns were that school officials are too quick to write off problems, too reluctant to invest in solutions and too eager to send difficult students back to potentially unstable home lives. 

Many former staffers say the funding formula has led administrators to ensure student counts are high through the fall, and that sending students home gets more common later in the year.

Student counts at the school are hard to find, but a grant application Chemawa filed with the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 shows the school’s enrollment fell from 440 students in fall 2009 to 281 the following spring — a drop of 36 percent during the school year. Enrollment was back to nearly 400 the next fall, when Tall arrived. Interviews with staff suggest those numbers are typical.

Flint Tall wouldn’t have known any of that.

But he would have known that Chemawa students are supposed to follow rules. When students are not in class, there are certain places they should be, like their dorm room, study hall or sports practice. Recent student handbooks mention mandatory hourly check-ins with dorm staff, during “non-academic” hours.

In winter 2011, Chemawa administrator Ryan Cox confronted Tall and his girlfriend in an unapproved area.

Tall argued, even openly dared Cox to throw him out of school, according to his mother.  

Bissonette tried to walk back what her son had said.

“I was pleading with them: ‘Don’t send him back, he doesn’t want to come home,’” she remembered telling administrators by phone from South Dakota.  

Tall attended Chemawa before Braucher was superintendent. But she said typically students are sent home only when they’re considered a safety risk.

The Bureau of Indian Education controls who at Chemawa can talk to the media. The federal agency allowed OPB to speak with Braucher, but didn’t make academic principal Amanda Ward or guidance counselor Ryan Cox, who have been at the school longer than Braucher, available for comment.

The residence hall director during Tall’s time at Chemawa was a man named Ted Mack. He’d developed a thick skin after years of teaching at Chemawa and working in youth corrections before that.

Mack, who recently retired, said he tried not to worry about emotional outbursts from students.

“I used to think if I didn’t get cussed out once or twice a day, I was doing something wrong,” he said of his time on campus.

The school handbook prescribes punishments for everything from dress code violations to fighting; they range from warnings and write-ups to expulsions, including a “zero tolerance” for drug and alcohol incidents. But Mack said there’s flexibility: A first offense for a cooperative student should lead to just a warning, for example.

“But if you’re caught drunk and out of control, you were not going to be allowed to remain on campus if you were threatening to assault someone,” he said.

Chemawa’s student handbook is 53 pages long and covers everything from dress codes to prescription drugs. The “dating” section says students should be “respectful.” Punishment is “determined by administration.”

Mack said enforcement of the rules could be inconsistent. He leaned toward second chances. Other administrators went the other way.   

“I think some people get into power struggles, where they have to be the winner and they have to be the boss,” Mack said. “I don’t think their intention is to be that way, but I think it comes across that way because lack of experience in dealing with people.”

Tall’s mother, Bissonette, said her pleas to Cox fell on deaf ears.

“He just told me, ‘Well, he’s getting on the plane at 4 a.m.,’” Bissonette said.

When Tall arrived back at the Pine Ridge Reservation, his only nearby school option was also run by the Bureau of Indian Education. His mother said her son’s departure from Chemawa was a problem.

“I tried to get him into Pine Ridge School, but the school over there in Oregon gave him a bad evaluation, or it wasn’t good, because they wouldn’t take him and they said it was his behavior,” Bissonette said.

Pine Ridge School officials couldn’t be reached to confirm her account.

Students arriving mid-year put tribes in a tough spot: either accept potentially difficult kids mid-year, or refuse them, leaving them aimless on the reservation.  

The latter happened to Tall.

Bissonette said her son began hanging out with other teenagers who weren’t in school. They drank and fought. Her son got stabbed in the arm at one point.

Then one evening in May 2011, he asked to borrow his mother’s car keys. He liked to sit in her Chevy Blazer and listen to music. Bissonette said OK, and went inside to check on Tall’s younger sisters.   

“They had a little space heater on, so I thought, ‘Well, I’ll just lay with these girls for a little bit and then I’ll chase that boy back in,’” Bissonette said.

She fell asleep. She woke up in the early morning to the sound of people at her house.

“I had a lot of people knocking on my doors and my windows and the walls of my house,” she said. “I went to my kitchen door and my Uncle Gary was standing there and he said, ‘Niece, where’s your car?’”

He pointed at her driveway and told her to follow him. Down the street, she saw her car flipped over and resting on its roof.

She tried to walk toward it but felt disoriented and lost her balance. She approached a police officer she knew from her own school days.

“Is my son OK?” she asked.

The officer kept his head down.

“You have to wait until the coroner gets here,” he replied.

South Dakota police records say Tall was driving his mother’s car 35 mph in a 10 mph zone before he crashed. The SUV had weaved from off the road on one side to off the road on the other, then flipped. Tall’s blood alcohol level was almost twice the legal limit.

He was 15.

Flint Tall

Flint Tall

Courtesy of Rachel Bissonette

Flint Tall died far from Oregon, on a street in South Dakota. Chemawa administrators kicked him out, but supports were lacking for him back home. That’s not Chemawa’s fault. Advocates for Native health would say it’s the result of centuries of trauma that can be challenging for Native communities to overcome, as well as a lack of investment from the federal government.

No announcement was made back at Chemawa. But word reached O’Renick, Tall’s English teacher who had argued unsuccessfully to keep him at school.

“I was furious,” O’Renick said. “I’ve never felt more powerless to protect a kid against people who are also supposed to be protecting kids with me.”

With the school year ending, O’Renick tried to make sense of Tall’s death by talking to her colleagues.

“They said, ‘Joy, you’ve got to understand, we hear about kids being sent home all the time and they die,’” she said. “And it’s just, ‘You’re green, kid, you’ll get used to it.’”

Tall’s friends later told Bissonette that her son had bought alcohol — 100-proof vodka — from a bootlegger on the reservation.

Bissonette feels Chemawa put her son in a risky situation by sending him home to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

“You have your drug dealers. You have your bootleggers. And he wouldn’t have been mixed up in all that had he been in school,” she said. “He was a good kid and I think that they took that from him.”   

OPB interviewed more than two dozen former staff and students at Chemawa. Virtually every one can recall students who died after leaving Chemawa.

They’re not all kids who were kicked out, and Chemawa never appears directly responsible. There’s a boy who died in a gang fight while home over Christmas and a girl who killed herself. Former staff and students who knew the female student say her depression worsened over the school year, and Chemawa administrators sent her home because of concerns she could be a threat to herself.

“Some of our students do come from unstable households, but we are very well aware, usually, of what those situations are,” Braucher said.

Braucher said that since her arrival as superintendent, the school has begun working with tribes and child services to find safe placements for students who leave or are forced from campus.

But some patterns remain at the school, including what some critics see as inconsistent, even hostile, treatment of certain students.

Beatrice Willis and Marisha Friday, July 2017.

Beatrice Willis and Marisha Friday, July 2017.

Rob Manning/OPB


‘I Hate The Way The School Is Run’

Marshall Friday enrolled as a freshman in 2013, the same year that Melissa Abell entered as a junior. His mother, Beatrice Willis, hoped a Chemawa education would affirm his Native culture, without the challenges of Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation.

“The only thing I ever wanted was for them to see that there’s more to life than what you’re seeing within those reservation boundaries,” Willis said. “You don’t have to be susceptible to the drugs and alcoholism and the poverty that everybody else is [experiencing] on the reservation.”

But Willis’ experience as a Chemawa parent has been a struggle. Her daughter, Marisha Friday, also attended Chemawa. Marisha was sent back to Wyoming during both her freshman and sophomore years. She said neither incident was her fault.

Marisha’s younger brother, Marshall, would have a rough time, too. It started with two cannabis-related incidents.

The first was freshman year, when Marshall Friday was arrested with less than a gram, and initially charged for felony possession. That was nine months before July 2015, when marijuana sales became legal in Oregon. And it was almost two years before Chemawa student Devontre Thomas drew headlines because administrators referred his marijuana charge for federal prosecution.

Marshall Friday was caught again early sophomore year with two other students, and was put on “restriction,” an on-campus punishment, similar to detention.

Then in October, Friday sought help from Chemawa staff for a health problem. He had a serious skin irritation that turned out to be a staph infection called MRSA.

“The school really didn’t want to help me,” Friday told OPB last January. “So I asked my mom to help me get out of there.”

Friday’s family had moved to the Portland area before he got to Chemawa, so pulling him out of school wasn’t difficult.

Friday would spend the rest of his sophomore year in public school — Hudson’s Bay High in Vancouver, Washington, and Tualatin High School in Oregon. As a Native kid from Wyoming, Friday said he felt much more comfortable at Chemawa.

To re-enter Chemawa, Friday went through drug counseling. Twice. He had to agree to a nine-point behavior plan, that his mother thought was a trap, designed to get her son in trouble again. When Friday returned, he again had issues with the school over his health.

Friday ran track at Chemawa. In spring 2016, he reported chest pains to the campus doctor at the Indian Health Service.

The school took Friday off campus to a specialist, who told him to keep an eye on it.

As a boarding school, Chemawa administrators are considered “in loco parentis” — literally “in place of the parent” — so they didn’t have to tell his mother about it. So they didn’t. Friday told his mom about the heart condition the following summer, but downplayed it as “no big deal.”

In the ensuing months, Friday would have more symptoms. He also began to struggle with his mental health that same school year.

“I take psych meds basically for my anger and anxiety,” Friday said in February. “When I lost my ID, they wouldn’t let me take my meds.”

Chemawa maintains tight rules on student ID cards. At one point, years ago, the school denied hot meals to students who’d lost their IDs.

Marshall Friday

Marshall Friday

Courtesy of Beatrice Willis

The school wanted to charge Friday $7 for a new card. The family preferred that he do community service instead, an option listed in the student handbook. But Chemawa didn’t offer that to Friday. The family said he went a week without his medications.

Superintendent Braucher defended the ID requirement — but said campus officials would not deprive students of psychiatric drugs.

“With 350 students, sometimes the person giving out medications won’t know all the students by sight, which is why we make students carry their IDs,” Braucher said. “But I’m not aware of any student not receiving their meds for a week because they didn’t have their ID.”

Braucher said the ID policy is to help when staff aren’t familiar with every student.

Clinic staff may not have known Marshall Friday. But other Chemawa employees certainly did.

Friday and his mother said that without the medications, his anger and anxiety boiled over into a fight with his roommate. He was arrested for assault in April 2016, suspended and required to complete an outside program to return.  

In November 2016 — the fall of Friday’s senior year — he was accused of acting as a lookout for other students smoking marijuana. The write-up for Friday mentions that staff disciplined him, and not the other students involved, because the staff member “only could recognize Marshall Friday.”

It was further evidence to Friday and his family that he was treated more severely than other students.

That same fall, administrators tried to stop Friday from organizing students against the controversial Dakota Access Pipeline — an oil project that drew demonstrations from tribes across the country. Students protested anyway the following spring.

Some staff quietly sympathized with Friday and his family and said as much to Willis and her son.

Among them was longtime Chemawa residence hall director Ted Mack. Friday said Mack approached him at a Chemawa basketball game last winter to sympathize with him.

In a March interview with OPB, Mack confirmed Friday’s account.

“[Friday] probably does have some valid points,” Mack said. “Just from what I’ve heard, he may have been targeted.”  

Despite his problems with administrators, Friday loved Chemawa. He said he enjoyed having friends from all over the West.

“I hate the way the school is run, the way they do everything, the way they reprimand you,” he said. “But I love the community — the family, the friends, everyone you make there.”

Chemawa repeatedly put conditions on Friday’s return. After the marijuana incident last fall, he was pressured to sign a nine-point behavior contract and required to attend drug and alcohol counseling. At the same time, Willis got a letter from academic principal Amanda Ward emphasizing the need for her son’s prompt return to campus after winter break “in order to avoid being released from Chemawa for lack of enrollment.”

Friday finished his high school graduation requirements two months early, largely by taking online courses from February to March. He received a letter in mid-March from the school confirming that he’d done all the necessary work.

But his joy turned quickly to frustration.

A month after the “congratulations” letter, Willis got another letter from Superintendent Braucher that said Friday was “not permitted on campus,” other than for graduation. That meant no senior prom. No senior week. No year-end powwow, where he used to volunteer. And after graduation, he would not be allowed at track meets or basketball games. After allowing Friday to return from suspensions and letting him live in the dorms long enough to graduate, administrators banned him from campus “due to safety concerns.”  

In an interview with OPB, Braucher declined to discuss individual students.

Friday’s mother said the rejection cut her son off from the community he loved and it devastated him.   

“He disappeared,” Willis said. “He just took off. He was acting real erratic those days.

“Next thing you know, we get a call. He was getting placed in the ambulance.”

Friday had started abusing inhalants, his mother said. Willis counts four times in April 2017 that he was caught by police or hospitalized. Friday’s drug use had escalated from cannabis to “air duster” — cans of compressed air that are sold for cleaning electronics but are commonly inhaled for a powerful, addictive high.

“We knew it was his way of dealing with being basically thrust aside from that school — thrown out, now that he’d graduated,” Willis said.

Willis said Chemawa’s attitude toward her son sent her a message: The school saw her son as a budget line.

“They were more worried about him not missing this many days straight. It was always about funding when we talked to Chemawa,” Willis said, noting that attendance is part of Chemawa’s complicated funding formula.

But Willis said something changed in early May. Friday seemed happier: no police or hospital visits. She figured the drug use was over.

Friday wore a cap and gown and received his diploma at Chemawa on May 12, 2017, surrounded by friends and family.

On Memorial Day, the family celebrated together. That night, Friday went to watch a movie in his room. Willis recalled turning the lights out in the family mobile home.

“I figured I’d see if Marshall was up and see if he wanted the TV left on,” Willis said. “I went in his room and he was lying face-down in his room, kind of on his side. He wasn’t breathing.”

Friday died of cardiac arrest May 30.

Inhalants can kill suddenly or they can erode an abuser’s health over time by damaging major organs like the heart.

Willis said she spoke to the medical examiner’s office and learned two disturbing things: Her son had air duster  chemicals in his blood and an open heart murmur.

She said she was told the official cause of death was “heart failure.”

Months after Friday died, Willis had the medical examiner’s report in a sealed envelope. She hadn’t been able to bring herself to open it.

After this story was complete, Willis opened the month-old report. It amends the cause of death from the initial diagnosis of cardiac arrest to “toxic effects” of a chemical related to narcotic inhalants. It also mentions Friday had a trace amount of methamphetamine in his bloodstream. That was the first Willis learned of her son’s meth use. It is not listed as a cause of death.

Willis said she struggled to get between her son and his drug problem. She sent him to Chemawa precisely to get him away from that. And he fell back into it. The school took steps to address Friday’s history with drugs. But rather than help, Willis believes the school’s treatment of her son instead drove his narcotic use.

“I don’t want them to do this to any other students,” Willis said. “I don’t want any other student to come out of that school feeling the way that my son did.”

Courtesy of Beatrice Willis

It’s hard to fault the school entirely, however. The family knew Friday had some kind of heart problem, even if the school didn’t tell them, and Friday downplayed it. Willis had discussed having her son go to a doctor last spring after hearing him complain of feeling light-headed and short of breath.

But Willis said the school should have taken her son’s heart problems more seriously. She said when she finally talked to the Indian Health Service doctor after Friday’s death, the doctor said that he would call for more tests the next time a student complained of chest pains.

Willis sold the family home in Oregon over the summer and moved back to Wyoming. She’s pursuing an associate’s degree at Casper College, with plans to become a paralegal. She hopes eventually to work on the Wind River Reservation, helping provide more opportunities for Northern Arapahoe teenagers, like the son she lost.


About This Series

This series is the result of almost three years of reporting by OPB reporters Rob Manning and Anthony Schick. After concerned staff members contacted OPB about troubles at the boarding school, Manning and Schick interviewed several dozen former Chemawa employees, students and parents and looked through hundreds of pages of records, including police reports, court records, depositions, academic reviews, financial documents and disciplinary reviews from Chemawa. They filed multiple Freedom of Information Act requests with the Bureau of Indian Education, which oversees Chemawa. Some are still pending.

The Bureau of Indian Education allowed the current director of Indian education and the current Chemawa superintendent to speak with OPB. They declined OPB’s requests to speak with other teachers and administrators on campus.

Investigate West reporter Rebecca Clarren provided background research and reporting guidance. Read her recent reporting on the educational challenges facing Native American communities here.

Charles Hudson, the intergovernmental affairs director for the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission and Mandan-Hidatsa tribal member, reviewed the stories prior to publication with an eye toward cultural context.

For more on the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ struggles with Native education, this 2015 Politico series offers useful background.

Chemawa: In This Series

Chemawa Indian School is supposed to offer an academic home preparing students for college or careers in a safe and stable setting. It’s seen as a refuge for Native high schoolers across the West. But an OPB investigation found the Salem school struggles to spend taxpayer money wisely, educate students and even keep them safe. Concerned staff say they have been silenced and targeted by administrators in a hazy bureaucracy within the federal government.

Part 1: Life And Death At Chemawa

Part 2: What’s A Chemawa Diploma Really Worth?

Part 3: Former Chemawa Staff Say Concerns Were Met With Retaliation, Bullying

Part 4: A Federal School With Family Ties (Nov. 20)

Part 5: Behind The Fence, Chemawa’s Culture Of Secrecy (Nov. 27)

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