Amid recently renewed discussion about the impact of forcing Native Americans to attend government-run boarding schools, an upcoming conversation at USU will take a deeper look, including their local legacy.
Alina Begay-Naylor (Navajo Nation) will lead a discussion on the schools at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Nora Eccles Harrison Museum of Art at Utah State University.
The discussion will involve information and themes from the PBS Utah documentary “Unspoken” and the children’s book “Cheyenne Again,” written by Eve Bunting and illustrated by Irving Toddy. But it will also include discussion of the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City.
Begay-Naylor is the indigenous program coordinator with USU’s Inclusion Center, but she also has family ties to the Intermountain Indian School: Her grandmother and grandfather both worked at the school in Brigham City.
“I think with Intermountain Indian School, people who went there — not to generalize — but a lot of them I know had a good experience there,” Begay-Naylor said. “And I know that’s different from other boarding schools that had happened.”
Near the end of September, a Day of Remembrance observed the Indigenous people who died or otherwise suffered at boarding schools around the nation. The Day of Remembrance coincided with a bipartisan-sponsored bill in the House of Representatives that would create a National Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies to reexamine their legacy. The overall goal of Native American boarding schools was to assimilate children into white American culture.
“The U.S. Indian Boarding School Polices stripped children from their families and their cultures — actions that continue to impact Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities today,” stated bill sponsor Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk), D-Kansas.
Perhaps contrary to the overall goals of the policies that created the boarding schools, Begay-Naylor’s grandmother taught the Navajo language to Navajo students at Intermountain Indian School.
“That’s where Intermountain Indian School’s a little bit different in that, so that’s what we wanted to talk about, is some of the positive stories that Intermountain Indian School people had,” Begay-Naylor said.
Her grandfather worked in the dorms, and both her grandparents formed close ties with many of the students.
“A lot of students know them,” Begay-Naylor said. “They’re really well known for being people who were Native and looked after them, and they have a lot of people that I guess they adopted, kind of.”
Although it was established in 1950, the Intermountain Indian School has roots in U.S.-Navajo history stretching back a century prior.
The Navajo, or Diné, Nation had inhabited the region that would later become known as the Four Corners for hundreds of years, but the westward expansion of the United States brought the Diné into conflict with settlers seeking their land. In the 1860s, more than 10,000 Diné people were forcibly resettled into an internment camp near Fort Sumner 300 miles away, a trek now known as the Long Walk. At the Bosque Redondo camp in New Mexico, the United States’ aim was to force the Diné prisoners to assimilate into the colonizers’ religious, agricultural and other cultural practices.
After it became apparent that the land at Bosque Redondo was not suitable for farming and thousands of Diné were dying of starvation, disease and mistreatment — and that their imprisonment had cost the U.S. more than $1 million — the 1868 Treaty of Bosque Redondo established the Navajo Reservation, a reduced section of the Diné’s traditional territory in the Four Corners region.
The treaty itself contained another policy aimed at assimilating the Diné, however, requiring them to send their children to schools run by the United States. In 1892, Richard Pratt, the founder of one such boarding school, infamously stated that while he condemned genocide by massacring Native Americans, “all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
In 1950, the Bushnell Army Hospital, which brought soldiers wounded in World War II to Brigham City for treatment, was converted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs into one of those schools for Navajo students. After the American Indian Movement brought scrutiny of the school’s quality of education, low number of Native teachers and harsh treatment of students, including shaving off the hair of students caught drinking alcohol or giving them Thorazine. As part of reforms in the 1970s, the school was renamed as the Inter-Tribal School and opened to other Native nations.
“Some of these various nations had a long history of animosity,” a USU Special Collections exhibit states. “During the first year of integration, fights broke out among the students, at one point resulting in a riot.”
“Over time, however, the students began to make friends from different nations,” the article continues. “This helped to strengthen their understanding of their place as Native Americans in the larger picture of America and to grow the Pan-Indian movement uniting Native peoples from across the country in their campaign for better treatment and equal rights.”
In 1984, facing budgetary pressures, the Bureau of Indian Affairs decided to shut down the school. Students organized peaceful protests in an attempt to keep it open, to no avail. Despite the policies that created the school, it still offered educational opportunities that weren’t established elsewhere for many Navajo youth. And even from the school’s outset, it encouraged students’ cultural expressions through art, eventually including murals on the walls and literary journal.
One of Begay-Naylor’s goals for Wednesday’s discussion is to acknowledge the harm boarding schools caused Native American communities without relegating the issue solely to history and looking into some of the complexities of their legacy.
“I think just sharing with people about what happened to our people and not really focusing solely on the negative of what happened but showing how resilient we are as a Native people and that our cultures and our languages are being taught right now,” she said. “That yes, this happened to us, but we survived and we’re such strong people for it.”
The USU exhibit on the Intermountain Indian School is available online at exhibits.lib.usu.edu/exhibits/show/intermountainschool.
For more information on Wednesday’s event, visit facebook.com/events/397104845301669.