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Study: 270 Native students died at Oregon boarding schools

Students stand in front of the Chemawa Indian School in 1905.Courtest photo/Eva Guggemos

A new database sheds light on the dark history of federal boarding schools for Native American students in Oregon.

Pacific University archivist and associate professor Eva Guggemos and volunteer historian SuAnn Reddick collaborated to document at least 270 students who died in custody at boarding schools in Forest Grove and Salem between 1880 and 1945. Their new website, published Monday, Oct. 11, on Indigenous Peoples' Day and hosted by Pacific University, includes names and burial locations, a timeline of the schools and a bibliography with a spreadsheet of detailed notes on each student, who came from a wide range of tribes and nations.

"Sometimes they would write on the school roster and annotate it and say they died on this date. Other times it wasn't so simple and there would be no official school record at all of some students," Guggemos said. "Some information was only in contemporary newspaper articles. There were hospital records, cemetery records, occasional bits from letters and diaries."

The school first opened as the Forest Grove Indian Industrial Training School in 1880, then moved to its current location as the Chemawa Indian School in Salem in 1885.

Guggemos started looking through school rosters shortly after arriving in Forest Grove in 2011, and she and Reddick sourced the National Archives & Records in Seattle along with Pacific University and state library archives. According to the research, four years after the founding of the school in Forest Grove in 1884, about 175 students were present on campus from Puyallup, Warm Springs, Alaska, Chehalis, Spokane, Umatilla, Nez Perce, Yakima, Sound and Grand Ronde.

Reddick started researching the school's history in the 1990s.

"Back in the day when I was initiating this research I went to the Oregon State Library and spent many hours scrolling through these terrible microfilm machines taking those little sheets of film, laying them on a plate and printing them," Reddick said. "I had a friend who was a page. We took this rickety old elevator down into the stacks and would look for books. Sometimes you just go fishing."

Across the American West, federal boarding schools like Chemawsook took children as young as 6 away from their families and aimed to eradicate their native culture by punishing them for speaking their own languages or practicing their own traditions. The most common causes of death found by Guggemos and Reddick were infectious diseases like tuberculosis, meningitis or influenza. The researchers traced around 175 students at the Chemawa School Cemetery and two students at Forest View Cemetery in Forest Grove.

In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a "comprehensive review of the troubled legacy of federal boarding school policies."

While the researchers found 270 deaths of Indigenous students in Oregon, they also found around 40 remains were never returned home. The locations of about 50 students are still unaccounted for.

Reddick said she hopes the database can help family members and historians with their own research.

"This is only the beginning for many people who may want to find missing family members. These are aunts and uncles who didn't have children who people might still be searching for," Reddick said. "Our hope is that we will be contacted by families and tribes who recognize the names."