Chemawa Indian School’s past and future

Standing for more than 125 years, the Chemawa Indian School is currently the oldest continually operating Native boarding school in the US. 

The school began in Forest Grove, OR in 1880 when US government policy dictated that Native children were required to be sent to boarding schools around the country so they could be integrated into American culture through the stripping away their Native heritage, often preventing students from speaking in their own languages. 

The school moved to Salem in 1885 and on June 1 of that year, it opened with half of its students attending the Salem campus and the other half remaining in Forest Grove. 

Courses offered to Native children at the time revolved around farming, raising cattle and dairy animals. 

Years later in 1926, the school had almost 1,000 students and added an 11th and 12th grade while dropping grades below 6 and became a fully accredited high school in 1927. 

The school nearly closed in the 1930s but was kept open due to the work of dedicated Oregonians as well as the state’s Congressional delegation at the time. 

The school’s history is awash with events like the death of Charlie Fiester, a 12-year-old Klamath-born Native student, who was shot while attempting to run away from the school and the neglect parents and students endured as the letters they wrote to each other were taken and would often never make it to each other. 

But echoes of the past seem far removed now. 

Today, the school’s stance on various social ideas has changed, with its current stance clarifying that “the mission of Chemawa Indian School is to provide opportunities for every Chemawa student to achieve success.” 

The current principal, Amanda Ward, spoke to that mission and how they achieve it. “Our goal is to prepare students for life outside of high school. 

We need to prepare them to be able to walk through any door that they want after high school – whether it be Job Corps, military, a vocational career, community college or four-year university. We achieve this by individualizing experiences and programs to fit what they want to do and achieve,” Ward said. 

Ward leads the school with a compassionate understanding of the history and the many different cultures there. “We teach the history [of the school] and honor each student’s Tribal heritage through cultural classes, cultural activities and facilitating spiritual ceremonies, including daily smudging and weekly sweats on campus.” 

Chemawa also boasts an impressive curriculum as well as graduation requirements. 

In an effort to better support its students life journey, the school requires students to earn more credits in both writing and math than what Oregon requires. 

Ward also expressed that the school is currently “expanding [its] vocational programming to include textile work, metalwork, automotive programming, robotics/technology and agriculture in response to students’ desires and job aspirations.” 

Chemawa Indian school represents around 60 Tribes from 23 different states across the country. The school has 190 enrolled students this year with more than 100 still on the waiting list. 

Ward noted that the pandemic had a dramatic effect on the staff and student pool, and how only now is the school starting to return to pre-pandemic levels of enrollment and hiring. 

Today, the negative effects of the pandemic have begun to wane as, “approximately 25% go straight into post-secondary education the fall after graduation,” Ward said. 

This rate is 3% higher than the state’s average for Native American students in public schools according to Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission. 

The school also offers around $80,000 a year in scholarships for graduates, sponsored by a variety of organizations. This scholarship money enables more than 80% of the students who received the scholarships to attend some type of post-secondary institution within the first three years after graduating. 

But what makes the school so desirable for students to want to come from all around the country? According to Ward, they “provide students [with] experiences and opportunities they would not otherwise have. 

We create a culture of meeting each student where they are and individualizing their learning plan so they can reach their goals and leave high school ready for whatever they choose to do next. I think those things, along with the cultural experiences, are why students and families choose Chemawa,” Ward stated. 

The school does not accomplish this alone, however, as Ward described an extensive network of community partners. “We have some exciting partnerships that expand our ability to provide opportunities for every Chemawa student to achieve success.” 

She mentioned how, “Friends of Trees provides a class during the school day focused on conservation methods and principles, working on restoring the wetlands on Chemawa’s campus and facilitates students tree planting efforts around the Willamette Valley. 

Ant Farm provides summer work opportunities for students. Daughters of the American Revolution sponsors a Christmas party for students each year and provided a handmade quilt to each student upon arrival this year as a welcome gift.” 

The school currently has a number of vacant positions and are looking for compassionate and forward-thinking workers. “You can find most of our jobs on, but we encourage people to reach out directly to us as well. Interested individuals can reach out to the school to see if we have any volunteer opportunities available.”