From The Tundra Drums.
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Some Alaska Natives who died at the boarding school or hospital in Tacoma, Wash., were buried in unmarked graves.
They were called Eskimos or Alaska Indians when they left their homes to go to the Indian school or hospital on Puyallup lands in the early 20th century.
Of the sick, many died before they arrived at the Washington reservation. If they were children, they often didn’t know why they were being taken from their families.
Those that survived are now growing old and dying, and the Puyallup tribe is trying to record their stories before it’s too late.
“All we have are death certificates or official correspondences, not personal views,” said Amber Santiago, who works with the tribe’s historic preservation department. “We just have the white people’s perspective. “
Starting in the 1860s, Natives from Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Montana and Alaska came to Puyallup Indian Reservation to attend Cushman Indian School.. In the 1920s, the school was converted to a regional hospital that treated Natives up until the 1960s.
While students and patients came from throughout the Northwest, there is only one living member of the Puyallup tribe who went to the school or hospital. That’s why Santiago is searching for anyone who can tell her more about what happened there.
“We’re trying to reclaim our own history,” said Santiago, whose mother was taken from Montana’s Flathead Reservation at age 10 to be treated at the hospital.
All Santiago has to go on so far are some death certificates and interviews with about 20 eyewitnesses. There are many missing pieces to the story of what went on there, but none of them is bigger than what happened to the Alaskans.
“Everyone we talked about said ‘the Alaskans, the Alaskans’ . . . It’s the only group that people mention over and over again, it’s the common thread through all the interviews,” Santiago said. “I really wonder about the Alaskans, since there were so many of them, what their stories are.”
But so far, Santiago has yet to find a single Alaska Native to interview.
“It’s the last state — the missing link,” she said.
Santiago said that so far she’s heard stories both good and bad about what it was like at Cushman. But for many it was a place of homesickness, confusion or illness, especially for the children that were there. One man came to the hospital to get his tonsils out as a child and ended up staying for years.
“When his parents came to pick him up he didn’t know who they were,” Santiago said.
Perhaps because it was a scary or lonely experience, “the majority of people haven’t talked about it since they left there,” Santiago said. Now that they’re in their 70s, 80s or 90s, “they don’t mind talking now.”
In the five-story hospital, the first two floors were for tuberculosis patients. A nurse that worked there remembered about 200 to 300 patients in that ward at a time, the majority from Alaska.
Many Alaskans died on Puyallup lands. Most of the other tribal members were sent back to their families when they died, but Alaska Natives were usually buried near the hospital, unattended by friends or relatives, without a headstone to name them.
One man Santiago spoke to stayed in a hospital room overlooking the cemetery. Every week, he said, he would see “a grave-digger and a man in black (a priest), just burying, burying.”
“He said it was known they were Alaskan Indians,” Santiago said.
Today, the cemetery has only Puyallup tribal members and what Santiago assumes are the graves of the Alaskans who died at the hospital.
About five years ago the tribe purchased a ground-penetrating radar to find the unmarked graves. Since the buildings were demolished in 2003, the cemetery is all that is left of Cushman Indian School and Hospital.
The tribe is hoping to compile an oral record of the school in a memoir, and eventually build a museum about the history of the area.
“It’s just a part of history that not a lot of people know about,” Santiago said.
Santiago said that the Puyallup Tribe would like to hear from anyone who has a story about Cushman Indian School or Cushman Indian Hospital, or St. George’s Indian Boarding School in the Fife/Milton area from the 1880s to 1930s. That may not be someone who attended but even their grandchild or friend.
“We want to piece together the story,” Santiago said.