Bozeman — Adeline Fox, now 77, still remembers her grandpa dropping her off at the school bus — they called it a “big yellow car” in her native Cheyenne language — to go to boarding school at St. Labre Indian Mission Boarding School in Ashland.
He had driven her to the bus in a wagon, and as she stepped off it, he spoke to her in Cheyenne. He told her not to speak their Cheyenne language at the school, to speak only English, and he warned her that her hair was going to be cut.
“Our hair is very sacred culturally, our hair is sacred. We do not cut our hair. But they can do that. When you get there, your black braids are not going to come home,” remembered Fox, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe.
Sure enough, the school cut her braids off. And when she accidentally responded to a friend in Cheyenne instead of English, the nuns washed her mouth out with lye soap.
“The soap was trying to take away my language,” Fox said.
Fox shared her story with Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland in Bozeman Sunday during the twelfth and final stop on Haaland’s nationwide “Road to Healing” tour, designed to allow Haaland to hear the experiences of boarding school survivors and their descendants. In 2021, Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history, began the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative to understand the legacy of boarding school policies.
“Federal Indian boarding school policies have impacted every Indigenous person I know. Some are survivors, some are descendants. But we all carry this painful legacy in our hearts,” said Haaland, who is a member of the Pueblo of Laguna in New Mexico. “This is the first time in history that a United States cabinet secretary comes to the table with that shared trauma. That is not lost on me, and I am determined to use my position for the good of the people.”
Survivors and descendants told story after story of family separations, sexual abuse, physical abuse, punishment for speaking their language, having their names changed and more at boarding schools across Montana and the United States. More than 100 people listened in a ballroom in the Strand Union Building at Montana State University.
Between 1819 and 1969, the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools across 37 states, according to Volume 1 of the initiative’s 2022 report. In Montana, the report identified 16 boarding schools located in Absarokee, Ashland, Browning, Busby, Cascade, Crow Agency, Custer, Fort Shaw, Harlem, Hays, Poplar, Pryor, St. Ignatius, St. Xavier and Wolf Point. There were multiple boarding schools in Browning.
At least 500 children died at the schools, and at least 53 schools have burial sites, according to the report. That number is expected to increase as research continues. Publication of a second volume of the report is expected in the coming months.
In Bozeman, Haaland said that it is the responsibility of the Department of Interior — which oversees 11 federal agencies including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Indian Education, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — to address the trauma the boarding school system imposed on Native American survivors and descendants.
“I will listen. I will grieve with you. I will weep, and I will feel your pain. As we mourn what we have lost or what has been taken from us, please know that we have so much to gain. The healing that can help our communities will not be done overnight, but it will be done,” Haaland said.
‘THE UNITED STATES OWES US SOMETHING’
Survivors and descendants told stories of the boarding schools’ intergenerational impacts on Native American families.
Donovan Archambault, a member of the Assiniboine tribe at Fort Belknap, attended the Pierre Boarding School in South Dakota in the early 1950s. He said the schools tore his family apart: “Two of my sisters committed suicide, three of us almost drank ourselves to death and one is a pedophile because of what the priest did to us.”
“I reported what the priest did to us one time at catechism,” Archambault said. “All I did was get beat up. They took a shoe and started hitting me. He made my nose bleed. He gave me a scar on my forehead. But I had to tell somebody, and when I did tell somebody, that’s what my answer was. ‘That’s our father. You don’t talk about him like that.’ I never said another word about it. The anger grew.”
Archambault, who has served as chairman of the Fort Belknap tribes, said the government has an obligation to provide reparations for survivors.
“The United States owes us something. All of the things that I’ve come to receive from them still can’t erase the things that they did to me,” he said.
Jennifer Finley, a member of the tribal council of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said her grandparents on her dad’s side went to the school in St. Ignatius. She said their first language was Salish and their first dreams were in Salish, but because of their experience at the school, the family stopped speaking its native language.
“I will never have the privilege of having a dream in Salish, and that is not my fault,” Finley said.
Finley said the abuse that so many people in the community suffered at the boarding school created a continuing legacy of sexual abuse, violence and alcohol abuse.
“In our community, we are feeling every day the ripple effects the boarding school caused. We are still dealing with the collateral damage the boarding school caused,” Finley said.
‘I COME FROM A LONG LINE OF PEOPLE THAT WERE INSTITUTIONALIZED AND BRUTALIZED’
State Sen. Susan Webber, a member of the Blackfeet tribe who lives in Browning and represents Senate District 8, said she attended the Cut Bank Creek Boarding School after her home was destroyed by a flood in 1964. Webber said her experience was better than that of her parents and grandparents.
Webber sponsored Senate Joint Resolution 6, which passed in the 2023 legislative session, asking U.S. Congress to establish a day of remembrance for children who attended boarding schools across the country to honor both survivors and those who died.
“All of us have residual effects of what happened back then,” Webber said. “I come from a long line of people that were institutionalized and brutalized. We never talked about it.”
Daniel Pocha said his great-grandmother left the St. Peter’s Mission near Cascade and married very young to a man — his great grandfather — much older than her.
“She would tell stories of sending her husband off to work in the morning, and then getting out her dolls and playthings and being a little girl,” said Pocha, a member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, which was federally recognized in 2021.
“She had a very, very poor education. She was probably lucky to get a second-grade education. She could sign her name, but she couldn’t read a document. And it’s really hard to come out of poverty when you don’t have any of the tools,” Pocha said.
Pocha presented Haaland with a buffalo nickel as a thank-you present. The coin, which was produced from 1913 to 1938, features a stylized profile of a Native American man on one side and a bison on the other.
“Those are two things that the U.S. government tried to make extinct. We’re here to tell you we’re alive and well, and the buffalo are making a rebound. Thank you for your help,” Pocha said.
ACCOUNTABILITY FOR SURVIVORS
Wizipan Garriott, principal deputy assistant secretary for Indian affairs and a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, asked attendees to provide feedback about what the government can do better in the future.
Garriott, who listened alongside Haaland, said he is a fourth-generation boarding school attendee, and described his experience as much better than that of his relatives.
“In the past, by carriage, and train, the U.S. and religious institutions removed Native children from their families and territories to enter the Indian boarding school system, creating a great void here in the Rocky Mountains,” he said.
State Sen. Shane Morigeau, a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, said his grandmother was sexually abused at the St. Ignatius mission school on the Flathead Reservation, and that the abuse had lifelong impacts on her that trickled down to his entire family.
Morigeau, who represents Senate District 48, sponsored a bill during the 2023 legislative session to end the statute of limitations on child sex abuse cases. That bill failed in the House of Representatives.
“It’s a hard thing to swallow to see someone be abused and never get justice to pass and never see that justice occur, which says something about how our lives are valued as Native people in this country,” Morigeau said.
Dion Killsback, a member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, said he is the descendant of survivors of boarding school survivors. He said his mother told him and his brothers not to speak Cheyenne.
“She taught us that English was the only language we had to learn. We didn’t need to learn Cheyenne. We needed to live off the reservation because that was the world that she was preparing us for,” Killsback said. “Our way of life was going to die. Our language was going to die. They were going to take our land. They’re going to take our water. It’s just a matter of time. We needed to accept that.”
He said he and his brothers had to work to learn about their own culture.
“Me and my brothers, we’ve had to take and teach our mom that it’s OK to be Cheyenne, we’re proud to be Cheyenne,” he said.
Killsback said the U.S. government needs to be held accountable for its actions, and that it should hold abusers accountable as well.
“I always equate this to the Holocaust. Where’s the commission to go after those Nazis that killed six million Jews?” Killsback said. “We have the same type of action of assimilating our people. And we have priests and school patrons and matrons out there that are still alive. Where’s that energy to find them and hold them accountable?”
Killsback said Haaland has the authority to give the boarding school land to the tribes, and should do so.
“They may have churches on there, they may have swimming pools, they may have classrooms, but that’s tribal land,” Killsback said.
LANGUAGE LOSS: ‘IT’S AN EMERGENCY SITUATION RIGHT NOW’
Karen Returns to War, a member of the Northern Arapaho tribe and co-chair of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said she is the descendant of survivors. Her grandpa went to Carlisle Boarding School in Pennsylvania. Her family members had their names changed, she said.
She said federal assimilation policies almost eliminated the Arapaho language, and that today fewer than 50 people among more than 10,000 tribal members are fluent speakers of the language.
“It’s an emergency situation right now,” Returns to War said.
Myrna Burgess, whose Cheyenne name means “night wandering woman,” said she grew up in Birney, Montana, drinking river water and eating deer, rabbit, pheasant and prairie dogs. She said when she went to St. Labre, in Ashland, nuns stopped her from speaking Cheyenne. She descibed the nuns hitting her with a ruler, first on the in the back of her hand, then on her palm, then on the back of her head.
“That was child abuse right there,” Burgess said. “But no one ever went to jail from St. Labre.”
Burgess said abuse at the school is still impacting people today.
“The Cheyennes said as long as the water flows and the grass grows, we won’t lose our Cheyenne culture, our Indian ways. I don’t know if I still believe that,” Burgess said.
Adeline Fox, whose grandfather warned her to not speak Cheyenne at St. Labre, now works at the school that cut her hair. St. Labre recently announced it is launching an investigation into unmarked graves, deaths and abuses at the school.
Fox, who has served on her tribal council, teaches children to read and write in Cheyenne.
“We need to pass it on. We need to teach our children to speak it,” Fox said. “We need to teach our students how to read our own languages.”
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