‘If we don’t tell the story, the truth will not be heard’

Native American boarding school exhibit to be shown



Roberta Paul speaks at Terrell Library about her family’s experience in boarding schools and her grandfather’s trunk, which held many items with cultural significance.

ANGELICA RELENTE, Evergreen editor-in-chief

At some point, a wooden crate that housed an upright piano became the ideal hiding spot for Jesse and Lydia Paul’s young daughters.

“Grandfather Jesse and grandmother Lydia did not want their young children taken away to boarding school,” said Roberta Paul, Nez Perce Tribe member.

Roberta said the crate prevented an Indian agent from taking away her grandparent’s daughters at that time, but eventually, they had to attend Chemawa Indian School when they were teenagers.

The wooden crate is just one of the things situated on the bottom floor of Terrell Library. WSU’s Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections (MASC) will have an exhibit up until mid-March that showcases the experiences of some of Roberta’s family members at Native American boarding schools.

Roberta said this was the second time she showcased her items to the public. MASC has more of her family’s personal items on display compared to the first time she curated her exhibit.

“If we don’t tell the story,” she said, “the truth will not be heard.”

Roberta said Jesse’s trunk made her question a lot of things about her family history that were left unanswered for a while.

“As a young child, I would go through the trunk and fondle things and say, ‘What is this,’ ‘What does this mean,’ ‘What are those photos of my ancestors,’ and I didn’t know who they were because my father didn’t talk about it very much because they were gone,” she said.

Jesse obtained the trunk after he attended the Carlisle Indian boarding school, Roberta said. Children at the school were taught English, math and reading. They were also required to learn a specific skill, and Jesse was assigned to learn wagon-making.

She said after Lydia’s death, Jesse gathered some of Lydia’s belongings, packed them in his trunk and sent it to Titus, Roberta’s father.

“These items are my connection to the lives of my ancestors and their stories,” Roberta said.

The boarding school Jesse attended was established by Brigadier Gen. Richard Pratt, she said, who thought that immersing Native Americans in the “white man’s culture” could help them survive in the new world.

“[It was] the stripping away of cutting their hair and taking them out of buckskin, putting them in uniforms, and making them not speak their language,” Roberta said.

Tsitsistas tribe member Marsha Small said exhibits like this shine a light on the “atrocities” that occurred in the past.

“We’re bringing the indigenous narrative into this,” Small said.

She said she has been doing research on Indian boarding school cemeteries for 7 years. One of the most difficult things she faced was realizing that children as young as 2 years old were buried at that time.

Roberta said having the exhibit speaks the truth and promotes representation.

“We are still struggling, and we have to fight with all of our being to still be here,” she said. “We are still here.”