Oregon History

Forgotten graves at the Chemawa Cemetery

Just east of Interstate 5, as one approaches the city of Keizer, Oregon, from the north, sits a mostly forgotten burial ground. I never knew of its existence until I looked at a Google map, planning a trip to the Salem, Oregon, area last fall. I was unaware that the Chemawa Indian School and its adjacent cemetery called Keizer home.  According to the school’s web site, the facility dates to the 1870s when the U.S. Government authorized a school for Indian children in the Northwest–a practice that removed children from their culture and families.

Native American girls at Chemawa work in school training programs for “home economics” skills, in this image dating from 1886. (Image courtesy of The West Shore and found at: Offbeat Oregon: http://offbeatoregon.com/1212d-chemawa-boarding-school-cultural-treasure.html

Native American girls at Chemawa work in school training programs for “home economics” skills, in this image dating from 1886. (Image courtesy of The West Shore and found at: Offbeat Oregon: http://offbeatoregon.com/1212d-chemawa-boarding-school-cultural-treasure.html.)

This was a period of highly criticized forced cultural assimilation of the region’s and nation’s Native American population into general society through education. The boarding high school just outside of Salem was first built in 1885, following an earlier one outside of Portland. The school claims it is the “oldest, continuously operated boarding school for Native American students in the United States.” It continues today, and is off limits to outsiders without permission to visit. The campus has Native American art, a sports field, and sits near the cemetery. Here children who were boarded at the school and who died while in the school’s care are buried.

So, naturally, I wanted to take a closer look given the boarding school would not let me see the campus grounds. The cemetery is in earshot of the freeway roar, and has pines standing on it, surrounded by a steel fence. The graves are modest, bearing names of youth who died from the early 1900s toward the mid-20th century.

I was struck by the number of deaths, as marked on tiny concrete grave markers, which listed 1918 as the year of death. That year the great pandemic spread worldwide and claimed more than 21 million lives–more lives than the battlefields took during the Great War.

A few months after my visit, the Al Jazeera news organization in January 2016 reported a Native American researcher, Marsha Small, had concluded that there were more than 200 documented graves at the Chemawa Cemetery. According to the somewhat critical story, “Government records indicate that epidemics of tuberculosis, trachoma and influenza often swept through overcrowded dormitories at the boarding schools, where children were often malnourished and exposed to germ-infested conditions due to inadequate funding.”

The pandemic that was sweeping Oregon was so severe in 1918 and 1919, that Oregon lawmakers cancelled their legislative session out of fear of the killer flu virus. The Oregon Quarterly reports that the first cases in Oregon were reported on the University of Oregon campus in October 1918. Given the conditions of a boarding school, it is likely it could have taken hold at Chemawa too. The cluster of three deaths over a four-day period is almost certainly an indication of a contagious disease, such as influenza. However, no additional information is listed on the headstones of these long forgotten young people, who died far from their families, in a place most people still do not know exists.

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Before the armed militants came to Oregon, there was the Portland pioneer statue

Before the meteoric rise to fame–and then collapse–of a small group of well-armed militants professing to be on a mission from “god,” there were others who came to Oregon more than 170 years ago on a not-so-different quest. Oddly, they too were looking for land to farm and ranch as well, and they carried guns and brought their bibles. We call them the Oregon pioneers, and they are celebrated with the Promised Land statue in Chapman Square, in downtown Portland.

The one chapter missing from this statue is what happened to the Native Americans who were living here when these settlers arrived. At the time the American pioneers began pouring into the region by wagon train, Native tribes were experiencing large-scale public health disasters, from malaria, smallpox, measles, and tuberculosis and other diseases that destroyed entire villages and decimated the original inhabitants of the region. Nine out of 10 lower Columbian River inhabitants lost their lives to disease between 1830 and 1834 alone. When many settlers arrived, they truly found land emptied because of these radical changes brought about by these diseases.

The more recent group who wanted to “reclaim” federal land also seemed to have forgotten that the land once belonged to others, before it was lost in the very painful chapter of history in the region. Yet the legacy that we see is the family, with a bible, a gun, and a wagon wheel.

Two sides of a historic coin and wrestling with the past

The debates over the public and state-sanctioned display of the flag of the slave-holding Confederacy point to the United States’ not-so recent past. No country is pure, and the United States’ evolution is marked by great accomplishments, great divisions, and also some historic acts that leave a painful legacy. Our history of conflict in the 1800s stretches the entire century, from the War of 1812, through the Mexican-American War, dozens of conflicts with Native American bands across the continent, overseas expansion and trade wars (the Opium War), and the Spanish-American War.

in 1902, Portland area residents and war veterans erected a statue honoring the nation’s war veterans at the city’s historic Lone Fir Cemetery in Southeast Portland. The cemetery is filled with graves of many white, Christian early settlers from the 1800s, and latter-day residents of all persuasions. I stumbled on the cemetery accidentally at a staging of Macbeth last weekend.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

Close up of memorial honoring soldiers who fought for the United States against Native Americans.

I looked up and saw this statue of a Civil War soldier, with memorials plaques honoring veterans of Spanish-American War of 1898, the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, and the American Indian Wars from 1846 to 1856, which saw most of Oregon and Washington occupied and appropriated as U.S. territory from many native tribes.

There were conflicts, but many of the original inhabitants were perishing en masse due to diseases like smallpox that accompanied the arrival of new settlers. Even after land was ceded by treaties and tribes were resettled on reservations, hostility was pronounced. Eleven years before this statue was erected, in 1891, the Oregon Legislature was passing resolutions with language that characterized the state’s Native residents as “a wild man.”

State lawmakers signed their names to a measure that stated: “… it would only be a fact of evolution to call him a wild animal on his way to be a man, provided the proper environments were furnished him. While the instincts and perceptions are acute, the ethical part of him is undeveloped, and his exhibitions of a moral nature are whimsical and without motive. Brought into contact with white men. whether of the lowest or of the highest, he is always at a disadvantage which is irritating, and subject to temptations which are dangerous.”

Today, what are we to do with such legacies to this time when these attitudes prevailed, and good people erected monuments to their fellow soldiers who fought for their country, and many doing so believing they were in the right and doing it for the best of intentions?

(Click on each photo to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)