Once Suppressed, Native Culture Now Thrives at This Indian Boarding School

Cheryl Poolaw was 7 years old when she was sent to Riverside Indian School. Now 80, she still copes with what she had lost by leaving her family and culture behind. 

“Our language was never taught because it was forbidden,” Poolaw said of the boarding school. “So, it was hard to keep our language, our tribal language. I wished I could speak it, but I can’t.”

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From 1819 to the 1970s, the U.S. government funded over 400 Indian boarding schools like Riverside, with enrollment reaching 60,000 by 1925. Native children were forcibly separated from their families and made to learn Euro-American customs, including speaking English and practicing Christianity. Many students at these schools endured abuse and at least 500 died, according to a 2022 Department of the Interior report.

In the 1920s, the U.S. government began transferring control of the schools back to Native tribes. With evolving leadership, many of the schools’ curricula also changed to incorporate Native practices.

Today, Riverside is one of four Indian boarding schools still standing in the country. It’s no longer a place where Native languages are forbidden, but is instead, a space where nearly 400 students from 60 Native American tribes are reclaiming their traditions.  

“We bring in a lot of different cultures, a lot of different languages,” said Riverside principal Larry Parish. “What’s unique about Riverside Indian School is that we’re all Native.”

Learn more about Riverside Indian School’s transformation in the video above.