What is the legacy of Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Illinois?
On the side of a busy road in suburban Cook County, an old gate pokes out of the trees. A rusty sign reads “St. Mary’s Cemetery” with a cross extending up on top. The little cemetery sits on the far corner of Maryville Academy’s campus. It’s a Catholic child care organization and residential school.
Back in the 1880s, it was known as the St. Mary’s Training School for Boys. It was one of two Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Illinois. Last year, the United States Department of the Interior released an investigative report about Federal Indian Boarding School policies that took Native children from their parents and communities in the 1800s.
More than 50 Native American boys were sent to St. Mary’s. Several of those children died at the school and, according to a dissertation on the history of the school, are still buried in that small cemetery.
Dave Beck is a history professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He’s been studying federal Indian policy for over 30 years. There are no federally-recognized tribal lands in Illinois. Beck says the Native kids at St. Mary’s were from South and North Dakota -- 900 miles away from home. Newspapers at the time chronicled parts of their journey, detailing the Native kids dancing together, racing local kids and drawing pictures of horses.
“The children were taken from the Spirit Lake reservation community and the Standing Rock Reservation," he said. "So, those were Dakota and Lakota Indian boys and then some Ojibwe boys from the Pembina band of Turtle Mountain."
Unlike many boarding schools, St. Mary’s also housed non-native orphans and dependents of Cook County. It wasn’t created as a Native Boarding School but, Beck says, the school had financial problems.
“They needed a source of funding," said Beck. "And at the same time, federal officials were really pushing this policy of cultural genocide -- to take Indian children away from their families and put them into boarding schools, where they would be forced to learn English where the hope was that they would forget their tribal heritage and assimilate into American society."
In exchange for educating those children, the school got federal money. At one point, school trustees mentioned asking their Indian Agent James McLaughlin to see if they could get Sitting Bull to come to St. Mary’s as an attraction to raise money. A few years later, Beck said, McLaughlin was the one who infamously ordered the arrest of Sitting Bull.
“Of course, he was murdered by the police who were arresting him," said Beck. "So, McLaughlin is responsible for the death of Sitting Bull in 1890."
The visit never happened, and the school settled for federal funding.
The indigenous youth were trained to be farmers at the school, although officials said they were supposed to learn other trades too. Given the difference of farmland in Illinois and North Dakota, Beck said, the idea that those kids could use those skills back home was unrealistic — not to mention that racism often kept Native people from fully participating in the economy anyway.
Deidre Whiteman is the Director of Research and Education for the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. The healing coalition is pushing Congress to pass the Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies Act. It was reintroduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren in June.
Whiteman — who grew up in the Quad Cities — says a commission would help answer basic questions like "how many kids were forced to attend these schools?" Researchers know it’s in the hundreds of thousands.
But what were their names? Papers at the time mentioned some of the St. Mary’s kids’ names. They write about children named Catka and Ohakte among others, with new English names listed alongside them. Whiteman says it’s hard to know if those names are totally accurate or not.
Also, a commission — like the one created by the Canadian government — could investigate how many children were abused or died at the school and what the long-term impacts on the families have been.
“It's really hard at times to talk about a lot of the stuff that we have to [do]," she said. "Hearing about people experiencing all these atrocities at the schools, when they're just children, when they're just babies. I look at my grandson and my own son and my girls when they were babies, and I couldn't imagine that.”
Another part of Whiteman’s work is research.
“The DOI [Department of the Interior] has released 408 boarding schools that were federally funded and supported by the federal government," she said. "And so, for us at NABS [National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition], we’ve found 521 schools.”
That could mean more schools in Illinois that weren’t federally funded. She says several former residential schools have reached out to them about acknowledging their history and establishing a relationship with tribal communities. Some tribes have also worked on repatriationto return home children’s remains buried at residential schools.
In Illinois, state representative Mark Walker sponsored a bill that passed this spring which asks Native communities to set up a committee the state is required to consult with on Native remains cases -- although it’s focused on remains of indigenous people from Illinois.
“There's a really atrocious history," he said. "So, I've always thought these don't belong in museums or anywhere else except back where they came from.”
The other residential school in Illinois was the Homewood Boarding School at the former Jubilee College site in Peoria County, which is now a state park. The Illinois Department of Natural Resources operates the site. In May 2022 after the Department of the Interior’s report, then-Director Colleen Callahan said they’d be “reviewing how we tell the history of Jubilee College” in the coming days and months. A spokesperson for IDNR told WNIJ they had nothing to report yet.
The now Maryville Academy doesn’t mention the school’s time as a boarding school on its “our history” section of its website. Maryville’s Executive Director Sister Catherine Ryan said they’re working on “how we will recognize this part of the history,” but declined an interview.
For the past several months, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — the first Native person to run the agency — has been traveling across the country to meet with indigenous groups and hear how boarding schools affected their families and communities.