Local woman tracks early history of Chemawa School

SuAnn Reddick was hired to plan a ropes course at Chemawa Indian School more than two decades ago. It led her on a journey into the history of the school and a stint as its “volunteer historian.” 

“As I reviewed the property lines, and noticed that some campus property was west of Interstate 5, I became curious as to how large the campus land originally was, and how it came to be in its current form,” said Reddick. “My research for about 25 years now has focused largely on the historic acquisition and eventual loss of the land that comprised the Chemawa campus.”

In scholarly papers and presentations, Reddick traces the development of the school from the mid-1800s until it became the earliest version of what still stands today.  

While Chemawa, and off-reservation boarding schools in general, have been a source of controversy for decades, the Salem school had a less than auspicious beginning. Of the first 14 students who arrived at Methodist Episcopal Indian Manual Labor School in Oregon Country at Chemaway in 1834, seven died, five ran away and only two “scholars” survived to complete educational programs. It was modeled after a similar school in Forest Grove.

Even without a record of success, Methodist Missionary Jason Lee received funding to build a school in the Salem area in 1842. Within a year, the Mission Board replaced Lee out of concern he was more interested in colonization than conversion. 

“When Lee and the other early settlers arrived, the Willamette Valley Tribes had been diminished by smallpox and other diseases brought by the Europeans. Their perception was that the land was effectively unoccupied,” said Reddick. “Training young Native people to ‘work’ as farmers and domestics and in manufacturing was an important part of preparing them to go back to their reservations and adapt to property ownership and integration into the dominant society.”

“Students,” such as they were, took part in all the daily upkeep of the land and construction projects. Training Native students in mechanical and agrarian ways, and more importantly the English language, was seen as key to assimilating the population into white society, while obliterating individual tribes’ cultures. 

In 1850, Congress passed the Oregon Indian Act with the intent to purchase all tribal lands in the Willamette Valley and force tribes east of the Cascades. Native leaders withstood the assault to the extent possible, but ended up with only slopes on the mountain ranges at the edges of the fertile valley. 

While detrimental at the time, the impacts of these early decisions still adversely affect the lives of native people in unexpected ways. When the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz wanted to reinstitute cultural programs and build a casino to fund the effort, state regulators wanted it on tribal lands. Leaders had to take state officials to the tribal lands, located mostly at the tops and on the sides of hills, and ask them where they would put a large facility like a casino. The tribe then received waivers to put the casino in Lincoln City. (Keizerite Delores Pigsley, tribal chairman of the Siletz, retold this story in a 2020 interview with the Keizertimes)

At the same time tribal lands in Oregon were being taken, education offered by Indian boarding schools was driven by a philosophy of “Kill the Indian, save the man.” Henry Richard Pratt, originator of the phrase, established guidance for the boarding schools throughout the country. 

Reddick, who is not associated with one of the current or former area tribes aside from volunteer status, said it is still hard to come across dehumanizing language in documents she uses for research. “It is always difficult to watch or experience people demean one another,” she said.

At the end of his career Pratt, lamented how the system used the separation of youth from families as a way to force assimilation. From his point of view, slavery was a more effective means of assimilating a culture than “tribally segregating them and denying them participation” in the commerce of the day. 

Reddick said off reservation schools ended up having the opposite effect.

“Off reservation boarding schools, by their very existence, brought Native people from many Tribes together and unintentionally contributed to their survival,” Reddick said. 

By the time Chemawa Indian School found more benevolent leadership in Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, in 1875, much of the damage had already been done. Howard, the founder of Howard University, was driven by his faith to establish institutions and agencies that helped former African American slaves rise out of the lot white colonists had prescribed them.

“I believe that Indian education was, at least in part, modeled on the schools that Howard and Armstrong developed to retrain the freed slaves. The Union motive for that was probably more pragmatic than idealistic – both preparing the students to return to work their own lands, and providing a work force for Northern factories,” Reddick said. 

In 1885, most of the students from Forest Grove School folded into the campus of what had become a sprawling 242 acres in the area around the modern day setting. 

As to why Reddick has made the history of the school part of her life’s work, she said, “Justice.

“With a background in landscape architecture and history, I am offended by the unfair way in government acquired and disposed of the land that had been purchased with Indian monies and labor. I believe that the remaining land should be placed in trust for Indian education, and have spent many years working and lobbying towards that end.”

A trust to benefit the tribes of the Northwest could provide additional opportunities to improve education at the school and preserve and protect historical aspects such as cemeteries. A federal bill to establish the trust made it to committee review in he U.S. House of Representatives in 2012, but no further.