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The U.S. Interior Seeks To Reveal The Abusive Legacy Of Indigenous Boarding Schools


After the discovery of mass graves of Indigenous students in Canada, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced an investigation of Indian boarding schools in the U.S. Students of one such government-funded school in Nevada say that inquiry couldn't come soon enough. From member station KNPR, Bert Johnson explains.

BERT JOHNSON, BYLINE: If you visit the old Stewart Indian School in Carson City, Nev., with Linda Eben Jones, she can tell you where students used to line up at mealtimes and the kinds of stones used to make the buildings.

LINDA EBEN JONES: When I first came here, I was in this dorm here, and it goes in a big U, and there was hundreds of girls in there. There were bunk beds all the way around.

JOHNSON: Jones is a member of the Paiute Tribe, who graduated from Stewart back in 1966. She first came here when she was 15 because her mother was terminally ill.

EBEN JONES: I think if I would have known the truth, I may not have come here, but I did come.

JOHNSON: Jones says the truth of daily life at Stewart was strict and abusive. She remembers one teacher who was especially cruel.

EBEN JONES: He'd say, did you do your homework? And I'd say, yeah, I did - or he wouldn't even let you answer. He'd just hit you anyway. And he said, well, that's OK.

JOHNSON: The school closed in 1980, but over the course of its 90 year-history, more than 30,000 Indigenous children came to Stewart. Andrea Big Goose was also here in the 1960s.

ANDREA BIG GOOSE: At night, it was a sad, scary place to be because there's so much pain that you could feel.

JOHNSON: Big Goose is an elder from the Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California. Many of her relatives went to boarding schools, too, including a great-grandfather who was sent to Carlisle Industrial School in Pennsylvania. Back then, the federal government sent native children as far from their families as possible.

BIG GOOSE: This country has to realize what they did is not right, and they have to come to terms with it and realize that the truth needs to come out. The truth needs to be told.

JOHNSON: The truth of the harm caused by off-reservation boarding schools, says William Bauer, goes beyond individual abuses. He's a history professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and an enrolled citizen of the Round Valley Reservation in Northern California. The native population dropped by about 11,000 people in the decade after Stewart was founded.

WILLIAM BAUER: The American Indian population hits its lowest point in 1900, with about 225,000 to 250,000 people counted on the U.S. census.

JOHNSON: Bauer says depopulation was part of the plan.

BAUER: Their deliberate attempts to eliminate and erase Indigenous peoples from North America, with the ultimate goal - right? - of acquiring Indigenous peoples' land.

JOHNSON: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Native Americans suffered the highest suicide rate of any group in the United States. Ku Stevens believes that epidemic of self-harm is part of the boarding school legacy. Stevens is a member of the Yerington Paiute Tribe. His great-grandfather escaped from Stewart Indian School three different times.

KU STEVENS: I feel like historical trauma plays a huge part because some people just can't live with it.

JOHNSON: Stevens welcomes the federal investigation, even if what it reveals is painful.

STEVENS: Because I want people to know what we've been through to better understand how we could be helped.

JOHNSON: The findings of the investigation will be sent to Interior Secretary Haaland in April.

BERNADETTE NIETO: I think this is it - I think.

JOHNSON: Back at Stewart Indian School in Carson City, there's another part of the campus that lies across the road from the old dorms, the school cemetery. Bernadette Nieto serves on the Washoe Tribe's burial committee and thinks of those children often.

NIETO: A lot of them just stopped eating and stopped trying to live and, like, literally died from broken hearts because they were taken away from their family.

JOHNSON: She says the tribe isn't even sure how many people are buried within the cemetery.

NIETO: What I expect is to actually prove, you know, the rumors, the things that everybody was told when they were little and growing up that, you know, yes, there are more graves out here, like, outside of the fence.

JOHNSON: If federal officials get permission to scan the ground, they could find many more unmarked graves.

For NPR News, I'm Bert Johnson in Carson City, Nev.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bert Johnson