OKLAHOMA CITY - Indian training schools began opening in various parts of the country in the early part of the 20th century.
Chilocco Indian School opened its doors in 1884 in the Oklahoma Indian Territory. Haskell Indian Nations University got its start as the Haskell Institute in the late 1800s in Lawrence, Kan. While Haskell taught students homemaking skills and trades, its country cousin, Chilocco, near the Kansas border in Oklahoma, taught agricultural skills.
Although many who attended the old boarding schools compared them to concentration camps, Chilocco alumni who gathered for a recent reunion in Oklahoma City tell a different story. It is not about abuse or hardship, but of happiness and survival. Though the Chilocco was closed in 1980, alumni are fighting to get the school back and to preserve the memories they hold near and dear.
For children of the Great Depression, the gates of Chilocco opened a world of hope.
"Some of the books that have been written about the Indian schools, and there are many, have a negative connotation to me," said Jerry Jefferson who graduated in 1945. "Most of us who were there in the '30s, '40 and early '50s had a very positive experience there. We're Depression-age kids, most of us who came here. It was really a Godsend to a lot of the families."
Fellow alumni Emory Dean Eves White agreed. "It was one of the best schools that anyone could go to." White, who came to the reunion from Alabama, graduated from Chilocco 50 years ago.
Sammy White, another grad of 50 years ago, "also went to Fort Sill and Haskell. I enjoyed going to all of those schools." He brought his grandson to the reunion.
A memorabilia room was filled with photographs, annuals, newspaper clippings and more, donations from alums over the years. The items took up a large room and parents and grandparents told their children and grandchildren stories about each exhibit as they walked through the room.
Jefferson pointed out photographs of Chilocco students who enlisted during World War II and fought with the 45th Infantry Division. "We lost a lot of boys, Chilocco boys. That is a very emotional thing for most of us," she said.
Many Chilocco students married after leaving the school, Jefferson said. Alumni are trying to gather records to figure out just how many. More than 100 couples have been counted so far.
Chilocco was the first vocational training school in Oklahoma. The school taught agricultural skills and was self sufficient for many years. Students raised almost everything they consumed while living at the school.
During Jefferson's years at Chilocco she saw many new things instituted. "We had the first frozen food program in Oklahoma. I went back and shelled peas and snapped peas and it went into that freezer. We fed ourselves. We really raised most of the food out there. We had dairy, we had poultry, and the girls worked in the poultry. We had horses, beef. We were really a very self-sustaining school, Haskell used to look down on us as their country cousins," Jefferson said, with a laugh.
Unlike Haskell, Chilocco never made the transition from boarding school to college. Jefferson attributes the inability to turn Chilocco into a tribal college as part of the reason for its demise.
"There was a lot of politics going on and we did not have the support we needed. Indians do not get the support they need in Oklahoma. We felt at the time, our senator, sold us down the river. There had been some unfortunate things happen at the school in the '60s and things went from bad to worse as to the view people had of things. Part of the thing was that they wanted to close the Indian schools and then put the money into public schools."
Fondly remembering the Chilocco campus, Jefferson said, "It was always a beautiful school, the campus was much prettier than Haskell."
After the school closed the property was divided between five tribes in the area. Plans for a business development didn't pan out as tribes had hoped and the school was leased out. NARCANON, a substance abuse clinic, moved onto the school grounds. Jefferson said the clinics are a part of the Church of Scientology.
"We, as Chilocco students, have no legal standing to bring to bear anything, any kind of pressure," Jefferson said. "It is a sad chapter and the campus has just deteriorated since they have been there, 'til it is just heartbreaking for us to go up there and see it."
Recently the Choctaw Nation sold land to NARCANON and Jefferson said Chilocco alumni are elated that the campus will soon be vacated. But, she added, they also worry about what will happen now to their old school.
"So much damage has happened. I don't know how many buildings can possibly be saved. We have petitioned a lot of our politicians about it. We have even suggested it become an Indian college, there is still a need.
"We're proud of our school and a lot of the things our graduates have done," Jefferson said.
She invited any Chilocco alumni who want to find out more about the school or the alumni associations to contact her at her at (405) 685-0860.