The treatment surrounding First Nations and Native Americans over the last 200 years has attracted renewed interest. Canada has located nearly 1,000 unmarked Indigenous graves near residential schools, and the Biden administration has announced an investigation into American residential schools.
In the most recent edition of Good Faith Media’s “Nurturing Faith Journal and Bible Studies,” I recalled the story of Eloise Childers, and her sister, Ruby. They were removed from their families and sent to the Chilocco Indian Agricultural School in Oklahoma.
Recently, I visited Chilocco to walk in the footprints of the thousands of students who roamed the campus. Looking back at the photos I took, I am now haunted by the images of the cemetery and possible unmarked graves.
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After the turn of the 20th century, Muscogee Creek children, Eloise Childers and her sister, Ruby, were taken from their homes.
The little girls were born in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, located in what was previously identified as Indian Territory after the Trail of Tears in the 19th century.
The girls were relocated to the Chilocco Indian Agricultural Boarding School, over 130 miles northwest of their family and friends.
Chilocco was located 20 miles north of Ponca City near the Oklahoma-Kansas border. The girls were forced to trade the green hills of Eastern Oklahoma for the flat prairie lands of North-Central Oklahoma.
Upon arriving at Chilocco, the girls were told to strip down for a thorough scrubbing. After the bath, they were taken into a room where their long black hair was cut.
When they left the room, they looked more like the strangers who bathed them than their own parents back in Broken Arrow.
The girls were not given back their Indigenous clothes. Gone were the smooth fabrics of leather and the soft touch of feathers.
In their place, a scratchy wool dress donned their skinny little frames that covered almost every inch of their bodies. Again, they were looking more and more like the strangers that spoke to them in an unfamiliar language.
The sisters fell asleep that night in a dark dormitory with other Indigenous children from different tribes that spoke unfamiliar languages. As they closed their eyes to discover their dreams, tears streamed down their cheeks, afraid of their new surroundings and missing the friendliness of home.
The girls woke the next morning to the busy sounds of children preparing for breakfast and what many were calling “school.” After the girls walked to the dining hall to have their breakfast, they were marched to school rooms where a stern white-faced woman greeted them.
The girls sheepishly smiled and said, “Hensci,” the traditional greeting in Muscogee Creek.
The stern-faced woman responded, “Good morning.” She then went on to utter a lot of other words the girls did not understand.
After the incomprehensible lecture, they headed inside the school. Finding a seat in the classroom, another older student approached who spoke Muscogee Creek.
She informed the girls, “They do not like us using our language. They want us to use their language. They say it is better than ours. If we do not learn to use it, we get whipped when we are caught using the language of our ancestors.”
The girls looked at each other, more frightened now than ever before. Before their journey, they were assured that coming to Chilocco and learning the ways of the white man would be good. No one ever mentioned the possibility of whippings.
Over the next several years, the girls learned the ways of white culture. They adopted their hairstyles, wore their clothes and spoke their language.
Every now and again, they would sneak down to the pond away from the campus to speak Muscogee Creek and recall stories of home. They were caught a few times speaking their native tongue, which, just as the other student promised, ended in whippings.
However, the most grievous of moments came on Sunday mornings.
The day started much like the weekdays. Yet, instead of attending school after breakfast, the girls were marched to a small chapel where a man in a black robe met them. The students gathered inside to hear about a man called Jesus who wanted them to be good Christians.
From what the girls could figure out, being a good Christian meant obeying their teachers, learning their lessons and following the ways of the white man.
However, when the stories of Jesus were told to the students, Eloise and Ruby thought this Jesus sounded more like their ancestors than the white man telling the story. Yet, the girls just figured this was another white riddle they needed to figure out.
The worst part of Sunday mornings was when the girls felt like running to the pond instead of attending church. Because church attendance was recorded, their teachers knew when they had skipped. When the girls returned from their day at the pond, they were welcomed back to the dorms by the stern-faced woman holding a whip.
The girls finally aged out of Chilocco, returning to Broken Arrow much different from when they left. They returned knowing the white man’s ways but never fully understanding them.
Eloise and Ruby grew up to have children of their own, but both swore an oath never to send their children off to Chilocco.
Eloise ended up marrying a Muscogee Creek man by the name of Mitchell, who possessed a vivid imagination and humorous personality. He was a great baseball player, playing in the Indian leagues all around Eastern Oklahoma.
The couple had a daughter, and they named her Okema. Okema stayed with Eloise and Mitchell all of her life, never having to suffer the fate of missing family and being forced to conform.
How do I know so much about the story of Eloise and Ruby?
Eloise was my great-grandmother and Ruby, my great-aunt. I carry their story in my heart and soul, feeling the struggles of my ancestors and honoring them with my life.
The evils and injustices of America’s founding are heard through the stories of the Indigenous peoples of North America and African slaves.
The Chilocco Indian Agricultural Boarding School was modeled after the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. A former U.S. Army general, Richard Pratt, founded the school.
The Pratt Doctrine, as it is known, argued that to save the Indigenous people, one must kill the Indian inside. Therefore, schools such as Carlisle and Chilocco stripped Indigenous children of their cultural identities to be replaced with a European and Anglo-centric worldview.
Even more discouraging, the “killing” of the Indian was funded by the U.S government and carried out by Christian missionaries on the plains.
The fact that Eloise and Ruby accepted Jesus as their Lord and joined the United Methodist Church late in life was a slight miracle, but, as I stated before, they thought Jesus was more like them than the missionaries who introduced them.
America has become a great country, but we must never forget that the achievements of today were at the expense of others.
Indigenous people and African slaves lost their lands and lives in order for the American dream to emerge. The properties where American industry now thrives are located on stolen lands and built by slave labor.
As much as the ideas and practices of “killing the Indian to save the man” attempted to exterminate Indigenous peoples, they failed to kill the spirits of Eloise and Ruby. The spirits of the sisters, and their faith, now live on through me and my sons.
I am NUMUKUTSU (Buffalo), otherwise known as Mitch Randall.
CEO of Good Faith Media.