Mary Immaculate School built in 1892 as a school for girls burned down recently, taking over one hundred years of memories and history with it. Desmet, Idaho is a beautiful but rural part of Benewah County, and is the location of the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, established in 1873. Only five years after the establishment of the reservation, in 1878, two schools were built on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, one for girls and one for boys. This large red brick school and convent was built in 1892 and was an imposing structure three stories tall, with a stone foundation and high pitched roof with dormers above the second story. The main building was (I’m estimating) about 70 by 120 feet with several smaller buildings attached. The school was run by the Sisters of Charity of Providence at the invitation of Chief Seltice to provide an education for girls on the reservation. Students living quarters were on the third floor, classrooms beneath on the first and second floors. This school was closed in 1974 and housed the tribal Department of Education for a time, then abandoned and used some for storage.
The day I visited, a cold spring Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010; little broke the quiet solitude, with the wind rustling the dry grass and bare tree limbs. The cold, bleak weather gave way to contemplation about the impact these schools had on the Native American communities in which one was operated. Down the hill below this abandoned, imposing structure sits a new, modern school which is run by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for the education of their children.
Boarding schools and day schools were established all over the western United States after the Civil War, mostly between 1870 and 1910 and were operated by both the United States government and by churches (usually Catholic). Some boarding schools were established off reservation, but the majority were on reservation as it lowered the cost of transporting students to far flung schools. Even though schools were located on the reservations, there was little contact between students and their families as the children were retained at school for eight or nine months out of the year. Thousands upon thousands of Native American children were taken from their homes during those years and forced to live in these boarding schools where they were coerced to abandon their native language and culture and they learned to speak, read and write English. Many of these children were not only shamed but abused, physically and some sexually as well. The motto of these schools was to ‘Kill the Indian, Save the Man.’ What the U.S. Government, through the Cavalry’s guns and the reservation system started, these schools finished by turning ‘savages’ into Christians. Many, if not most, of these schools were still in operation well into the 1970s, when they were closed or transferred to the tribes to operate themselves. My aunt was forced into the St. Francis Mission boarding school on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation (South Dakota) in the 1930s as a young girl. It was an experience she said was extremely lonely, harsh and one she has never been able to forget. I believe that some of the problems experienced on many reservations today can be traced to the break down of their communities through these schools which tried to erase their culture and language. The reservation system took away the freedom of proud Native American people, left most in grinding poverty and set up an atmosphere of hopelessness and a place where joblessness and alcoholism run rampant. These schools came in about the same time and though perhaps well intentioned to provide an education, in the process they severed family bonds and created several generations of Native American children who were in effect orphans. I am thankful that many reservations today are educating their children in tribal schools where they not only learn all that 21st century Americans need to be successful and productive citizens, but are restoring their culture, traditions and language to their people while the few remaining elders with those memories are able to pass them on to the current generation of children.
This historic building went up in flames early Thursday morning, February 3, 2011. Fire crews responded but were unable to quell the inferno that engulfed the school and it burned to the ground.