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Five tribes that own Chilocco School look for a new tenant

NEWKIRK, Okla. ? Chilocco School stands empty and the five Oklahoma tribes that own it are looking for a new tenant.

For years Chilocco alumni hoped to have the school returned to control of the tribes and now that tenants have left the campus, its future remains uncertain. But alumni said they are hopeful the next phase in the life of the former Indian school will mean improvements to the school or possibly even opening once again as a school to serve American Indian people.

The Chilocco Indian School opened its doors in 1884 in what was then called Oklahoma Indian Territory. Haskell Institute, in Lawrence, Kan., opened in the same era, but the schools taught different skills.

At Haskell students were taught homemaking skills and trades while its 'country cousin,' Chilocco taught agricultural skills and was totally self-sufficient.

Although Chilocco was just one of the schools built to assimilate Indian children into white society, it has a strong alumni following few Indian schools, besides Haskell, can boast.

Each year Chilocco Alumni hold a school reunion and each year since 1980 ? when Chilocco closed its gates as a school ? the main topic of discussion has been to return the school to its former condition and open campus gates so alumni can return to renew memories.

There were bitter complaints from alumni at a recent reunion about Narconon, the former tenants, an alcohol treatment program run by the Church of Scientology. Reports of visitors being followed by Narconon personnel and being asked to leave the grounds angered alumni who had visited the school in the past.

Many alumni have been talking to the five Oklahoma tribes, the Kaw, Ponca, Otoe, Pawnee and Tonkawa who own the school, about the possibility of returning the campus to its former beauty and opening it to the public.

Even though the group has no legal rights to the school, alumni association vice president Jerry Jefferson said the group is willing to help in anyway it can to restore the school and save the remaining historic buildings on campus.

'We have a committee that was appointed to work or to be available if there is anything we can do to contribute in the way of ideas,' Jefferson said. 'We have no legal standing, just as alumni, but we just want something to happen that is good, that will help the tribes up there, but also be something so we can be proud of what's there.'

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Jefferson said the association understands possibilities for the school may be limited because of the fact that although the tribes own the school, there are federal regulations to deal with because of BIA control restrictions.

The group has been waiting since its last letter to the five tribes regarding the future of the school, but Jefferson reports so far that there hasn't been an answer or any meetings called.

'We are just very anxious to be helpful,' she said. 'But we're just limited in what we are going to be able to do. If they come up with some idea that would be really workable and funds are needed to be raised, we might be able to enter into something like that.

'We don't have any funds ourselves, but what we would like to do is petition some companies or foundations or anyone who would want to put money into that venture. It is very complicated because it is still a federally controlled situation and that limits private funding, but we are hopeful that something can be worked out.'

The alumni would like to see the school opened to students as a junior college or as a boarding school.

'We do know that there is still a need at the high school level for students who are having problems in the public school system ? with real traditional Indian students,' Jefferson said. 'We still feel there is a need for an Indian boarding school, but whether that will ever happen with the government disbanding most of them is questionable.'

Regardless of whether the school reopens as a place for education or as a business park, alumni are excited about the future possibilities.

'We're excited and so glad that Narconon is out,' Jefferson said. 'We didn't approve of that. We fought it. Everybody including the town of Newkirk didn't want it. Even the editor of the paper in Newkirk put up a fight to keep them out. We felt it was a wrong decision at the time that it happened. But again the tribes are back in the same situation. The tribes have this facility and don't know what to do with it right now and are back where we started.'

This time Jefferson believes the tribes will do right by the former school she attended.

'With new people and some younger people representing the five different tribes, maybe they have had a little more experience with a business-type situation,' she said. 'We're hopeful things will work out better.'