At 5 years old, Mark Maryboy left his home on the Navajo Nation Reservation to attend a boarding school about 150 miles away.
He would attend a total of three boarding schools over the next few years. He said the dormitory in which he lived was ripe with sexual and physical abuse, harassment and bullying — something he said his principal did nothing to stop after Maryboy alerted him to what was happening. At one school, Maryboy remembers seeing another student drown after an instructional aide told students to cross a river, despite the fact that some students did not know how to swim.
"It was the damnedest thing I ever did in my life," Maryboy said, adding that he often wonders how his life would have turned out without that trauma.
"Going through that experience has a huge impact on you. It's a lifetime sickness that goes into your mind."
Maryboy ran away from boarding schools twice. The first time he was caught the next day and returned to school. The second time, Maryboy and his brother — only 7 and 8 at the time — walked 40 miles home in November. During the journey, the two boys had to cross an icy river.
"It was cold, and ice was flowing down the river," Maryboy recalled. "Halfway through crossing the river, our bodies just froze and the ice would rub us and all of a sudden we started bleeding. By the time we got out, all of our body down to the foot was bleeding. But we were desperate. We put our clothes back on and we walked all the way home."
Maryboy was one of four tribal elders who shared life experiences during a panel discussion on Native American boarding schools on Saturday. The event was hosted by Utah Diné Bikéyah at the Leonardo in Salt Lake City.
Boarding schools operated across North America in an attempt to assimilate Native children into white society by severing ties to their language, culture and families.
"This assimilation process, the boarding school era, it was a war tactic," panel moderator and Utah State University student Taylor "Cheii" Begay said, stressing the resiliency of Native peoples. "They tried to kill us. They tried to bury us so deep but yet they gave us the time to grow, to blossom into something new."
The U.S. Department of Interior, which is currently investigating Native boarding schools, has identified seven schools in Utah that operated between 1819 and 1969 with federal support:
- Aneth Boarding and Day School, in Montezuma Creek.
- Intermountain Indian School (later changed to Intermountain Inter-Tribal School), in Brigham City.
- Navajo Faith Mission, in Aneth.
- Ouray Indian School, in Randlett.
- Panguitch Boarding School, in Panguitch.
- St. George Southern Utah Boarding School, in St. George.
- Uintah Boarding and Day School, in Whiterocks.
Acknowledging the past
Panelists Saturday discussed both the trauma they experienced at boarding schools, as well as the educational opportunities they gained.
"One thing I can say about the boarding schools — regardless of the difficulties — it made me tough," said Maryboy, who went on to serve on the Navajo Nation Council and be elected as the first Native county commissioner in Utah.
For Aldean Ketchum, a Ute Bear Dance Chief and member of the White Mesa Ute community, attending Intermountain Inter-Tribal School in Brigham City from 1979 to 1981 was mostly positive. Unlike others on the panel, he described being able to keep his traditional values and practices.
"It was more like going to college," he said, adding that moving to the city was an exciting prospect. He learned how to drive, swim and dance disco.
"It taught us how to become independent and become a part of society," Ketchum said. "We kept our language and our culture, and they encouraged us to keep that up. That was the unique thing about attending boarding school at that time."
For Norman Cuthair Lopez — who has held a variety of positions in the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe — going to the Ute Vocational School was a shock, in more ways than one. Despite already speaking two languages, his native Ute and Navajo, he struggled to learn English. Upon arriving at the school, his long hair was cut, and then he was stripped and scrubbed clean.
The first night was particularly difficult. At home, he hadn't slept on a bed, so he laid down underneath his bed on the first night at school. It proved to be a costly mistake.
"I got the spanking of my life," he said. It was a new experience, since his grandparents had always used their voices rather than their hands to discipline him at home. "I had the shock of my life when I got my first spanking. The guy that was there, one of the supervisors, picked me up and threw me against the wall."
Willie Grayeyes, Navajo Nation member and San Juan County commissioner, went to multiple boarding schools across the Southwest. Most of the time, he had no idea where he was being sent.
One night, in fourth grade, Grayeyes was told to sleep in clothes, not pajamas. He and other kids were woken during the night and loaded into trucks. By morning, they reached Richfield. He said the dormitory there was nothing more than a warehouse with a partition in the middle to separate boys and girls.
"I had no idea where I was going. Nobody said this is why we're sending you here," he said. "The decision was made 100 miles away, not at my home but at the Bureau of Indian Affairs building."
He would have a similar experience a few years later after returning home for a family illness. The Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent sent him to Flagstaff, Arizona. From there he took two Greyhound buses, to Albuquerque and then Santa Fe. Later, he would also attend the Phoenix Indian School. Being separated from his family all that time impacted him and how he viewed his identity is something he said has impacted him his entire life.
"At that age, I didn't know how it would hurt my life," Grayeyes said. "The psychological impact that was created, I will never accept that."
Healing multiple generations
Growing up, the topic of boarding schools wasn't something that was openly discussed, said Meredith Benally, with Utah Diné Bikéyah. That didn't stop her from wanting to better understand her parents, who both attended boarding schools.
"There's a disconnect between family members that have gone to boarding schools," she said. "That's why it was really hard to get to know my parents or even connect with them. So that disconnection is what I started to understand came from whatever they had experienced prior to their getting married or coming home from boarding school."
"It took my lifetime to find out who my parents were," Benally continued. "The more they talked about it, I kept thinking, something needs to be done about the subject; something needs to happen to bring education and awareness about all the experiences that these children were having."
That helped lay the groundwork for Saturday's panel. Benally hopes the event, which also featured photos and historical information about Intermountain Indian Boarding School, can be an oral art project that can be taken to other parts of the state. Sharing these experiences, she said, is important, not only to help heal the intergenerational trauma caused by boarding schools but to educate people about the continual attack on Native peoples.
She pointed to a recent Supreme Court challenge to a law that protects Native children from removal from their tribes and families, known as the Indian Child Welfare Act, as an example of history repeating itself.
"That attack on Indigenous communities is again and again; it never stops," Benally said. "An ICWA is another one we have to deal with."