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Indian boarding school survivor tells her story

Sierra Alvarez

For decades, Native Americans were sent off to boarding schools run by the federal government or religious groups. They were stripped of cultural ties and forced to assimilate into an American lifestyle. Sierra Alvarez spoke with her 84-year-old grandmother about the experience in this special report for the Mountain West News Bureau.

ALVAREZ: My name is Sierra Alvarez. I am a descendant of an Indian boarding school survivor. My grandmother, Anita Yellowhair, went to the Intermountain Indian School in northern Utah over 500 miles away from her home in Steamboat, Arizona.

Sierra Alvarez

YELLOWHAIR: My Native American Navajo name is Yellowhair, Anita Yellowhair.

ALVAREZ: My grandmother never spoke much about boarding school experience – until now. I believe this was because she never wanted to dwell on the past or re-open old wounds. I also believe she didn’t want to open new wounds for her children and for me, her granddaughter. When she finally told me what happened to her I was angry but mostly it made me in a way depressed to hear the full story.

She had to stop speaking Navajo, and learn English. And she couldn’t wear her traditional clothes – or hairstyle.

YELLOWHAIR: That was the most embarrassing moment of my life — getting my hair cut. Every one of us it’s a spiritual thing. We all believe in the spirit, the Creator. We carry a little medicine bag, depend on that medicine bag to protect us.

ALVAREZ: When she did speak in her Native language she was punished.

YELLOWHAIR: You have to wash the toilet all night or sit down the hall with your hand against the wall, with your knees on the floor. That’s a torture. 

ALVAREZ: I was never taught how to speak Navajo because my family wanted me to learn English and live my life the white man’s way. I never realized the importance of embracing my culture because, as a family, we had lost our way for so long that sometimes it feels as if it’s too late.

More than a year ago, she first started telling me her story. Little by little, I learned of her painful experience – including corporal punishment and sexual abuse.

Sierra Alvarez

YELLOWHAIR: We lived there and we were closed up like prisoners…. Of course they abuse you if you don’t understand English and they’re talking to you. You don’t speak up. That’s a rule you have to learn how but they don’t explain why.

ALVAREZ: Can you tell me how you were abused?

YELLOWHAIR: Well, hit with your bare hand. You’re not allowed to cry.

ALVAREZ: And there was more – much more. My grandmother recalls being told to go into town with a white boy who had a truck. She was given 50 cents to buy some socks.

YELLOWHAIR: This boy takes me down to the store and he abused me there in the car. And that’s the way they took advantage of us was, taking us somewhere and hiding. And doing what they wish to us.

ALVAREZ: When you say he abused you did you mean sexual abuse?

YELLOWHAIR: Just feeling across your breasts and trying to put the hand in your panty. You just keep trying to cover up and it’s not enough. They’re all white men.

Alvarez: How old were you?

YELLOWHAIR: I was about 17, 16.

ALVAREZ: And no one would believed you when you would tell?

YELLOWHAIR: No, they didn’t believe us and they interviewed… I was embarrassed to answer before him. But there were a lot of boys like that. All they did was take them from school and that was it.

ALVAREZ: To hear of my grandmother’s story for a second time was challenging. I had no idea she was sexually assaulted at her school. That hit me hard because I know how dehumanizing sexual assault can be to a woman. She shares how she feels about it now.

Sierra Alvarez

YELLOWHAIR: I don’t feel anything. I think it goes on every day and every night. I think it’s something that’s going on all the time.

Our parents have to take us and our parents didn’t believe us either. But they want the other people to be nice to us so that’s why they agree with them.

ALVAREZ: Did you resent your parents for that?

YELLOWHAIR: No, because I didn’t know what was going on.

ALVAREZ: Despite that abuse, my grandmother became a dental assistant after graduating from Intermountain Indian School in 1960. She ended up working for Dr. Bill Thomas, the only dental officer for the U.S. Public Health Service Indian Hospital at the time, for more than a year in Winslow. Later on, Yellowhair moved to Chicago where she gave birth to her daughter Noel Alvarez, my mother.

Why do you want to talk about your boarding experience now as opposed to when you were younger?

YELLOWHAIR: Nobody cared about it until… a few years ago … I just thank you very much for being interested. I want to know why people are interested now.  

ALVAREZ: Despite the beatings …  I’m happy she found God to cope with what happened to her. Because while it wasn’t fair, it is the truth and I will always be interested in my grandmother’s story. She is a piece of history that has been swept under the rug time and time again. She tells me that she still works to heal to this day.

YELLOWHAIR: And for you, Sierra. I advise you. Find your happiness, find your path, find a way… or else you’re just going to walk in the desert like I have been. I’m at the end of my trail.

The Intermountain Indian School closed its doors in 1984. Utah State University built a campus over the remains of the school.

Copyright 2023 Boise State Public Radio News. To see more, visit Boise State Public Radio News.

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