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My View: Family letter reveals Indian school history

By Angela Jonathan

Imagine finding a 112 year-old letter that you never knew existed.

My Patterson/Chew family oral history told us my great-grandmother Clara Miller Chew was hit by a horse and buggy somewhere on the Tuscarora reservation. Her daughter Eleanor – my grandmother  – was then sent to Haskell in Lawrence, Kansas, at the age of 11. I imagine the fear of a young girl on a train riding to an unknown place soon after losing your greatest treasure.

It was common practice to send children off to Indian boarding schools in those days. Language repression and cultural assimilation was government policy. Children were beaten for speaking their language, braids cut off and clothing burned. The belief was that you had to kill the Indian to save the man. Young children were farmed out on “outings” during the summer as hired help to train them as housekeepers, cooks, farmers and laborers.

Imagine the surprise when my cousin came upon a letter written to Carlisle by our great-grandmother Clara Miller that we never knew existed. We didn’t know she went to Carlisle Indian School, we didn’t know she had beautiful penmanship at a time when many people couldn’t read or write.

Her letter, dated March 22, 1907, told of her little girl, Adeline Clara, being 4 years old. She said she would wait until the ground was dry for baby Norman to show his “mama” what he intended to be. She was proud of her children and hoped to raise them as noble and honest.

Angela Jonathan.

My heart broke reading this knowing her little girl Adeline passed away a few years later and that Clara died 14 years later. She had hopes for the future and left too soon without knowing her legacy.

She did not know her son Hibert “Skippy” Chew would become Beaver chief, or that my grandmother Eleanor would marry right out of Haskell and have 10 children and 38 grandchildren, one of them Beaver chief Stuart Patterson. So many stories and adventures lost due to her untimely passing.

Recently as I listened to my cousin Monty Hill recite our traditional Thanksgiving address in Tuscarora, it occurred to me that we had come full circle. Monty grew up in a home like myself where our parents did not know our language or culture.

Monty learned about language and culture at Tuscarora School. As a college student his plan was to get a computer science degree with the intention of leaving the reservation to go out in the world to make money, just like our ancestors were taught at boarding schools. During this time his adviser piqued his interest in Mohawk language. He studied and learned to speak it. He began to understand cultural importance in a much larger context of life.

He studied history, culture and learned our own dying language that our grandparents both spoke fluently but did not pass down. Perhaps because children were beaten in school for speaking their native tongue.

Monty studies and speaks Mohawk and Tuscarora and is familiar with Cayuga, Seneca, Onondaga and Oneida. This May he will graduate from UB with a Ph.D. in linguistics. His dissertation is “Linguistic Subsystems of Tuscarora and Language Revitalization.”

I realized we had come full circle, while the boarding schools were created to take away our culture – we are still learning, we are still standing strong, we are still creating teachers and storytellers who will keep our history alive.

It made me feel good inside to know neyekwa’nawe:rye’ – “we are still here moving about.” One hundred and twelve years after she wrote her letter I believe Clara Miller would be proud.

Angela Jonathan's Tuscarora History Group will hold a Skarure Rez Life Conference 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at 5226 Walmore Road, Tuscarora Nation.

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