Editor’s note: This story grapples with racist treatment of Native American people and the deaths of Indigenous children.
An old sepia-toned photo shows 11 Native American children in traditional dress, staring into a camera, as they paused near the end of a 400-mile journey across the Northwest.
Researchers say the picture was taken in July 1881 in Portland, as the children were being taken from Eastern Washington to Forest Grove, Oregon, to attend one of the U.S. government’s first Indian boarding schools.
By the time they posed for a second photo, the following March, their hair and clothes looked different. And one of them — a tall girl standing in the back of the first photo — was missing.
In the 19th century, the United States was at war with Native American tribes all across the country. Federal agents were coercing tribal leaders to sign peace treaties and move their people by the thousands onto reservations. At the same time, the federal government was building boarding schools for Indigenous children and forcing young people to leave their families and their culture, to learn English and adopt colonial ways of dressing, working and living.
“Many in the United States had the thought that the best way to change the Native Americans of this continent was to change their children first,” said Warren Seyler, former chairman of the Spokane Tribe of Indians, in a recently recorded documentary from Counting Coup Media.
What’s informally termed the “boarding school era” began in 1879, with the establishment of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, and lasted at least through the mid-20th century. The schools were often run directly by the federal Interior Department, or by cooperating religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church.
Conditions were often terrible. Many children died. But until now, the federal government has not attempted a formal reckoning of that dark period — of the number of school sites, the extent of burial grounds and the number and tribal identities of children who died. The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, announced last June, is the first attempt to fix all that.
The initiative from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — the first ever Indigenous person to lead the agency — followed the discovery in Canada of remains of hundreds of Indigenous children in British Columbia last year.
“I know that this process will be long and difficult,” Haaland said in a speech announcing the boarding school initiative last June.
“I know this process will be painful.”
Haaland’s initiative will face logistical hurdles, including gaps in recordkeeping, cultural differences between official — white — records and Indigenous oral histories, financial and technological limitations, as well as physical barriers that have grown over time.
Those many problems are evident already in efforts by researchers — white and Indigenous alike — to learn more about two boarding school campuses in Oregon.
Two of the first children to attend an Indian boarding school in Oregon came from hundreds of miles away, in Eastern Washington, and were the children of Chief Lot, the leader of the Spokane tribe at the time.
Seyler, the former Spokane leader, says Lot wasn’t opposed to having his young tribal members learn to read and write English. He asked federal agents to place a school nearby, but they refused.
“They asked him: ‘Allow us to take your children’ — Spokane children — to what they termed ‘where the sun sets’ or Forest Grove, Oregon,” Seyler said recently.
He was talking about the Forest Grove Indian Training School, which was established in 1880.
“Even though it broke his heart to have to do that, (Chief Lot) still wanted his children to be able to read and write English,” Seyler said. “He knew that was going to help them into the future and so he allowed them to take some children. And then they came and took some more. Two of those were his son Oliver Lot, who later became chief, and his own daughter, Martha Lot.”
Martha Lot is believed to be the tall girl at the back of the July 1881 photo, the one missing from the later photo from March 1882.
Pacific University supported the Forest Grove Indian Training School through its five years in existence, and the university’s archivist, Eva Guggemos, is now one of the foremost experts on the school and the children who died there.
“This cemetery back in the 1880s had an association with the Congregational Church, which is where the students were taken on Sundays to attend services,” Guggemos said during a recent walk between grave stones at Forest View Cemetery in Forest Grove. “So when the first student at the school died, Martha Lot of the lower Spokane, the Congregational Church donated a plot to the Indian school where she could be buried. And that plot had room for 12 graves.”
According to records collected and analyzed by Guggemos and others, 11 children died at the Forest Grove school during its five years in operation, including kids from the Puyallup, Umatilla, Wasco and Warm Springs tribes.
The city cemetery is full of stone markers with the names of white people who lived and died in here.
But there’s no sign of remains of any of the Indigenous children at the Forest View Cemetery. Guggemos has records showing Martha Lot and a boy from the Umatilla were buried here, but there are no markers for them.
“We don’t know — we have a map of where their graves are supposed to be, but it doesn’t seem to exactly match up with where these other headstones are,” Guggemos said. “I think Martha Lot is supposed to be in between this headstone and one of these two headstones but obviously she’s not.”
Guggemos says the remains of several children were reclaimed by their tribes, but for others, it’s not clear what happened.
The records of ‘perpetrators’ clash with oral histories
Seyler says tribal histories show a pattern: Spokane children were sent to Oregon and did not come back. He said as many as 25 were sent to Forest Grove back in the 1880s.
“When Chief Lot sent these kids to be educated, only five returned of the 23 or 25 sent — everybody else died of disease and are still buried down there, in Forest Grove,” Seyler said.
Federal records collected by Guggemos and a volunteer archivist for the boarding school that replaced the one in Forest Grove document 19 Spokane children attended the Oregon boarding schools in those early years. Their records show six Spokane children died, with just Martha Lot buried at the Forest View cemetery.
Even with the fairly well-documented experience of Martha Lot, details are missing or unclear. While her death was recorded on Oct. 16, 1881, the cause of her death is vague. A letter sent from the Forest Grove school to her father describes a “sore on her side” that “went to her head,” and that when she died she “could not feel her pain.”
Guggemos acknowledges the official records don’t tell the whole story.
“Really all we have to go on now for evidence is a sliver of a sliver of mostly written evidence that was mostly written down by the perpetrators in this situation,” Guggemos said.
By evidence from “perpetrators,” Guggemos is talking about written records kept by the largely white federal government.
The discrepancy between Seyler’s documentation of Spokane tribal history and the academic record as Guggemos has compiled it involves one tribe from just a five-year period at a school that’s been pretty carefully researched. Multiply that across hundreds of schools, hundreds of tribes, across decades … and that’s the daunting task facing the present-day Interior Department.
The new federal effort to document Indian boarding schools and burial sites isn’t just facing the erosion of records and memory over time. It’s also up against more than a century of official efforts to ignore and even erase an uncomfortable part of U.S. history.
The Forest Grove Indian Training School sat a few blocks from the Forest View cemetery. But you wouldn’t know it today.
“The site where the school was is now completely built over with homes — there’s nothing there indicating that the school was there,” Guggemos said.
“Most people who live on that block have no idea.”