Looking Past the Past

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Before kickoff at football games and university events, the land our university resides on is acknowledged to be native land. But are we telling the true Native American history in Forest Grove?

   Before many events at Pacific University, students and faculty formally acknowledge the land where we reside. Meaning, verbally recognizing that the space in Forest Grove, and Pacific University campus, is located where the Tualatin Kalapuyas, who called themselves the Atfalati, once lived. 

   Beyond that, information is rather broad: The Oregon Encyclopedia describes how the Atfalati people lived in cedar-bark houses, hunted and gathered fish and a variety of roots and berries; told stories, and participated in religious ceremonies, as well as crafted tools, baskets, and other traditional items. But their population size is rather vague, due to waves of epidemics which killed many and prevented the population from ever being accurately recorded. 

   And, Pacific University’s history is intertwined with these dark roots: In 1880, as the Oregon Trail continued to dump dozens of pioneers into the region, the Forest Grove Indian Industrial and Training School was built with the help of many teenage native children. It opened on 22nd street, sharing the soil of Pacific University.

   Run by the Department of the Interior with cooperation and a donation of four-acres of land from Pacific University, the Forest Grove Indian School was established by a former U.S. Army Captain and a proud assimilationist named Melville C. Wilkinson. He took inspiration from the infamous Carlisle Indian School located in Pennsylvania, which had opened the year before with the deeply disturbing philosophy of “kill the Indian, save the man.”

   Over several years, hundreds of children, whose tribes spanned across the Pacific Northwest, were separated from their families and forcibly relocated. Once at the Forest Grove Indian School, Native students were forbidden and often punished for speaking their native language or practicing their culture. The students learned what the program believed to be the necessary skills to become “civilized,” not just academically, but vocationally. In a press release about the school by the Oregon History Project, it explains that men were taught “shoemaking and farming, while female students received training in the domestic arts of sewing, cleaning, and cooking.” 

   After arriving from Spokane, for example, a group of native children were photographed on the lawn dressed in their handmade, traditional, colorful clothing and blankets. Seven months later, another sepia-toned photograph was taken seven; it depicts the same children after they had been living and working at the school. They are shown in long military-style button ups, lengthy dresses, and shiny black shoes. The first photo counts 11 children, while in the second photo—10 children. According to a press release by Oregon Public Broadcasting, a 10 year old girl named Martha Lot became ill and died while living at the Forest Grove Indian Training School, along with 10 other children. 

   The school operated for five years, rom 1880-1885 before a fire consumed multiple buildings, and the school relocated to Salem and renamed Chemawa Indian School. 

   Today, 22nd street is lined with houses. From an observant uninformed eye, it’s just a part of a neighborhood. In an academic environment located in a history heavy state, we must do our part to educate ourselves on Native American history, especially since it happened in our backyard. Though much information has been filtered through time and through official efforts that smudge this history, the Pacific University website and multiple accurate websites are available with more information. — Libby Findling


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