Special Reports

Boarding schools stripped Indians' culture

On the Lummi Reservation's cobble beach, 15 Lummi children bid farewell to their parents and siblings for the first time, piling into dugout cedar canoes bound for Chemewa Boarding School in Salem, Ore.

The year was 1903, the first for the new city of Bellingham across the bay and the 50th since white settlers had moved in as new neighbors to the Lummis.

Despite Bellingham's thriving and established public school system, Whatcom County's Lummi and Nooksack children attended the crowded Chemewa school and Stickney Home Mission School for Indians in Lynden. The schools were laced-up, English-only labyrinths of unfamiliar customs to the Indian children, most of whom had never left their families.

In the century since those 15 Lummi children traveled to Chemewa, the country has come to see the turn-of-the-century Indian boarding schools as a brutal chapter in the treatment of American Indians. Three years ago, then-Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Kevin Gover apologized for the history of federal Indian boarding schools.

"This agency forbade the speaking of Indian languages, prohibited the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlawed traditional government, and made Indian people ashamed of who they were," he said. "Worst of all, the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically and spiritually."

What those Lummi children and the other youngsters who followed found at Chemewa and other boarding schools were stern efforts to strip them of their language and culture.

In 1904, the Commissioner of Indian Affairs wrote about the goal of the boarding schools: "To educate the Indian in the ways of civilized life ... is to preserve him from extinction, not as an Indian, but as a human being. As a separate entity he cannot exist ... in the body of this great nation."

One of the lasting impacts of the turn-of-the-century boarding schools has been the devastation of Indian languages. Lummi language experts, such as Bill James, have said elders reported that they were beaten for speaking in their native Coast Salish dialect.

The Lummi dialect and the Nooksack's Halqemalem language were all but extinct by the 1980s, when only a few elders spoke them. Both tribes have since established extensive language reclamation projects and teach the languages in Ferndale and Mount Baker public schools.

Children at Tulalip Boarding School, which reopened in 1906, reported beatings with broomsticks and whips for speaking their native languages, and said balls and chains were shacked to their ankles for trying to escape back home, according to local historian Ann Nugent's book, "The Schooling of the Lummi Indians."

The children also found a life less of books than of hard physical labor. In 1928, the famous Merriam Report that launched a wave of progressive child labor laws in the United States reserved room for criticism of Indian boarding schools.

"The labor of children as carried out in Indian boarding schools would, it is believed, constitute a violation of child labor laws in most states," the report concluded.

Before 1901, Lummi children could also attend the Tulalip Boarding School in Everett. It burned down that year, making Chemewa the nearest federal school for Indians.

Even without the loss of Tulalip, the boarding schools were so overcrowded that most Indian children didn't attend. In 1903, those 15 Lummis went to Chemewa and 10 went to Stickney, leaving 75 school-age Lummi children with no school, according to Nugent's book.

The absence of education for the majority of Lummi children and the disruption of the traditional family structure wreaked by sending youngsters to distant schools launched an effort by the Lummi tribe to establish a day school on their reservation.

The tribe built the first Lummi Day School in 1910, but the building was flooded shortly afterward. The tribe rebuilt the school in 1931, and still uses that building as the Northwest Indian College library.