'Never again will we seize your children'
Padding down the corridor in leather moccasins, weasel pelts hanging from his midriff and with red paint, mixed from mud and berries, daubed across his temples, Thomas Corona greets his friends with exuberant high-fives.
In any other school, Thomas's appearance might raise eyebrows, but Chemawa Indian school in Salem, Oregon, is not like any other school. In the grounds, there's a sacred "sweat lodge" where students heat volcanic rocks in a rudimentary tarpaulin structure and sit in the sweltering heat to pray, give offerings and beat drums.
"Like Catholics go to church, this is how we get rid of our sins and purify ourselves," explains Thomas, a 19-year-old student from Montana's Blackfoot tribe, proudly wearing an eagle feather headdress. The school - which was founded 125 years ago, and is the oldest surviving boarding school in the United States - hasn't always celebrated Native American culture so openly.
Guided by the motto, "Kill the Indian, save the man", Chemawa opened in 1880 as part of a "civilising" mission to convert indigenous people from their heathen ways and promote assimilation. Many early students were forcibly removed from their families. "We were forbidden to use our language; they wanted us to obey their rules," says Thomas, whose grandmother attended Chemawa in the 1940s.
The early boarding schools were driven by a ruthless pragmatism. "It's cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them," said the government's Indian commissioner, Thomas Morgan, in 1891. With minimal funding, students were put to work building Chemawa's original structure (which was torn down in the 1970s to make way for today's brick-built campus) and the school was a self-sufficient community where students grew their own food and made their uniforms.
Until the 1960s, academic lessons were cursory. Students were prepared for manual jobs or trades; higher education was considered beyond them. Disease was rife, and the draconian disciplinary regime was similar to that found in Victorian workhouses. Things improved substantially during the civil rights era, but as late as 1969 a congressional report pronounced Indian education a "national tragedy".
In 2000, the assistant secretary of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover, described previous policies towards Native Americans as "ethnic cleansing", and conceded that students had been "emotionally, psychologically, physically and spiritually" brutalised. "Never again will we seize your children," he vowed.
Today, the 426-pupil school takes students from 85 of the 562 officially recognised native tribes in the US. "Every year it's different," says English teacher Brock Anderson. "Right now we're getting a lot of White Mountain Apaches (from Arizona)."
But the school isn't insulated from the problems that afflict the reservations. The troubles many Chemawa students face at home "don't disappear on the plane ride over", Anderson says. An on-site clinic caters for students with drug and alcohol problems. In a survey conducted in 2003, around 40 per cent of students were found to have used methamphetamine or cocaine, including crack. In December 2003, a 16-year-old girl died of alcohol poisoning at the school.
Chemawa has made great strides academically. This year, 88 students completed their schooling, compared with 25 in 1997. But this is still a fraction of the number who arrive as 14-year-olds. Each year, only half return after holidays, a turnover that makes it hard to maintain academic continuity. "Every year, we have to put the school together again," says school superintendent Larry Byers.
"We've built a system out of something that started with forced assimilation, but we're trying to do the best we can," he says, looking forward to the school's rebirth next year as a college-preparatory academy, grooming students for higher education.
Before school assembly, Monte Nelson, 19, a member of the Colville tribe from Washington state, performs a traditional dance to the strains of hypnotic chanting and drumming to bless the occasion. Monte has assumed the role of "cultural instructor" among his fellow students, helping them reconnect with their heritage in a society that historically rode roughshod over their culture. Generations later, many Native Americans still nurse a deep sense of alienation.
"We'd be lost at a normal school. If I had my hair long, I might be called names, but here everyone appreciates it. They say your hair tells the story of your life," says Monte, who wears his hair braided and in ponytails.
He's critical of depictions of native people in regular schools, particularly the bloodthirsty Wild West image. "We were just trying to protect our people; they were starving us and killing our buffaloes. Anyone would do that for their families."
Redemption lies in looking ahead, but also within, says Monte. "A lot of Native Americans blame (their situation) on what happened in the old days; they can't move forward. But they can. We live in two worlds: the white and the Indian world. We are learning one and gaining back the other."