Spotlight on the Dark Age of Tulalip Residential School
Rochelle Lubbers (center) cries as she talks about putting her original identity aside while attending school as she and the Tulalip Tribes community gathered in the last remaining building of the Tulalip Indian Residential School for a day of remembrance Thursday in the Tulalip reserve. (Andy Bronson / The Messenger)
This article contains details that may be distressing for some.
TULALIP – Standing in front of the last vestige of the Tulalip Bay Residential School Thursday night, Tulalip leaders tearfully shared the stories of their families.
Rochelle Lubbers, administrative director of the tribes, is the great-granddaughter of Elsie Price, who attended the boarding school.
“She entered this boarding school at the same age as my youngest child,” said Lubbers. “And when I watched him today, I realize how much love and support he needs to thrive.”
From 1857 to 1932, hundreds of native youth from across the state and as far as Alaska were taken to Tulalip Residential School. There they were beaten for speaking their native languages. They started industrial jobs as elementary school students. They did not see their parents ten months a year and many of them never came home.
The school closed in 1932, and for many families the wounds are fresh.
“The historic trauma caused generation after generation to families, to parents who lost their parenting skills, who fell into depression,” said Tulalip President Teri Gobin. “My heart breaks for each of these children, the survivors. But many children never made it home.
Thursday was Residential School Awareness Day, also known as Orange Shirt Day.
The dining room where the sheet music of the Tulalip community gathered on Thursday evening is a tangible reminder of the horrors endured by Indigenous children during the residential school era.
“If you go down to the basement, at the back, the kids who were sent there to be bad – who were locked up there – carved their names into the wood,” said Misty Napeahi, a member of the tribal council. “I can’t imagine anyone coming to my house to take my baby. It kills me to think that they really went through this.
Between the stories, the young Tulalip, alongside their adult peers, performed a welcome song and a Snohomish war song.
This is something their ancestors could not have done at this age.
“I think this is the first time that I can – in my life – remember coming together like this,” Napeahi said. “We have to recognize that we survived this. We are strong and resilient Indians. And we are like that, because we are a community.
This year, the tribes passed a resolution proclaiming September 30 as Orange Shirt Day, a day of commemoration and awareness for residential schools. This will allow the community to collect and share these stories for years to come.
Earlier this month, the Marysville School District also proclaimed September 30 Orange Jersey Day. Several school leaders came out into the dining room, dressed in orange as a sign of solidarity.
After the youth of Tulalip delivered boxed dinners to a full row of elders and boarding school survivors, the students opened the event with a prayer to Lushootseed.
Tulalip DJ Monie Ordonia later led a breathing exercise, urging the community to release the wounds of their ancestors.
“My mother was in boarding school and I always wondered why she was suicidal,” Ordonia said. “By doing the job. I understand the pain she has had all these years. So while I’m waiting for the drummers and the singers to come out, I want you all to take a moment. Breathe deeply. Because it is in-depth work.
Less than 100 years ago, school workers whipped young Tulalips for talking about Lushootseed.
As their white classmates attended day schools and returned home to their families after the last school bell rang, the Tulalip youths spent the entire school year under the supervision of strong school staff.
If school officials found students trying to flee the campus, students were “tied” at their ankles and wrists and left in the hallways.
Inside the school, students woke up to the sound of the bell at 5:30 a.m., performed military-style drills, went to industrial jobs – milking cows, working in the hospital or doing laundry for the hundreds of students living in the school – and spending their evenings studying.
They didn’t have any toys. They couldn’t see their families.
Many fell ill with tuberculosis, pneumonia and the flu, and some died. There was only one doctor on the reserve.
“They really, really honest with God, neglected us,” said Arnold McKay, a member of the Tulalip Tribe, in a 1993 lecture series sponsored by the Marysville School District.
McKay, of Lummi descent, was among thousands of Indigenous students from across the Pacific Northwest who attended Tulalip Residential School.
Native parents were granted the right to refuse placement of their children in off-reserve schools in 1978, when the Indian Child Welfare Act was enacted. But the damage was already done.
“We have to heal from this,” Gobin said. “People need to hear the stories to find out what happened to our people.”