Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

Charlie Feister, a citizen of the Klamath Tribes, was a runaway from Chemawa Indian School when he was shot dead in 1907 while trying to steal food from a store in Chemawa, Oregon.

A short article in the Weekly Chemawa American student newspaper describing the incident fails to mention that Charlie was 11 years old at the time of his death. Charlie and a friend were living in a little camp in the woods not far from the school.

We know these details today thanks to a combined 35 years of dogged work by SuAnn Reddick and Eva Guggemos who published the results of their research in a public website on Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

The Deaths at Chemawa Indian School website contains the names, burial locations as well as notes about students who died at the school between 1880-1945. About 270 students died while in custody at Chemawa; 175 are buried in the school cemetery. According to Reddick and Guggemos’ research, the remains of approximately 40 students were returned home; the locations of at least 50 student’s remains are unknown.

(Related: US boarding schools to be investigated)

Reddick, independent scholar, writer and Chemawa historian and Guggemos, archivist and associate professor at Pacific University, gathered information for the website entirely from public records located in the National Archives and Records Administration, digital newspaper archives, county death certificates as well as data included in the Chemawa cemetery map. The site is hosted by Pacific University.

“This was simply a matter of organizing the information and making it available to people who are doing research,” said Riddick.

The recent media stories of discoveries of children’s graves at Canadian residential schools encouraged the women to make their research available to the public sooner than later. Although there is much more work that needs to be done, Reddick and Guggemos agreed that they needed to share the information with the public.

The time seemed right.

“Suddenly though the horrendous events in Canada, the work we’ve been doing all these years is relevant; the media was finally talking about boarding school cemeteries,” Riddick said.

(Related: Remembrance Day brings new push for U.S boarding school commission)

An overgrown, neglected cemetery

Reddick began the work in 1996 when she was hired to create a recreational ropes course at Chemawa to be used as part of the school’s addiction therapeutic program. It was then that she noticed an overgrown area of the campus containing rows of identical metal plates engraved with names and dates marking the graves of children who died at the school. She soon learned that the cemetery was demolished sometime in the 1960s destroying many of the original wooden markers. 

According to Reddick’s conversations with two former employees of the school, Louis Belgarde and Charlie Holmes, local tribes were distraught over the demolition of the cemetery and demanded it be restored. Holmes, who taught shop at Chemawa, had his students create the metal plates bearing the names of the deceased children. With the help of school archives and a cemetery map, Holmes and Belgarde marked out the original grave locations as best they could and installed the new markers. Both Holmes and Belgarde have since died.

Standing in the cemetery, Reddick felt as though the children were telling her they wanted to be found; they wanted their names to be recognized and acknowledged.

“So, I began my research and it kind of snowballed; I became the official Chemawa historian,” said Reddick.

She has done most of her work on a volunteer basis.

About 10 years ago, however, Reddick’s research grew legs when Guggemos joined Pacific University. At the suggestion of student archives assistant Shawna Hotch who graduated from Chemawa, Guggemos grew interested in the history of the Forest Grove Indian Training School, which later was moved from Salem to Chemawa to become the Chemawa Indian School. Guggemos met Reddick and learned of her research; the women soon embarked on a collaboration.

What began as primarily an academic, intellectual project for Guggemos, a professional archivist, quickly grew personal.

“I have four children; it’s hard to read these things about children that age dying and not reflect on what it would be like to have that happen to your own children,” she says.

The knowledge that these deaths happened is not news to anyone in tribal communities, noted Guggemos.

“By documenting their deaths in this way perhaps we can show patterns of what happened and provide another avenue of evidence from the past,” she says.

Who they were and how they died

Most of the children buried at Chemawa were from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, in that order. Some were also from California, Idaho and the Plains states.

SuAnn Reddick and Eva Guggemos discuss their research in creating the Deaths at Chemawa Indian School archive via zoom. Photo by Mary Annette Pember

Many children died during the Spanish flu epidemic; tuberculosis, however, was the primary cause of death. Several children, like Charlie, died trying to escape; many drowned trying to swim across rivers only to be brought back to the school for burial.

As far as creating a memorial or repatriation, Reddick and Guggemos agree that tribes should make these decisions. “I imagine it will involve a lot of internal discussion on their parts,” Riddick says.

Freddie Lane, a citizen of the Lummi Nation, attended Chemawa in the 1980s; he expressed disappointment that students were not taught the history of the school.

“We heard from our parents and grandparents about atrocities that happened there,” Lane says.

Lane believes that authorities chose to demolish the cemetery back in the 1960s because they wanted to erase the school’s troubling past.

“The good work by Eva and SuAnn is bringing us hope in preserving this history,” Lane says.

On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Lane and others gathered at Chemawa cemetery. “We wanted those children buried there to know we haven’t forgotten them; we are working towards healing,” Lane says.

The women’s decision to go public with their research now was driven by a desire to give people some amount of hope.

“This work is hard but it can be done. This is not an impossible task,” Riddick says.

Reddick and Guggemos hope to share what they’ve learned with others, the methods, strategies and resources that worked best for them. They want to publish articles and perhaps conduct workshops for those who are interested.

“Beyond the specific information about Chemawa, the most important thing about this research is showing that these names, the children can be found,” says Reddick. 

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