Tribes across the Southwest dread the possibility that thousands of unmarked graves might be uncovered by a federal investigation into abandoned Native American boarding schools expected to wrap up early next year.
The investigation, ordered by Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, came in the wake of the discovery this year of more than 960 unmarked graves at two shuttered boarding schools in Canada’s British Columbia and Saskatchewan provinces.
“She’s brought awareness for our native people, for our children,” said retired Pawnee elementary school teacher Oney M. Roubedeaux, an alumnus of the Concho Indian Boarding School in El Reno. “I feel like that is opening up a box of worms. I mean, just a whole big old span of our people that nobody paid attention to.”
Roubedeaux, who is Ponca and Otoe-Missourian, said she rode a Greyhound bus in 1971 from Stillwater to Concho Indian Boarding School at age 6 with her 8-year-old brother.
She is the youngest of 17 siblings, many of whom attended boarding schools.
This story was reported by Gaylord News, a Washington reporting project of the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Oklahoma.
Boarding schools were established in the U.S. from the 19th to 20th centuries with the primary objective of assimilating Indigenous youth into American culture. Most were closed in the 1980s and early 1990s, but alumni of those schools are well-represented in Indigenous communities.
Roubedeaux was separated from her brother at Concho when she transferred to the Seneca Boarding School after her mother’s death in 1973.
She said one of her other brothers was beaten to death in his room in Chilocco Indian School, 20 miles north of Ponca City, in 1980, the year it closed down. By the time she left Concho, there had been three student deaths, one being her best friend’s brother.
After her mother’s death, Roubedeaux was placed in foster care.
She had gone through 10 foster homes before a foster mother realized when she was 16 that she could not read or write. The teachers at the public and boarding schools she attended had never taken the time to teach her, Roubedeaux said.
She caught up, she said, with help from her foster mother and obtained a degree in special education from the University of Central Oklahoma. She concluded her 20-year teaching career in March 2020 and now enjoys spending time with her five children and 13 grandchildren.
‘A dynamic that has changed over the years’
Even though “not everything was good,” Roubedeaux said boarding schools gave her self-reliance. Her biggest reclamation of agency, she said, was her education.
“Boarding schools were a learning experience for me as a young child,” Roubedeaux said. “It took me through life, to be able to rely on myself. To this day, at the age of 57, I can still do that.”
According to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, 73 of 367 boarding schools in 29 states are open today, and 15 are still boarding. Oklahoma had the most with 83 schools, and some are still open today. Arizona was second with 51 schools.
Riverside Indian School in Anadarko is the oldest boarding school in Oklahoma, and it remains open. Constance Fox, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho and a Bureau of Indian Affairs self-determination advisor, is an alumnus. She said boarding schools today are a good thing.
“I think they’re a good thing because of the uniqueness native students have,” Fox said. “For many, it was all they had, good and bad. I hope they continue. I know there’s been a lot of positive strides made (…). I go back to Riverside, and it’s a whole different place.”
Fox said Riverside has upgraded its buildings and athletics department over the years. When she attended Riverside, Fox said, no advanced courses were offered in the curriculum, but she said today they recruit teachers for such courses.
“I have friends that have kids and grandkids that go to boarding schools, and it’s because they want to (…) because there is still discrimination in public schools,” Fox said. “Being around their native people makes them want to do better and want to succeed. So, I think that’s a dynamic that has changed over the years.”
Fox attended Concho from grades three through eight and graduated from Riverside Indian School in 1984 as valedictorian. She holds a bachelor’s degree in tourism management from Northeastern State in Tahlequah and a master’s degree in education from the University of Oklahoma.
Fox, now a resident of Yukon, has been employed in various positions with BIA for nearly three decades, mostly in the area of self-determination.
Fox said boarding schools — and specifically adult employees who she said practically raised her — helped shape her passion for self-determination and her career.
“What at the time was negative to me ended up really being positive,” Fox said. “I learned so much about self-responsibility, and that came from the dorm parents, teachers and other people who worked at both Concho and Riverside.”
Fox said she fully supports Haaland’s efforts and thinks her investigation shows goodwill to create an understanding of the traumas her ancestors suffered and the impact they have today. While closure cannot begin without acknowledging the history, Fox said the healing process offers hope for the families and tribes impacted.
‘We’re using the building you put up to hold us down’
Hopi journalist Patty Talahongva said she got her start in journalism at the boarding school she attended in high school.
Talahongva is the executive producer of newscasts at Indian Country Today, a national nonprofit Indigenous affairs digital news publication. Talahongva attended Phoenix Indian High School in 1978 and 1979 and lives in Phoenix.
While she knows about the brutal history of her grandparents’ boarding school experiences, the year she spent at Phoenix Indian School was different.
“People want to cling to this idea that it was always, always bad,” Talahongva said. “I would say there’s always good in whatever story, no matter how bad it got.”
Talahongva said by the time she was in school, children were allowed to speak their languages freely. Cultural customs were celebrated, not suppressed. The overall experience, she said, made her more independent.
Even the launch of Indian Country Today’s newscast has roots in boarding schools.
Talahongva said the newscast launched in April 2020, but because of the pandemic, there weren’t many studio options.
However, then came the solution. Indian Country Today used the former grammar building of Phoenix Indian School built in 1935 — now called the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center — for seven months before moving into the studio at Arizona PBS.
“Those kids who went to school in that building were never encouraged to go to college, get a degree, or do whatever they wanted to do,” Talahongva said. “They were certainly never encouraged to become anchors and producers. I can hear our relatives laughing. It’s like, ‘Take that, government. We’re using the building you put up to hold us down, and we’re broadcasting to the world.’”