As a child, Roberta Paul discovered remnants of the last war against Native Americans in an old trunk passed down in her family.Inside, handwoven baskets and Indian beadwork were nestled next to Victorian-era autograph books and calling cards. There were black-and-white photographs of people she knew were her Nez Perce relatives, but she didn’t know who they were.
“We were told to assimilate, that you don’t need to know your culture,” said Roberta, who grew up in Craigmont and Lewiston and goes by the name Robbie.
She didn’t realize it then, but this fog of not-knowing was a desired outcome of what has been called the last war against Native Americans, fought against their children in the classroom.
From the late 1800s to the 1970s, the U.S. government pursued a federal policy that forced or coerced tens of thousands of Indian families to send their children away for years to distant boarding schools. The goal was to “civilize” and “Americanize” native children by stripping them of their culture. Upon arrival at the government and church-run schools, children were given new names, haircuts and uniforms. They were forbidden to speak their language or practice their religion, which were considered inferior to white beliefs and values. Contact with family back home was discouraged and limited. By 1926, nearly 83 percent of school-age Indian children were attending boarding school. Robbie’s ancestors were among them.
The trunk held their story, which she was led to tell in the Washington State University exhibit “Grandfather’s Trunk: Spirit of Survival.”
“We’re not meant to forget our history,” said Robbie, who believes few people outside Indian Country know the full story or impact of the boarding schools.
“Would you say forget the Holocaust? This was a holocaust. Manifest Destiny was to wipe us out. The hurt is very deep.”
It wasn’t until she was ready to commit suicide at age 39 that she came to understand how deep.
Growing Up Native
When Robbie was a child, she took her doll to school in Craigmont. She still has it. It has long black yarn hair and a soft, white deerskin dress with a fringe worn away by love and time. It was handmade by family friend Ida Blackeagle. She remembers how other children ridiculed the doll because it was an Indian. It is one of her first memories of shame for being native.
Over the years, she heard Indians called heathens, drunks and lazy. There were teachers who told her she would never amount to anything because of her race. When Robbie went to prep school in 1967 at what is now Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kan., the brochure emphasized that the school’s goal was to help native students assimilate. She wanted to fit in.
She married and had children. In 1989, her husband walked out on her. Devastated, she tried to kill herself six months later.
“I didn’t want to be that stereotype single mom with kids,” she remembers.
Her pastor intervened at the last minute. He told her it was OK to be afraid.
But there was another voice. That voice said, “It’s time to go home.”
She’s since come to realize the voice belonged to her grandfather, Jesse Paul, the owner of the trunk, who died in 1936.
Home was the family ranch at Craigmont. Robbie visited on a quiet, muddy day in late February. The screech of a red-tailed hawk scared her.
“I’d lived so long without being in touch with my heritage,” she said.
The hawk circled in the sky as she walked the property. She encountered other animals and many memories and emotions. The unusual sight of hundreds of chipmunks enjoying the sun reminded her she needed to have fun. A woodpecker’s cry told her she needed to be able to laugh at herself. She heard her grandfather’s voice again. He said, “This is where you were created.”
“That began my journey of healing of trauma and unresolved family grief,” said Robbie, who decided to return to school to study psychology and follow the teachings of her ancestors to discover her story.
She has returned to the ranch many times since to lie on the ground and listen for answers. Ninety percent of healing is listening, she tells people.
“My dad could predict the weather because of how the birds sing. He would say, you have to listen so carefully that you can hear a bird take a drink of water on the other side of the mountain.”
Wounds of the Past
Before the U.S. government named Robbie’s grandfather Jesse Paul, he was Ka-Khun-Nee, or Black Raven. At age 7 he experienced the Nez Perce War, in which he witnessed the death of his father and two siblings. Three more siblings died when the Nez Perce were forced into exile in Oklahoma. He and his mother were the family’s only survivors, and he was 10 in 1880 when the government took him from her and sent him to Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pa.
Carlisle was viewed as a model for the federal Indian school system. Jesse was part of the second largest group of Indian students to arrive. It was founded and run by Richard Pratt, whose motto was “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” Pratt had convinced the federal government that training native children to accept “white man ways” and values was more efficient than fighting them. More than 10,500 children from nearly every American Indian nation in the U.S. were sent to Carlisle; this included more than 100 Nez Perce, Robbie said.
Robbie knew her grandfather had attended Carlisle but came to a full realization of what happened to him there while at a conference on suicide prevention in Spokane. The group watched a PBS documentary called “In the White Man’s Image,” which detailed how children sent to Carlisle had their identities instantly wiped away.
“It overwhelmed me. I ran out of the room and threw up in the Spokane River,” she said.
The children lived in military-style barracks where outbreaks of deadly diseases like tuberculosis were common. Three Nez Perce youth are buried on the grounds of Carlisle, which is now Army War College. Many tribes have worked to repatriate remains of youth buried at the 350 U.S. Indian boarding schools, but no one has come forward to claim these three children, Robbie said. She reads their names every time she speaks about the schools, in hopes someone will recognize them: Luke Phillip, Samuel Johns and Rebecca Little Wolf.
Jesse graduated in 1888 and was reunited with his mother on the Nez Perce Reservation. He went on to help form the first Nez Perce tribal government. In 1894, he married Lydia Conditt, a graduate of Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Ore. In the trunk he was issued at Carlisle, Jesse stored Lydia’s mementos from boarding school, including the autograph books and calling cards exchanged by students. They are valuable historical artifacts today because Chemawa records from that era were destroyed in a fire, Robbie said. Chemawa was one of the largest boarding schools on the West Coast, and she is working to share information about the students who attended.
Another artifact in the WSU exhibit is a large wooden crate once used to deliver an upright piano to the Paul ranch. The family used it as a woodbox, but it became a hiding place the day the Indian agent came to take Jesse and Lydia’s young children to boarding school. The couple didn’t want them to go away at such a young age, Robbie said. Jesse and Lydia had 11 children; the seven who survived all attended boarding schools, including Paul’s father, Titus, also called Koo-Ya-Mah, or Mountain Lion.
Robbie retired as the director of Native American Health Sciences at Washington State University’s Spokane campus in 2016. She lives in Deer Park, Wash. Outside a few greetings and names, she doesn’t know her native Nez Perce language. She plans to eventually move to Lapwai to learn more.
In her family, the language disappeared at the Chilocco Indian School in Oklahoma, where Titus went in 1922 at age 14. He spoke fluent Nez Perce before going to school. He lost it there, she said.
The rules were the same as they were when Jesse attended boarding school. Youth were forbidden to speak their native language or perform Indian ceremonies or dances. He was taught to farm and work on machines. Titus later told stories about sneaking out to join other youth for “stomp dances” down by the creek at the school. Sometimes they got caught and had to march for four hours or longer on the parade grounds at school. While he was away, three of his siblings died at White Hospital in Lewiston. He was unable to return home for their funerals, or the funeral of his mother five months later.
Robbie is a member of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. At its conferences, the group listens to the stories of survivors to help acknowledge the intergenerational trauma the schools caused.
“A lot of Indians don’t want to remember it because it was so painful,” Robbie said.
Outsiders who argue it’s all in the past continue to perpetuate the thinking they’re superior to a native people, she said.
“Not acknowledging it happened, that’s erasing who we are as a people.”
The healing coalition’s work includes considering reparations, which could include a formal apology from the government. Canada operated Indian schools with similar agendas and implemented the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement in 2007, offering a formal apology and monetary reparations to survivors.
On an individual level, people could help by supporting tribal programs to help reestablish native languages, she said.
The coalition is working to encourage Catholic, Presbyterian and Methodist churches that ran boarding schools to make their records public to survivors and their descendants, she said. It also wants churches to repudiate the doctrine of discovery, a centuries-old principle of international law asserting that Christian nations have a divine right to claim dominion over land inhabited by non-Christians. The doctrine has played a role in shaping U.S. laws and policies regarding property rights and other issues.
Until the past is fully witnessed and acknowledged, the pain will continue to be internalized and passed down to future generations, Robbie said.
“When the head and the heart come together, that’s when you have your power.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: “Grandfather’s Trunk: Spirit of Survival.”
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays through June 12.
WHERE: Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections Room, Holland-Terrell Library, Washington State University, Pullman.
Editor’s Note: This article was edited March 4 with new information that the exhibit was extended until June 12.