Chilocco Indian School: Life, Legacy, and History
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in three parts during the summer of 2021. It has been republished here, in it’s entirety in honor of the Chilocco Schools 2022 Reunion. The Journal-Tribune worked closely with Chilocco alumni to present a story that is a respectful and honest representation of the men, women and history of the school itself.
Just past a pair of casinos, less than a mile before Oklahoma’s Highway 77 gives way to Kansas, there’s an archway towering over an old metal gate that bears the name “Chilocco Indian School” in red and white lettering.
The gate opens to a long road, with grass sprouting from the cracks in the pavement. It takes you past an old armory and over a bridge that seems to act as a gateway. You leave Oklahoma behind as you cross over a serene, calm lake. Fifty feet away, the remains of a foot-bridge can be seen breaking the surface of the water like a wooden serpent. Overgrown buildings welcome you. There is more grass than concrete now. A large circle-drive wraps around a lawn, with a dried-up fountain on one end and a forgotten student center on the other.
Chilocco is a name that virtually anyone growing up in and around Kay County has heard. An abandoned town seemingly left overnight, with books still on desks and shoes left by doors. It conjures images of the similarly vacant buildings and homes of Chernobyl in Russia. Like that ghost town, Chilocco is ripe with urban legends and is the subject of many a late-night dare.
But the truth is, the only things roaming the streets and buildings of the Chilocco campus when the sun goes down are memories. Fond, warm memories of sneaking in packs of cigarettes and socializing at the jukebox during a Saturday night dance at the Flaming Arrow. Memories of falling in love, watching the raven-haired women from tribes as far west as Washington state and as far east as New York walking barefoot through the lawn.
Memories of playing golf. Of slipping off to the “state line” gas station and grabbing a burger.
For five alumni of the Chilocco Indian School who reminisced on a warm Monday morning, sharing stories of their younger years as the gentle summer breeze stirred the moss-covered buildings and wildflowers, it wasn’t the dark internment camp that many have heard of. To them and thousands of others, it was home. A self-sustaining community that made its own living, where many found everlasting love and friendship. A community that, in 2021, is looking toward a brighter future.
Chilocco Alumni Association President Jim Baker, a graduate of Chilocco’s Class of 1960 and the school’s second-to-last superintendent, painted a picture – a figurative one – as he mentioned he put down his brush for the last time upon graduating. With him were fellow graduate and wife Charmain Baker (Class of 1962), Garland Kent and wife, Lucy (1958), and treasurer Emma J. Falling (1965).
Chilocco Indian School was created before Oklahoma as we know it was recognized as a state. The product of U.S. Army officer Richard H. Pratt, Chilocco came to be in 1884 as an agricultural school for Native Americans.
At one point, Chilocco had almost 30 different vocational training programs across the expansive campus. It also had its own post office, bakery, food sources, electrical generation, agricultural resources, flour mill, dairy supply, clinic and National Guard outpost.
The educational style, like many boarding schools, was “militarized,” Baker recalled. But it wasn’t all routine. Chilocco was filled with life and, like so many other communities, love.
Kent met Lucy at Chilocco – a common occurrence, he and Baker agreed.
“I had this cute girl in my class,” Garland Kent smiled. “I thought to myself, ‘Hey, I like this girl.’ She liked me. At Chilocco, you lived with these people. You saw them every day. It wasn’t rare at all to see people dating and, years later, getting engaged.”
Baker met his first wife at Chilocco as well. He recalled her fondly, speaking with a clenched jaw and misty eyes. She died in 2010. But there was no remorse in Baker’s rugged voice – only love.
“You had to get permission slips signed when you were dating someone,” Baker said, laughing. “You had to go report to their dorm parent, and you took them out to a Saturday night dance or what have you. … Then you’d walk them back across the lawn, right here.”
He stretched his arm over the lawn. “And on the other side of the street, you’d have a row of dorm supervisors checking their watches and moving you along.”
“You could get in trouble if you weren’t back at a certain time,” Baker said. “So, it became a joke, to say that a kiss was worth the hours you’d get of detention service.
“You could always tell which girls were dating the fellas that worked in the cleaners. Their pants were always pressed. Their shirts were perfect.”
He elaborated on some of the Chilocco “in-jokes” after admitting he was “snagged” by his wife during their time there.
“Anytime we had new kids, you’d have guys hollering ‘new meat’ walking around the oval,” he said.
Charmain Baker giggled with embarrassment when recalling her interaction with a bus of Navajo students.
"When the Navajo busses came, I decided to greet them, as I could see no one else around greeting them,” she said. “So, I stood outside their bus, saying ‘Hi! Welcome! How was your trip?’ smiling and trying to look friendly. They just looked at me and looked away like I was crazy. After doing that a few times with no response, I finally gave up. I later learned that none of them could speak English."
She smiled and said:
“The staff was probably inside the building waiting for them with a translator.”
Chilocco’s enrollment peaked between the 1950s and 1960s, with enrollment numbers above 1,200. Boys and girls from more than 120 tribes across the United States were there.
“It wasn’t about tribal affiliation,” said Chilocco Alumni Association President Jim Baker, a graduate of Chilocco’s Class of 1960 and the school’s second-to-last superintendent.
“When you got here, it didn’t really matter. It still doesn’t. We weren’t concerned with what tribe you were from. Here, it was all about the friends you made and the family you built.”
On the subject of Chilocco’s prestigious agricultural standing, Baker and his fellow alumni said they swore it was among the best.
“There was some resentment towards Chilocco,” Baker said. “We would bring high-quality bushels of hay or pure-bred cattle to market and be making 25 cents to a dollar more per bushel or pound than the local farmers would. I think that’s where some government officials started to target us when it came to funding.”
The Chilocco Indian School also had Morgan horses, a highly sought-after breed for Amish communities in the region. Graduate Garland Kent recalled that, when the school’s livestock were sold as the school closed, one horse was sold to Amish farmers for more than $70,000.
“We had Oklahoma A&M before it was OSU, sending students over here to learn about our agriculture,” Garland said. “You had high-school-age Indian boys teaching these college kids our trades and techniques. Everyone was happy to teach and more than happy to learn. There was a great sense of the community here, and we were always welcoming.”
Plaques and memorials on the campus also bring to light an interesting fact about Chilocco: three Medal of Honor recipients have ties to the school.
Ernest Childers and Jack C. Montgomery were students at the school, while Charles George was a member of C Company in the 180th Infantry of the 45th Infantry Division. That was the National Guard unit stationed at Chilocco.
In Oliveto, Italy, Childers single-handedly dispatched two enemy snipers, led the attack on two machine gun nests and captured an artillery observer. Childers was the first Native American to receive the Medal of Honor distinction since the American Indian Wars of the 19th century.
George threw himself on a grenade in the Korean War during a stealth mission, saving two of his fellow soldiers and, through it all, refusing to scream out in agony to give away the position of the operation. Montgomery, during an operation in Padiglione, Italy, single-handedly attacked three German positions, killing 11 enemy combatants and taking more than 30 prisoners of war. He was seriously wounded by mortar fire later that night during a separate operation.
“Men from Chilocco fought in every war since World War I, and they didn’t just help overseas,” Baker said.
Baker and Kent spoke about the devastating tornado of 1955, which demolished parts of Blackwell and Udall, Kansas. They talked about how Chilocco’s National Guard division helped set up temporary shelters and food wagons.
“I helped the men come into town through some country roads,” Kent said. “I’ll always remember coming into Blackwell and there just being nothing there, like it had never existed. I’ll never forget the sight of this bright red truck sitting in a tree.”
Indigenous scholar and historian K. Tsianina Lomawaima chronicled Chilocco’s infancy in her non-fiction book, titled “They Called it Prairie Light.”
She described the school as a way to Christianize the Native American population. It was described as being under a strict military regime that involved brutal work routines and the effective cultural erasure of those who attended the school.
Baker described the early years of Chilocco as the U.S. government’s “misguided” approach to “kill the Indian to save the child.”
In 1928, all of that changed thanks to the Meriam Report, the result of a two-year study and investigation into the conditions of Native American schools such as Chilocco. The report concluded that the U.S. government was failing at its goals of protecting Native Americans, their land and their resources, both personal and cultural.
“I remember hearing before I got here that Chilocco was some dirty, down-trodden prison school,” Kent said. “I think the issue, where a lot of the negativity comes from, is because you had some kids brought here from far-off reservations where they had no rules, no structure.
“Chilocco would try to implement that, and some kids just hated it. The opposite, though, is that you had kids that loved that structure. It was a sense of security. There was no wondering where their next meal would come from or if they would sleep indoors at night. “You’d have kids brought here that were basically orphaned. If they saw a few coins on
the ground–pocket change – that would be the most money they had ever seen in their lives.
Chilocco brought orphans like that in and gave them structure, trained them in real-world skills, gave them a family. In the summer, before year-round schooling was implemented, they wouldn’t want to go home. They’d jump off the bus to come back.”
Baker said that, in order to keep the students safe and provide them with food and shelter, a rotating schedule was put into place.
When the school’s funding was cut in the 1980s, Chilocco suffered the same fate that many tribal schools did.
When alumnus Jim Baker arrived as one of the school’s last superintendents, he recalled how powerful returning to the campus felt.
“I was now working with the same people that had taught me,” he said. “I could immediately tell it was different. I pulled up in my car at a time of day that would have been spent studying when I was there, and I saw this couple across the lake, frolicking in the apple orchard. I stopped, and I just watched. It was so much different. So relaxed.”
When the school finally closed, the contents were to be repurposed and sent to other schools across the nation. Baker said the process was “less than caring.” New machines and equipment were tossed down ramps and into moving trucks or outright thrown onto the lawn.
Upon its closure, Chilocco became property of the Kaw, Otoe, Ponca, Pawnee and Tonkawa tribes. A lack of funding and faith in tribal education centers prevented it from becoming a college like the school in Haskell, Kansas, alumni said.
Addressing the rumors and negativity surrounding Chilocco, Baker cleared his throat and spoke his mind.
“None of us who are alive right now can speak to what may have happened in Chilocco’s early years,” he said. “A lot of the sensationalism about Chilocco comes from what has been happening in the news, like up in Canada, where they found the unmarked graves at the Catholic school.
“Nothing like that happened here. What happened here, why we have our own cemetery, is because you think back to the late 1800s. You’d have students here that would get sick and pass away. Medical technology wasn’t what it was now or even 20 to 30 years on in the 1900s.”
“Students would die,” he said. “Students would be hundreds of miles from home in an age where news could take days or weeks to reach the families. People were buried. They had to be. With communication and transportation so limited, local burial seems to have been the only option. Several others and I have been working extensively to put a name to everybody laid to rest at the Chilocco Cemetery, here.”
Obtaining records from the time period is nearly impossible, Baker said.
“Hand-written letters and exchanges weren’t recorded and documented like they are today,” he said. “A lot of work has gone into piecing together these records all the way to the 1880s.”
That cemetery, in fact, is what the Chilocco National Alumni Association hopes to draw attention to, taking advantage of the interest in Indian groups throughout the nation.
“We hope, through all this negativity, some good will come from it – some good for us and for the souls still here,” he said.
Federal officials are considering investigations of boarding schools like Chilocco across the nation. Baker said he hopes the Bureau of Indian Affairs will acknowledge that it abandoned the cemeteries at closed boarding schools, and he wants the cemeteries’ ownership to be reclaimed. He also wants the cemeteries to be established as federal cemeteries, providing funds for maintenance and preservation, he said.
“This will go a long way toward showing respect for those interred at these cemeteries,” he said.
The alumni association currently maintains the cemetery at Chilocco using funds provided by members. A monument there was funded by a grant from the Kaw Nation.
FINDING THE CEMETERY
A narrow road takes you over a small creek that winds under dense canopies from the overgrown trees. It leads through fields of shoulder-high grass to a secluded cemetery. The area where the Chilocco monument stands is well-kept and green.
The air seems to change, and the ground becomes something sacred – something important.
Walking through the gate, Charmain Baker became emotional as she greeted the children laid to rest under soil and grass.
Baker cried for the children: those far from home, thrust into a new world with new languages, rules and customs.
Baker’s tears and compassion fueled a poem and accompanying short story she wrote, titled “40 Gravestones,” which can be heard on YouTube. It tells the story of a young Native spirit reflecting on the conditions that brought her to Chilocco.
Garland Kent broke apart a cigarette and spoke to the cemetery's occupants. He sprinkled tobacco as part of an ancient tradition.
The monument of concrete, rock and steel stands more than 7 feet tall and is covered in handprints. It is part of a decadent design by Dan SaSuWeh Jones, a Native American sculptor, writer, historian and artist from Ponca City.
“They longed for their home, but the Great Spirit chose for them to rest in peace,” a plaque on the monument reads. “They may have suffered, but they suffer no more. Over the years they heard our laughter, our cheers, and our cries. After our voices went silent, those buried here await our reunion, to again hear our laughter and cheers.”
The 67 names on the monument are organized by tribe. The tribes are as follows: Arapaho, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Choctaw, Cree, Creek, Delaware, Iroquois, Kickapoo, Kiowa, Navajo, Otoe, Ottawa, Pawnee, Pima, Ponca, Potawatomi, Pueblo, Quapaw, Sac & Fox, Shawnee, Seneca, Sioux, Winnebago and Wichita. Six unknowns are also listed there.
Students buried there range in age from those who passed in infancy to those who died in their mid-twenties.
Two of the names belong to soldiers killed overseas in World War I who were flown back to be buried on the land.
The only name with a headstone was that of the first child laid to rest in Chilocco. She was a Wichita girl named Takare, or “Take Care.”
Of the 67 names, only 17 have listed causes of death, according to research Jim Baker conducted through the National Archives and federal records.
Charmain Baker said the memorial officially will be unveiled and dedicated at the Chilocco Alumni Reunion next year.
The Bakers say they hope that advanced technology – such as the tools used to uncover bodies from the Tulsa Race Massacre and the mass grave in Canada – can be used to identify and lay to rest the estimated 80 bodies that are still at Chilocco.
In addition to Kent and the Bakers, the monument is dedicated to the work of: the Kaw Nation, the MICA Group, the Chilocco Alumni Association Cemetery Committee, Bill and Betty Pino, Danny Page, Dennis Mike Jones, Jim Edwards, Fred Underwood, Trent Tilley, Cruz Maldonado, and Crystal Douglas of the Kaw Nation. It is also dedicated to the Tonkawa, Otoe-Missouria, Pawnee and Ponca tribes.
To some, Chilocco might seem to be an urban legend and a haunted relic of a past – one that many might sooner forget than fondly recall. But to the students that went there, it was a home. A community. An entire world between two others.
The alumni of Chilocco say they have nothing but fondness for the place they lived at, loved at, graduated from and took skills from to use in lives they might not be living otherwise.
The campus might seem to be reclaimed by nature and the ravages of time, but more importantly, it is still claimed by the alumni who spend countless hours trying to keep their memories alive – memories, they hope, that will transcend cultures and generations.
And no memories are more important to them than those of the ones laid to rest on those grounds, alumni say – memories they seek to preserve, cherish and honor.
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