The Riverside Indian School is perched on a hill along the Washita River in the wind-whipped town of Anadarko, Oklahoma. Riverside is a federally run boarding school for American Indians. Its nearly 800 students represent more than 75 tribal nations. The boarding school is also a living relic from a monstrous history, when dozens of similar institutions dotted the state, operating with a very different mission.
Yvette Goodeagle is a school counselor at Riverside. In her early 40s with a braided pony tail pulled tight behind her head, Goodeagle is the kind of willful and tender-hearted counselor you’d want working with kids. On a recent afternoon in a hallway of a girls’ dormitory, Goodeagle encouraged a lone high school sophomore to participate in tribal ceremony.
“Are you gonna sweat today?” Goodeagle asked the teenage girl, who answered in a way you might expect from an adolescent. She shrugged.
Even before a cluster of suicides devastated the small town of Anadarko this winter, Goodeagle had been helping Riverside students stave off depression by deepening their ties to Native spirituality. In March, Goodeagle and several of her Native colleagues took their work a step further. Using materials gathered from the woods on the upper edge of campus, they quietly built a willow-framed sweat lodge.
Within suicide-prevention circles, Riverside’s efforts to revive cultural traditions offer a potentially promising practice for combating the grim endemic sweeping Native communities. In recent years, the suicide rate among American Indian youth has skyrocketed. A study published last month showed an 89 percent increase in suicide among Native girls and young women and 38 percent among men. For American Indians between the ages of 15 – 24, suicide occurs at three times the national average for this age group.
In Anadarko, nearly one in every other resident is American Indian, and the town of 6,000 has been struck especially hard by suicide. Beginning in December, four suicides in less than seven weeks left the community in a state of collective grief. Each of the victims was male, under the age of 23, and killed by a self-inflicted gunshot. The youngest was just 11.
Suicide is an act of violence perpetuated against oneself. Characterizing the cause of death from suicide by the means it was carried out is somewhat misleading. Firearms are the predominant method for suicide—access to one is in and of itself a risk factor—not a cause. The more accurate cause of suicide, irrespective of method, is undiagnosed, untreated, or undertreated depression.¹
1. Even this, however, is an oversimplification. Distinct physiological and biological commonalities shared by all young people play role.
Why young American Indians are so susceptible is not obvious. While chronic poverty, substance abuse, and inadequate access to health care are well known contributing risk factors, experts blame the disproportionality on additional layers of deep-seated psychological affliction unique to young American Indians. Informed by generations of trauma, the problem often manifests beneath the surface. Its concealment, experts say, betrays its danger.²
2. The brain’s undeveloped frontal cortex, which controls impulses and anticipates consequences, is another contributing factor. After accidental deaths, like car accidents, suicide is now the second leading cause of death for the 1.1 million American Indians under the age of 24.
In the privacy of her Riverside office, Goodeagle told me the internal pain some Native adolescents feel is challenging to pinpoint because it’s spiritual; tribal elders endured it, and passed it down. The slow erosion of protective factors like tribal identity, and cultural practices have made matters worse. The disconnection contributes to intangible feelings of unresolved grief. To access and ultimately resolve them, Goodeagle believes Native kids require more than counseling. They need tribal ceremony.
“The sweat lodge is mother earth’s womb,” Goodeagle said. “It’s where we go to become cleansed.”
James Nelson, 59, is Wichita. I met Nelson and several of his colleagues in a low-lying tribal building across from a gas station, down the long sloping hill from Riverside. Nelson, who speaks in a booming baritone, is the tribal administrator at the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes. The Wichita people have been indigenous to the surrounding plains for at least eight centuries. When Nelson was growing up in Anadarko, suicide was rare.
“It was such an anomaly,” Nelson said. “Now it almost seems acceptable.”
Last fall, the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes secured a $3.6 million grant to prevent youth suicide over the next five years. The money was awarded by the Garrett Lee Smith Memorial Grant—federal funds named after the adopted son of a former U.S. Senator who committed suicide at age 22. In Oklahoma, the Kiowa, Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee Nations have also received Garrett Lee Smith grants.
Early this winter, just weeks before the cluster of suicides began, the tribe hired Johnna Hurt to lead its new program. Hurt, a former American Indian child welfare worker, who is not Wichita, told me the funds would be used to study the community’s high suicide rate, identify at-risk Native youth, and provide treatment. There’ll be no quick fix, she said, because the problem didn’t happen overnight. It took generations to inflict the damage.
“What’s important now is stabilizing this community,” Hurt said.
Suicide prevention is a delicate balance to strike, especially in a town the size of Anadarko where the likelihood of further clusters is high. There’s a stigma around suicide, which silence only amplifies. On the other hand, there’s concern around openly discussing it. Fear of unintentionally glamorizing suicide, and spreading ideations across the community is warranted. Nelson and Hurt aim to advance some semblance of a balance. They plan to launch a robust community surveillance system to capture data on future suicide ideations and completions as treatment is introduced. Treatment will focus on unpacking pain.
“When people are looking at suicide, they don’t want to die,” Hurt said. “They want that pain to stop.”
Like many of the mental health practitioners I spoke to in Oklahoma, Hurt believes the key to unpacking this deeply rooted pain within Native communities is to offer culturally appropriate treatment. But when first asked to describe what culturally appropriate treatment ought to look like, Hurt was uncertain.
“I don’t know,” Hurt said. “We have to ask our elders—I mean, they have to ask their elders what it looks like.”
To be fair, Hurt was under a lot of pressure. The tribe permitted Hurt to speak with me under the condition that Nelson, and Amber Luke, the tribe’s communications director—essentially, Hurt’s bosses—observe the interview. Before answering my questions, Hurt’s eyes often darted to Luke for approval. Nelson is warm and congenial, but Luke isn’t the kind of boss you want to disappoint, much less cross; throughout the interview, Luke’s looming skepticism and distrust was overt and palpable.
It wasn’t surprising. Up the hill from the Wichita tribal building, before you reach Riverside, is a federal Bureau of Indian Affairs building. The squat structure appears as though it was strategically hammered into the hill. With panoramic sight lines over what was once vast Indian country, it looks indistinguishable from a military outpost. The ominous presence of the BIA, which funds Riverside, is a stark reminder of the potential threat posed by white outsiders who arrive at a tribal nation asking questions.
When asked if given the growing endemic of Native youth suicide the Wichita might welcome collaboration with the federal government while rolling out treatment, Hurt hesitated. When she responded, Hurt did so
“The only thing I have the authority to say is that it’s very important for all tribes in this area to collaborate for our Native youth to make sure they receive culturally appropriate treatment,” Hurt said. “And to that effect, I feel the tribes in this area have done a good job.” It sounded like a pre-rehearsed statement, which seemed to satisfy Luke. Though Hurt didn’t quite answer the question.
Pressed to elaborate, Hurt paused, and shifted her gaze to Luke, who shook her head ever so slightly. At this point Hurt, Nelson, Luke, and I sat there together suspended in a moment of awkward silence. I learned later that implicit in their silence was an agonizing, largely unknown history from which Riverside was born. It’s a history that stretches across Oklahoma, implicating the ambitions of an entire nation.
One night in the winter of 1891, three young Kiowa boys made a run for it. The intended destination was a Kiowa camp located 30 miles from their boarding school in Anadarko. But a blizzard struck, and the boys didn’t make it. Their bodies were discovered in a field after the storm. The boys were among countless Native children who never returned home from American Indian boarding schools.
Near the turn of the 20th century, by some estimates, 95 percent of American Indians had been wiped out. For Native survivors, the U.S. shifted from an era of persecution and eradication to one of assimilation. The purpose of assimilation was to eliminate Native cultural practices. In the words of Richard Pratt, one of the policy’s leading architects, the goal was to “kill the Indian, save the man.” Central to achieving this was the creation of federal boarding schools for American Indian children. And no other state in the union established more of these schools than what would soon become Oklahoma.
In the years proceeding Oklahoma’s statehood, the Native cultural tradition that posed the biggest threat to U.S. ambitions was the practice of owning land in common. Part of the same federal laws that divided most of Indian Territory into individual allotments also paved the way for American Indian boarding schools—and granted law enforcement the authority to fill the schools with Native children by force. By the time Oklahoma was carved out of Indian country in 1906, American Indian boarding schools were already operating in the state. In the years that followed, a total of 29 schools were established in Oklahoma.
Nationwide, more than a 135 federal boarding schools maintained the capacity to house half of all Native children. The schools were federally mandated and funded, but the government did not directly operate most—at least not at first. The day-to-day operations were largely left to Christian missionaries, whose proselytization efforts were imposed on Native children in militaristic fashion. The schools did not peak until the 1970s. A range of strategies designed to maximize enrollment ensured that over several generations, 80 percent of all American Indians attended one of the schools.
For the three Kiowa runaway boys who froze to death outside Anadarko in 1891, details are scarce. But other young Native children who escaped the schools in the dead of winter met similar fates. At a Wisconsin boarding school in 1908, two young escapees vanished into a frigid night.³ In Colorado, even after the snow receded, the remains of three children who escaped from a Grand Junction boarding school were never found.4 Thousands attempted to escape. Desperation to do so reflected school conditions. The way in which runaways died made up only a small fraction of the Native kids who didn’t survive the schools. Many kids who did survive returned home profoundly traumatized.
3. Kill The Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools by Ward Churchill
4. Some theorize that for a kid to take off from a remote school with snow on the ground was indicative of a suicide attempt.
To fill the schools, armed sheriffs descended on reservations to collect Native children. Parents who resisted were arrested and imprisoned. Others were assaulted in front of their kids. A federal agent on a reservation described a group of Native children running from the police “like wild rabbits.” As children as young as four were plucked by law enforcement, mothers wailed, and resistant fathers were “choked into subjection.”5
5. Education for Extinction: American Indians and the Boarding School Experience by David Wallace Adams
The process of stripping away tribal identity and instituting new educational and spiritual standards began immediately upon arrival at the schools. Kids were bestowed with new Christian names. A boy named Wayquahgeshig, which means “dawn of day” in Ojibwe, became John Rogers. Mindi became Caroline.6 Long braided hair typically worn by boys was shorn off, which was considered a form of humiliation in Native cultures. Children’s bodies were rinsed clean by kerosene. Forbidden from speaking the only language they knew, new arrivals were rendered virtually mute until they learned English. To mitigate cultural “regression,” schooling was year-round. Family visits were prohibited.
6. Boarding School Seasons: American Indian Families by Brenda J. Child
Punishment for breaking school rules was merciless. For speaking in her native tongue, a little girl had her mouth rinsed out with lye, which left it raw, and painfully chapped. The faces of persistent bedwetters were rubbed into soiled sheets. A litany of other violations resulted in children being flogged, beaten by rubber hoses, and forced to eat their own vomit. One child caught attempting to escape was handcuffed, and beaten until he lost consciousness.
The abuse wasn’t just physical. Girls and boys were raped and molested by school staff. As recently as 10 years ago, survivors filed lawsuits against the Catholic Dioceses of Sioux Falls and Rapid City, whose missions operated American Indian boarding schools in South Dakota well into the 1980s. The lawsuits charge that priests and other staff raped and sodomized more than 50 Native girls and boys.
Howard Wanna, 66, one of the plaintiffs, recalled being repeatedly raped as a child by a priest at the school. The priest “rotated among about five of us younger boys, which left me with such confused emotions. On days it wasn’t my turn, I was so grateful, yet I felt terrible one of my little friends was suffering. I also dreaded the fact that my day was coming again soon. Worst of all, I had no one to turn to, not even God. . .” Wanna said in testimony. South Dakota has since passed legislation limiting lawsuits by school survivors against the Church.
At other schools, staff impregnated Native female students, who were then expelled. Fear of rape was a form of terror. After a staff member raped a nine-year-old girl at a BIA school in Pennsylvania, other girls who shared the same dorm were tormented by the possibility of being sexually assaulted. At night, after the lights cut out, groups of girls clustered into single bunks, seeking safety in numbers. “It was better to suffer with a full bladder and be safe than walk through the dark, seemingly endless hallway to the bathroom,” a Native female survivor wrote.
The schools were also notoriously underfunded. Food was scarce. A 1925 survey found that nearly 90 percent of a single boarding school class lost weight from one year to the next. Beyond food poisoning, deplorable conditions helped disease spread. Trachoma, an eye disease that flourishes in unsanitary conditions, and causes blindness if untreated, was rampant. A report filed in 1912 found that across Oklahoma’s schools, 70 percent of boarding school children suffered from trachoma.
The biggest killer, however, was tuberculosis. Outbreaks propelled student mortality rates to such heights that they became a public relations nuisance for the schools. Kids were vanishing, which drew outside scrutiny. For example, of 73 Native children sent to two boarding schools over three years, only 26 survived. To save face, and keep the rates down at least on paper, school officials sent terminally ill children home to reservations where they would succumb days later. In other cases, children as young as five were buried in school cemeteries. In slightly over 10 years, more than 100 kids were buried behind the Haskell boarding school in Kansas. Ada Mojohah, who was 11 when he lost his little sister at the school, lived only another six years without her. The siblings share the same cemetery.7
7. Beyond the mass deaths of Native children that occurred during assimilation, historians and legal scholars debate as to whether what occurred inside the schools constituted genocide. The debate isn’t entirely academic. The outcome could carry legal implications here and in the international courts—or at the very least pressure U.S. policy to bend toward allocating even greater reparations to American Indians. The debate centers on intent. Under international law, if the U.S. government’s goal was to assimilate or, arguably, educate Native children, and not “destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group…” it doesn’t really matter if what was ultimately carried out against American Indian families falls into one of the five acts that define genocide by the United Nations—namely, “causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group” and/or “transferring one group of children of the group to another group.” On the other hand, so the debate goes, the very intent of assimilation was to destroy a “national, ethical racial… group.” In the legal sense, “destruction” doesn’t necessarily require death, or mass killings of a group. Further, the act of “transferring one group of children of the group to another group” by force can not be justified by the government’s original intention to eventually return the children to their parents or lawful caregivers—that is, after effective “cleansing” of unique and defining characteristics, such as Native language, and religious beliefs.
While many students were not abused—some even recall positive experiences at the schools—survivors who suffered internally received little support once they made it home. In isolated, Native communities, there wasn’t much in the way of counseling, or mental health services.
Meanwhile, for Native parents8 whose children perished in the schools, there was no great public mourning. The U.S. government has not issued an official apology, or expressed remorse. No memorials or monuments have been erected to help Native families grieve, and commemorate the dead Native children. Over time, as American Indians battled to cope, alcoholism rates spiked, contributing to a host of related conditions. Fetal alcohol syndrome, for instance, occurs at a rate seven times higher in Native communities than any other group in the U.S. Alcohol is also commonly involved in unintentional deaths.
8. Parents endured extensive periods of time without news of their children, only to be notified of a child’s sudden death in writing, like in this letter, which was sent to a parent from the director of Flandreau, a South Dakota boarding school, in 1906:
“Dear Sir, It is with a feeling of sorrow that I write you telling of the death of your daughter Lizzie. She was not sick but a short time and we did not think her so near her end.”
Not every child, however, was stripped from the arms of parents by sheriffs. Conditions on reservations were desperately poor, and beyond the schools, there was little to no opportunity for American Indian children to secure what families were told would amount to free education, housing, and meals. Some parents so much as begged for their children to be placed in schools. In February 1924, just a week after his wife’s death, a Native father wrote to the superintendent of a boarding school:
“I am writing you to see if you can do me a favor by taking my daughter in your school it would be a big favor to me because my wife died feb 4 and have no way of taking care of the girl.”
The emotional and psychological wounding across generations is what experts call historical trauma. Dr. Joe Solanto, a leading school psychologist who began his career working in Native communities, explained that unlike singular trauma, which results from an isolated incident, the accumulation of multiple traumas over generations is far more challenging to treat. The reason is because with historical trauma the damage to the soul is more profound. “It causes a cascade of mental, and emotional problems, which fracture, and destabilize relationships,” Solanto said.
Like other characteristics—the color of one’s eyes, for instance—psychological and biological responses to these internal wounds are transmitted from parent to child. Transmission may happen when a child is still in the womb, or soon after birth. A mom suffering from self-destructive feelings, or anxiety, for example, may unintentionally pass this on to her child. To cope and regulate pain in healthy ways, Solanto believes those at risk should be treated and armed with protective factors at the earliest age possible.
Determining who gets to decide on the specific forms of treatment for American Indian youth was at the heart of Johnna Hurt’s statement—the one Luke approved. Eventually, at the Wichita tribal building, after the awkwardness subsided, Hurt told me about several culturally appropriate treatments the tribe may or may not roll out during the coming months, like the Gathering of Native Americans, or GONA’s—an intensive three day healing process that includes tribal ceremonies—and Native parenting classes that teach child rearing in traditional ways. But whatever the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes end up offering the community, Hurt was adamant about one thing: the only people who know what’s best for American Indians are American Indians.
To punctuate the sentiment, Hurt brought up something she heard at an Oklahoma suicide prevention conference by Alecia Onnzahawah, a Native mental health practitioner, and the founder of Indigenize.
“When it comes to this epidemic and what’s going on, in the past, they didn’t ask us if we wanted to move; they didn’t ask us if we wanted to speak a different language; they didn’t ask if we wanted to learn a different way,” Hurt said. “And we’re healing from that. And this time, we’re not asking for permission.”
Today, Riverside is one of just four remaining BIA schools for American Indian kids. It’s also the oldest. Since its founding in 1871, Riverside’s original mission has been gutted, and transformed. Illustrating the degree to which the school has evolved, Riverside’s board and staff are comprised almost entirely of American Indians. Because it operates with near autonomy from the BIA, and a commitment to build American Indian culture, Riverside is overwhelmingly supported by tribal nations. The school’s campus spans more than 120 acres. Dorms are named after American Plains Indians.
During a visit on a sunny Wednesday afternoon in April, middle school Riverside students smacked a volleyball over a net stretched between the Comanche and Shawnee dorms. On the other side of campus, outside the upper school, which had just let out for the day, an adolescent couple erupted in laughter. Locked in embrace, the pair stood in contrast to the flood of teenagers who passed by like giant currents. If the young couple needed to be somewhere else next, they wouldn’t be there soon.
Yet for all the apparent cheerfulness, the day before, Yevette Goodeagle transported a student from the Southwest Behavioral Hospital in Lawton to Oklahoma City’s airport. The student had recently reported suicidal ideations while at school, and Goodeagle and the rest of Riverside’s counseling team decided acute, around-the-clock mental health care was required. Once stabilized at Lawton, and medically cleared to fly, Riverside typically sends a student home to be cared for by family. It’s not uncommon for Goodeagle to personally accompany such students to the airport.
“I tell and encourage them that they are here for a reason,” Goodeagle said when we met in her office. Then Goodeagle’s phone rang, her walkie-talkie crackled, and a teenage girl appeared in the doorway inquiring about a pair of shoes. Goodeagle, who is a licensed clinical social worker, manages the at-once myriad demands of her undivided attention with grace, but also from a place of strength, which she says, derives from her spirituality.
When Goodeagle proposed the idea of erecting a tribal sweat lodge at Riverside to instill a similar sense of spiritual purpose in Native students, colleagues voiced concern. Not every tribe participates in sweat lodges, they argued, and the presence of one on campus may be viewed as insensitive, or even disrespectful by some American Indian parents. But since Riverside still permits outside church groups to visit campus and engage with students, Goodeagle felt it would only be fair to introduce kids to one of many different American Indian tribal ceremonies, as an optional, extra-curricular activity. Goodeagle ultimately persevered.
In the weeks since its construction was completed, the sweat lodge has been most popular with female students. But the boys are coming around, Goodeagle insisted. On Wednesdays before dinner, the lodge is reserved for boys, and their male elders.
Climbing the hill from Goodeagle’s office, past the athletic center, a thin line of smoke snaked into the sky. For privacy, a wooden fence wraps around half of the sweat lodge’s perimeter. Once I swung around it, the dome-shaped sweat lodge emerged. Standing in front of it was Billy Pewo, Riverside’s facilities specialist, who welcomed me. Nearby, three barefoot male adolescents wearing shorts watched an elder tend the fire pit. The flames were low, and the logs mostly white. Pressed against the logs, partially buried in ash and soot, were stones the size of soccer balls.
To build the sweat lodge, Pewo and other Riverside staff foraged the woods. “Everything people think is dead, we use,” Pewo told me. Part of what Pewo wants students to learn is that, like them, every part of Riverside’s intertribal lodge has a specific meaning and significance. It represents the Creator—mother earth’s womb. The external layers represent her skin; the bent willows, her bones; the stones, her internal heat; and the water brought inside the lodge during ceremony: life.
As the scorching stones were carefully removed from the fire, Pewo instructed me to take off my shirt, and place my shoes under a bench with the others. The sun was slipping behind the hill, and brief, forceful gusts of wind from the north whistled. When I crouched down and stepped into the lodge, half a dozen boys and men were already seated inside. Hunched, I walked counter-clockwise behind their backs. Three quarters of the way around, I found an opening in the dirt between a student and a teacher. The final stones were placed in the center ceremony pit.
With the entry flap still open, squatting beside a pale of water, Pewo discussed safety, and expectations. The ceremony would encompass four sessions of varying intensity. The first would be made up of four pours, or offerings of water, one for each of the seasons; then seven pours, for the days in the week; then ten, for the Wichita number of prayer bundles. The final session would be round of a million pours, which represents the stars. A fistful of cedar was passed around—again, counter-clockwise. Each of us rubbed the herb on our chests and arms. Finally, Pewo asked a young apprentice to close the flap. We were enveloped in darkness.
Next thing I saw was an herb ignite on a stone, and vanish like a streak of lighting. The dome filled with a sweet, dank aroma. In darkness, after several moments of silence, the first pour of water splashed, and hissed against the rocks. As Pewo began to pray, the heat struck me like a wall. It was thick and searing. Pewo prayed for his ancestors, and the pain they endured. More water crashed. The air boiled. It’s okay, Pewo said, we can afford to suffer a little for our ancestors, who prayed for this moment. As the heat intensified even more still, Pewo prayed for the ill, the elderly, and their battle to survive. More water. He prayed for strength over despair, and loneliness—the feelings that strike in the dorms late at night. I’ve been there, Pewo said, and we’re here for you. God is here for you. Then the flap popped opened, and we followed the clouds of steam as it rushed outside.
Between sessions, two teenagers rested on a bench, their sneakers tucked beneath them. Drenched in sweat, I took a seat beside them. We didn’t need to wait long for the wind to kick up. Save for the rustle of tree branches, it was quiet. Facing west, and downhill, the boys were contemplative. Had it been an hour or two earlier, from our vantage point, we would’ve been able to see an American flag displayed outside the federal BIA building. But nearing dusk, it had been taken down for the day. Our view extended far beyond the BIA, to where the hill sloped down and ended at Wichita River, and the valley behind it stretched up to the horizon.
One of the teenage boys, a big, baby-faced high school junior, told me his name and where he’s from—a town in Oklahoma smaller than Anadarko. I asked about summer plans. He told me that his mother is in rehab. She’ll be getting out soon, in a matter of weeks, he said. His mom is single. So he’s planning on getting a summer job to take care of her, he said, before returning to Riverside come fall.
The other teenager was listening to us. A sophomore, the student was smaller than the other, but more confidant—athletic looking, with a black stone stud pierced into his left earlobe. Do you feel better, I asked, after you sweat? With his gaze cast toward the sun, the student considered the question.
“Sometimes,” he said.
We spoke for few minutes. He could tell I was still struggling from the heat, perhaps even considering not returning, and he was empathetic. He said it’s always hard the first time. But it gets better, he said, it gets easier. It was time for the next round—seven pours. The teenager with the earing stood, and spat into the dirt. Head held high, he strolled toward the sweat lodge’s entrance. After several steps, he turned back, and squinted at me.
“Are you coming?” he asked.
Originally published in This Land: Summer 2016