Details surrounding deaths at Chemawa brought to light by local researchers

The Chemawa Cemetery is located on Indian School Road in Salem. (KEIZERTIMES/Joey Cappelletti)

Over 270 Native children from across the Pacific Northwest died in the custody of Chemawa Boarding School from 1880 to 1945. 

For decades, the details about their deaths have been difficult to access — buried in federal archives and public records.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 11, SuAnn Reddick and Eva Guggemos published a public website that for the first time compiles the scattered details surrounding these deaths.

“For us to even begin to acknowledge what happened, and move towards making amends, we have to first know what we are even apologizing for,” said Guggemos, an assistant professor at Pacific University. 

Chemawa, which remains open today in north Salem just east of Keizer Station, was one of the many off-reservation boarding schools created in the late 19th century to assimilate Native children into society while erasing their Indigenous cultures and languages.

Recently, the discovery of over 1,000 unmarked grave sites of Native children at similar residential schools in Canada led US Secretary of Interior Deb Haaland to announce the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative. The initiative will launch an investigation into the history and legacies of more than 365 boarding school sites in the U.S. 

But research for the Deaths at Chemawa Indian School website began long before this initiative brought the issue back to light. 

In 1995, Reddick for the first time saw Chemawa Cemetery and its many rows of identical grave markings. While some of the markers were named and dated, none of them listed tribal origins.

“How could we know who they really were and how they died? How could their families ever find them?” Reddick wrote on the website, which is hosted by Pacific University.  

In 2003, using data she and others had gathered, Reddick created two spreadsheets: one with all of the recorded deaths at the school since 1880 and the other with names from grave markers at the Chemawa Cemetery. Side by side, the lists highlighted the many missing details and in some cases, missing graves. A map of the Chemawa Cemetery also confirmed the likelihood of unmarked graves. 

“Every bit of information I gained had appended to it, more questions and mysteries,” said Reddick, an independent researcher who volunteered as a historian at Chemawa for 11 years. “And so it became necessary to answer those questions and solve those mysteries and it has never stopped.”

Reddick used government, archival and public records, in addition to verbal accounts from other sources, to compile detailed timelines and spreadsheets.

“We didn’t create something brand new. We simply took old things and organized them in a way that would be easy to understand. And we’ve been doing this for a very long time. That’s what researchers and archivists do,” said Reddick.

Guggemos began collaborating with Reddick in 2019 but had worked for six years prior researching the history of the Indian School founded at Forest Grove in 1880, and moved to Salem in 1885.

Guggemos’ research took a comprehensive look at the students, the school and its origins, but she said one of her main focuses was to figure out the location of the Forest Grove students’ graves. 

Together, Reddick and Guggemos were able to correct and fill in the gaps in each other’s work. Their findings document the deaths of 300 students and non-students at Chemawa and Forest Grove. For most of those 300, they also identified each individual’s name, tribe, reservation of origin and the date and cause of their death. The locations of approximately 50 more student remains are still unaccounted for.

The two researchers say they hope the website makes their findings “more easily accessible, primarily to the relatives of students at Chemawa, but with the broader public interest in telling the truth about deaths at the school also in mind.”

Both Reddick and Guggemos emphasize that they in no way speak for tribal communities. They hope their data gives the tribes a chance to know where the children were buried and for relatives to learn more about their ancestry. 

“We cannot speak under any circumstances for the people who had these personal experiences and to whom there are some serious, agonizing personal responses to this information,” said Reddick. “This is a very tiny piece of a big puzzle, but our hope certainly is that we can contribute and make it easier.”

News tip? Contact reporter Joey Cappelletti at [email protected] or 616-610-3093.