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School memories are burned deep
BY BECCY TANNER
The Wichita Eagle
Nearly 80 years ago, Neva Pewewardy Santiago and Marjorie Tah doo ah nippah Brunston were taken from their families and placed in the Fort Sill Indian boarding school in southwest Oklahoma.
They were 8 years old.
They were told not to speak their tribal language or observe their cultural customs -- and were physically punished if they did.
"At night I would cry," Santiago said. "I would be so lonesome.... I felt like I was a hundred miles away from my family."
The federal government designed the Indian boarding schools in the 1870s after Capt. Richard H. Pratt's philosophy: "Kill the Indian, but not the man."
At one time, more than 500 such schools were sprinkled across the nation, run primarily by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and churches. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates that more than 100,000 American Indians attended these schools from the 1870s through the 1940s.
"It's a story that's never been told correctly," said Tom Carmody, writer and producer of "The Only Good Indian," a drama being filmed at Old Cowtown Museum.
Carmody grew up in Lawrence, near Haskell Indian Institute, now known as Haskell Indian Nations University, and went to public school with American Indian children. He remembers hearing about their parents' and grandparents' painful boarding school experiences.
"There were instances where kids were forcibly removed from reservations... I'm not sure how I would have reacted," he said. His film is based on Kickapoo tribal accounts of the Haskell school around 1905. But almost every tribe and American Indian family have experiences to share.
The school experience
For some of Wichita's American Indians, the memories run deep.
Santiago and Brunston, both members of the Comanche tribe, were forcibly removed from their homes in the early 1930s.
Their families were less than seven miles from the school, but the girls didn't get to see them often.
Girls who had brothers attending the school couldn't speak to them because they were boys, she said.
"I was too young to know about our culture," Santiago said.
Still, they emphasized, the schools in Oklahoma and Kansas were not as difficult to attend as those in the Dakotas and Montana. Those schools were often located so far away from reservations that students would have little, if any, contact with family and friends.
The Wichita women said their parents were encouraged to attend school functions, and they were able to go home during the summer months.
Schools were run military style. All students had to be bathed and dressed and have their beds made by 6 a.m.
They marched to meals. A bell would ring for them to begin eating, to stop eating and to get up from the table.
Most were forbidden to practice their tribal beliefs and dance native dances, Santiago said. They were forced to memorize Bible verses and prayers.
Some were assigned specific church denominations.
Brunston recalls being assigned to the Methodist religion. She's now Southern Baptist.
There was little privacy. Students slept in dormitories.
"If you had your monthly period, you had to tell the matron, who would write it down in her notebook," Santiago said. "If you missed a month or were late, you were called in and have to do extra duty like scrubbing the bathroom."
Those who disobeyed were punished severely and quickly, she said.
Santiago remembers each of the children wore leather belts. A child who misbehaved was forced to run between two rows of students who were told to hit the child with their belts.
"We had to hit or get hit ourselves," Santiago said. "It was harder for the boys. Some of the boys really did hit when the children ran by."
She also remembers having her hands hit with a ruler early in the morning because her fingernails were dirty.
"How could they tell when it was so dark?" she asks now.
Brunston remembers being punished because the matrons thought the back of her neck was dirty.
"It was my natural color," she said.
Students were to learn skills such as cooking and cleaning for girls, agriculture and carpentry for boys.
Keeping their traditions
Eventually the schools changed.
Wichitan Rose Littlecrow Grant put herself in the Chilocco Indian Boarding School in northern Oklahoma in 1945. She was 11, and her mother was dying.
She wanted to learn to sew, to cook -- to take care of herself.
Grant, a member of the Otoe tribe, says her experience was different from that of the other women. She was able to maintain her faith rather than converting.
Carmody says the schools tried to kill the American Indian culture.
But the women did not lose their heritage. Each has become an important part of the Indian community in Wichita. They attend powwows and teach the culture to new generations.
Santiago is chairwoman of the Native American Elders, a local group that is active in Indian affairs in Wichita.
Grant works daily at the Mid-America All-Indian Center , greeting visitors and callers.
"I learned to take care of myself," she said. "We kept our traditions."
Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or firstname.lastname@example.org.