A few miles from the Kansas border, a handful of Chilocco Indian Agricultural School alumni drove down a long dirt road on a warm July morning to tend to parts of the sprawling but now-crumbling campus. While much of the grounds are overgrown with weeds, the school’s graveyard, near Newkirk, receives precise manicuring.
Chilocco alumni only knew of 10 graves at the school when they began taking care of the site more than 20 years ago, but they’ve since uncovered 57 additional burials that occurred between 1884 to 1937 — all unmarked.
“It is a sacred ground, and it should be treated as such and respected as such, particularly when you know that a lot of the people who are buried there are former Chilocco students, from the very school that we call home,” said Jim Baker, president of the school’s national alumni association.
The graveyard at the former federally-funded school is likely to become part of a nationwide Department of the Interior investigation aimed at locating the unmarked graves of native students at boarding schools.
In June, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced a new inquiry into the legacy of Native American boarding schools in the United States after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves in Canada.
Including Chilocco, Oklahoma has 83 former and current Indian boarding school sites, more than any other state, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.
Many of the schools were operated by religious groups and received funding from the federal government as part of systemic efforts to dissolve Native American cultures and languages.
Ahead of the federal investigation, boarding school alumni, tribal leaders and activists described a complicated relationship between tribes and former schools, and the impact the institutions will continue to have on the state’s Native American communities even after the investigation is complete.
Students who died at boarding schools didn’t receive proper burials in accordance with tribal traditions, said Gordon Yellowman, director of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes’ language and culture program.
“(Tribal members) were never ever given the opportunity to do what we have to do when a child dies,” Yellowman said. “They were never given the love and the dignity that they deserve, and respect that they deserve.”
Honoring the dead now falls to school alumni
For nearly 100 years, the Chilocco school housed Native students from more than 127 tribes from across the Western United States.
The Chilocco National Alumni Association started maintaining the school cemetery in the late 1990s after it had been neglected for decades. Jim Baker graduated from the school in 1960. He was also the school’s first alumnus to serve as superintendent from 1973 to 1978. The alumni association’s desire to honor dead students has compelled the group to maintain the cemetery, he said.
Jim and his wife Charmain Baker, who is also a former Chilocco student, have found dozens of graves at the school that date between 1884 to 1937 through archival research and the use of radar. Originally, none of the school’s graves were marked.
Most of the people buried in the graveyard were Chilocco students, although one grave belongs to the child of a faculty member.
Many of the students buried at Chilocco were orphans who had no one to claim their bodies after they died, Jim Baker said. Even if students did have family, transportation was often too slow to ensure the body could be brought home in time to preserve it, leading to a burial at the school.
Scattered records have made the process to identify graves even more complex.
Of the 67 graves they’ve identified at the school, eight remain nameless. Charmain Baker is troubled that 50 people buried at the school have unknown causes of death. Several students died from outbreaks of infectious diseases like the 1918 influenza pandemic, she said.
While she said she knows the records are “sketchy,” she wonders if authorities deemed the truth about some of the deaths too morbid to make public.
“We can’t say there were no kids that were killed,” Charmain said. “We just don’t know.”
A discovery in Canada sparks new scrutiny
The unmarked graves of as many as 751 people, mainly Indigenous children, were uncovered in June at a former boarding school in Saskatchewan. Another 375 graves have been discovered in British Columbia spread across the former sites of the Kamloops and Kuper Island residential schools.
The U.S. investigation into unmarked graves will include identifying and collecting records related to the federal government’s oversight of boarding schools and consulting with tribes to discuss ways to protect burial sites.
Yellowman said though there were originally several boarding schools both operated by the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes and on tribal land, many students also attended off-reservation schools like Chilocco. Several of the Cheyenne and Arapaho schools were consolidated in the early 1900s, and more tribal students transferred to Chilocco.
Though there were some boarding school success stories, Yellowman said a lot of intergenerational trauma also stemmed from schools like Chilocco. He described the harsh punishments administrators at many schools doled out for behavior like speaking Native languages, and the stifling effect these had on Native culture. Yellowman never learned more than basic words in the Cheyenne language because his grandmother — who attended Concho Indian Boarding School near El Reno — emphasized the importance of speaking English.
Through the 1960s and 1970s, changing social conditions posed a threat to Native American boarding schools, and Chilocco was no exception. Facing a host of issues, including declining enrollment and a lack of federal funding, the school shuttered in 1980.
The quality of academic programs at Chilocco improved and students had more freedom and better living conditions in later years of the school’s history, according to accounts collected by the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program. Jim Baker described fond memories at Chilocco, and the countless amenities it once housed, including a thriving agricultural program and numerous facilities for sports. He was sad to see the school close, he said.
“When you get too good of a thing going, it makes people jealous,” he said.
During his time as superintendent, Jim Baker was known for working in the fields with students who participated in the school’s agricultural program. Though the crops in the fields are now dominated by weeds, Jim was again the first to start work on a recent visit, cutting the school’s grass on a riding lawn mower and eventually working his way to the school’s gravesite.
The cemetery is a small, unassuming plot of land about half a mile off the main campus, with bricks laid in the ground as headstones, and memorial crosses leaning against the fence. For years, Jim and Charmain Baker have led efforts to maintain it and locate and identify graves. They’ve also cobbled together funding from a patchwork of donors and grants to honor the school’s dead.
The Chilocco cemetery is now owned by the Kaw Nation, a federally recognized tribe with about 3,100 enrolled members headquartered in Kay County. A memorial for the dead is a tall block of stone with 67 entries for those buried engraved on it — though many are missing names, tribes and years of burial. The engravings are surrounded by child-sized hand and footprints.
The Kaw Nation received $40,000 from the MICA Group’s Cultural Resource Fund to pay for the memorial and a new fence around the cemetery.
One former student who owns a flower shop provides a yearly floral arrangement for the memorial.
A $3,100 grant from ConocoPhillips funded the construction of the fence around the cemetery. Workers using radar to build the fence found “anomalies” at the site — possibly dead animals or more unmarked graves. Alumni eventually hope to find enough funds to pay for another radar screening, potentially coordinating with the Kaw Nation or other entities.
New hope for answers about unmarked graves
Native groups hope the new federal inquiry will spark a reckoning on the long-lasting harms of the United States’ boarding school system.
Community activists Redbear and Soulowla Williams, who are from the Seminole Nation near Bowlegs, are helping organize an honor walk for Native American children who died at residential schools in Oklahoma but haven’t yet been found. They said they believe there could be a local discovery of unmarked graves as large as the discovery of hundreds in Canada.
“Those babies are an awakening,” Soulowla Williams said. “And right here, Oklahoma is going to get a rude awakening when they start finding bodies here.”
The 30-mile walk will start on July 31 at the Mekusukey Mission in Seminole and end at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, the successor institution to Sacred Heart, a former Native American boarding school in Pottawatomie County.
Tribal leaders have attempted to launch new investigations into unmarked graves at boarding schools for decades to no avail, Soulowla Williams said, which has been frustrating for families with lost loved ones.
Yellowman said he believes the Department of the Interior investigation is needed to account for the government’s wrongs, and it should include a search for graves at all former boarding schools in Oklahoma.
Identifying and sending any remains that are found back to the tribes would be an intensive process, and Yellowman believes the decision whether to do so would have to be made further down the line. But one of the top priorities should be providing proper burials, he said.
Jim Baker said he believes there are still undiscovered burial sites at Chilocco. He welcomes the Department of the Interior investigation, which he hopes will uncover the exact number of people buried at the school and more information about when they died.
Ultimately, he wants the Department of the Interior to play a bigger role in upkeep at Chilocco.
“My hope is that they will take ownership of the cemeteries, particularly at these closed, off-reservation boarding schools … or maybe responsibility for it becoming abandoned, and provide the necessary resources to continue to maintain these cemeteries respectfully,” he said.
Yellowman hopes the federal government will face some consequences of its actions as a result of the investigation, though he’s unsure what form they’ll take. He’d also like to see the United States acknowledge responsibility for the deaths of Indigenous students.
But he’s hesitant to say the discoveries of remains will allow for much emotional healing.
“It’s not coming to a closure because we forgive but we never forget,” he said.