Published on February 19, 2013 by Casey
Chemawa Indian School (pron.: /tʃɨˈmɑːwə/) is a Native American boarding school in Salem, Oregon, United States. It was opened on February 25, 1880 as an elementary school, but as of 2005, served ninth through twelfth grades. It is sometimes referred to as Chemawa High School. The Chemawa Indian School is the oldest continuously operating Native American boarding school in the United States and numbers its graduates in the thousands. Former names for the school include United States Indian Training and Normal School, Salem Indian Industrial and Training School and Harrison Institute.
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The history of the Chemawa Indian School dates back to the 1870s when the U.S. Government, based on the theories of Captain (later Brigadier General) Richard Henry Pratt, authorized a school for Native American children in the Pacific Northwest region of the United States. It was the second such school, after the Carlisle Indian School near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Pratt’s philosophy was to integrate the Native American population into general society through education. This contrasted to the earlier philosophy, which assumed that Indians were inherently different from whites, and that no education could “civilize” them. The schools founded under Pratt’s influence were deliberately located far from Indian reservations, in order to separate the students from traditional ways of life.
A site was chosen at Forest Grove, Oregon on four acres (16,000 m²) of land rented from Pacific University. Lieutenant Melville Wilkinson, a member of the United States Army and Secretary to General O.O. Howard, was in charge of the project. $5,000 was provided to start the school. Lt. Wilkinson, with the help of eight Puyallup Indian boys began construction on the buildings in 1880. The initial class of students consisted of fourteen boys and four girls. All the students came from the State of Washington, seventeen of them from the Puyallup Indian reservation on Puget Sound and one boy from the Nisqually Indian reservation. These students were taught blacksmithing, shoemaking, carpentry, wagon making, girl’s industries, and advancement in studies.
Prior to 1883, the United States Congress planned to appropriate a larger amount of funds for the Chemawa Indian School. Several factors led to the search for a new site for the school, including local resistance to the school, a need for more land to teach farming skills, and the destruction of the girl’s dormitory by fire in 1884.
At this point, officials looked at the temporary leased nature of the land, as well as the poor drainage, and began considering alternative sites around the Willamette Valley. Three sites were donated for the new school. Newberg, Oregon offered 100 acres (400,000 m²) of heavily timbered land, 23 acres (93,000 m²) near Forest Grove, Oregon with a pasture parcel of 75 acres (304,000 m²) approximately four miles (6 km) away from the main site, and 171 acres (692,000 m²) partially cleared, sparsely timbered land in Salem, Oregon, served by a spur of the main railroad through the Willamette Valley. School officials chose the Salem site since it was close to Oregon’s Capital and had the most land.
In 1885, the school moved to the site five miles (8 km) north of Salem, Oregon and began construction. The first buildings were made of wood, and were later razed to make way for more permanent brick structures. On June 1, 1885, the Chemawa Indian School was opened with approximately half of the students moving to the new location and half staying behind in Forest Grove, Oregon. On October 1, 1885, Mr. John Lee became superintendent of Chemawa Indian School (then known as Salem Indian Training School). After a winter of separation, and after staff and students finished construction on three new buildings on the campus, he withdrew the remaining students from Forest Grove, Oregon and reunited them all on the Salem, Oregon campus.
The first graduating class completed the sixth grade in 1886. Subsequently, courses were added through the tenth grade. In 1900, the school had 453 students, the largest of its kind in Oregon with a federal budget of $57,182.62. The emphasis at that time was on vocational education.
The 1913 report lists farming as one of the major areas of training. Dairy farming, animal husbandry, and other farm methods provided food which was preserved by the students for later use. A school library provided reading material and students could participate in basketball, baseball, and American football. There were 690 students enrolled with 175 Alaskan children.
By 1922, there were 70 buildings on the 40-acre (160,000 m2) campus. Most of the buildings were wood frame, but some of the newer ones were of brick construction. The land area of the school had grown to 426 acres (1.72 km2). Some of the land had been purchased by Native American students and given to the school as a token of their gratitude, with the money earned by picking hops.
The year 1926 saw the peak enrollment at Chemawa with almost 1,000 students enrolled. 11th and 12th grades were added to the curriculum and all grades below 6th were dropped. In 1927, Chemawa became a fully accredited high school.
the school was threatened with closure in the early 1930s, as an economy move due to the Great Depression. Interested journalists and Oregon’s delegation to the U.S. Congress lobbied with the Bureau of Indian Affairs to keep it open, and it continued with 300 students.
Lawney Reyes, who attended the school in 1940–1942 (as did his sister, Luana Reyes), devotes two chapters of his memoir White Grizzly Bear’s Legacy: Learning to be Indian to his experiences there. He wrote that his consciousness of being “Indian” was largely formed through his conversations there with other students.
He also wrote:
The 1940s and 1950s brought other changes, including a special program for Navajo Nation students and changes in policy to bring back Pacific Northwest students, particularly those from Alaska. In the late 1970s, Chemawa moved to a new campus on adjacent land, with most of the original brick buildings being destroyed.