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A Native grandma smuggled her grandkids out of their abusive boarding school. She hid them in the mountains

caption: Pam James is portrayed outside of her home on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Union.
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Pam James is portrayed outside of her home on Wednesday, March 22, 2023, in Union.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

One time, when my gram/Tupa came to visit, she waited for the nuns to be busy doing something else, and she said, “Get in the car.” I was 8 years old when we were taken to boarding school.

My mother had been in a bad car accident, my younger brother and sister and I were sent to boarding school. My other brothers and sisters were sent to different boarding schools.

The first thing they did when you arrived at boarding school was cut your hair. It was like a bowl cut, like if they put a bowl on your head and cut your hair. They shaved the boys’ hair.

That was when the pain really started. Because our hair is so sacred. My dad loved our hair. When we'd sit on his lap, he would smell our hair and say, “Take care of your hair.” We have traditional teachings that go along with our hair; our hair in our culture carries our ancestors, our history and our future. It is who we are.

The next thing they did was put kerosene on your head for head lice. They thought every Indian kid had lice. I didn't even know what lice was! Then they had this big, huge cement structure that looked like a pool. You’d go in there, and you would strip down and they would wash you with lye soap, which burned. Nobody explained why.

The nuns were very strict. You got up at a certain time every morning and made your bed. It was bouncing a quarter off your bed to make sure that your bed was straight and tight. In our dorm, there were about 40 beds, bunk beds, lined on both walls.

You had schooling, and you had chores, and if you missed your chores, you got in big trouble. One time I was supposed to be in the kitchen washing the pots and pans, and I was late. I was sent to the priest’s office. They had a razor strap, and would make you pull your pants down and grab your ankles.

You would get more whacks if your hands came off your ankles. So you made sure you were there on time and did your chores.

There was sexual abuse too, although I didn’t realize it at the time. My older cousin took the abuse and protected us from being sexually abused. She was one of the first to file a lawsuit against the Catholic Church.

One Saturday a month, we got an allowance. They would take us to town, to this little country store to buy penny candy.

When we got to the store, they'd make the Indian children stand in a line outside the bus. The non-Indian kids could go in as a group, but we could go in only one at a time. I didn’t understand, so I asked why.

The nun turned to me and said, “Because Indian children steal.”

I felt such guilt and shame, then the anger began to rage within me. It was such a profound moment, a deep wound that has stayed with me all these years. I’d never stolen anything in my life. That hadn’t even crossed my mind. The non-Indian kids would come out and taunt us, and we’d have to take it.

One little girl used to taunt me every time we were at the store, she’d come out, and she’d make faces at me and call me names. After months of this, I’d had enough of it, and I beat the shit out of her. I got in trouble. (It was worth the whipping.)

I ran away a few times, me and a couple of my cousins, and of course they came and found us and brought us back.

When we ran away, we would go through the woods and fields, always watching for rattle snakes. One time my cousin got us caught because we were on a big rock and heard a rattle snake, and she started screaming. We would head for the railroad tracks, where there were homeless men living in the box cars. They were nice to us and would hide us out and watch for people coming to get us. Then we would make our way to one of our relative’s houses.

The nuns would send the police, or sometimes the dorm prefects, to come look for us. Once, we hid out at my aunt’s house, and they found us and took us back. They would ask the kids, and the kids would tell on each other, and then they’d go find us.

My dad and gram/tupa would visit us on weekends once or twice a month. One time, she came, and we were visiting, and she waited for the nuns to be busy doing something else, and she said, get in the car. And we went back home to Inchelium.

It’s common for families to have family camps on the reservation. My gram/tupa hid us at our family camp in the mountains. We'd stay there all summer gathering berries, fishing and hunting, drying meat and doing all of our traditional things.

They came just after she took us, but they couldn't find us. Of course, nobody would tell them where we were.

We were in the mountains and returned home at the end of summer, just before school started. My gram/tupa always had a coffee tray next to her rocking chair. It had her coffee, roll-your-own tobacco, and on the other side of her chair was her 30-30 rifle; her gun was always next to her.

They came again end of summer, and she said, “No you’re not taking them."

She took a stand, I’m sure, because of her own boarding school experience. People knew who the strong ones were, and they knew: Don’t even try to take her grandkids, you’re not gonna get past her.

My gram/tupa was my hero, I lived with her most of the time. She lived alone for about 35 years after her second husband died. She did her own hunting, and she said she was the first woman to get a cougar in our community.

My gram/tupa was born in 1899 and sent to St. Ignatius Mission School in Montana. She could only speak our language, when she got to boarding school she had to learn French and then English, sometimes when she was talking she would get the languages mixed up and we would laugh, she would say these languages have to many words.

She too ran away from boarding school a couple of times. She walked back to Inchelium/Impach, and the Mission would send the military to find her and bring her back.

She told many stories of her boarding school experience when I lived with her. At night with the wood stove burning when we were alone, she would reminisce. She always said there are Indians and there are Indian-Indians, it’s not safe to be an Indian-Indian.

It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand her meaning. To be Indian meant someone who had to acculturate and assimilate to the Whiteman’s world, to be Indian-Indian meant you had to keep your culture and traditional ways a secret so you would not suffer harm.

My gram/tupa did not teach too much of our culture and traditions to her children; she believed it was not safe and she feared her children being taken.

I just can't imagine – walking from St. Ignatius back home, going through the woods and the terrain and staying hidden the whole time. Knowing the military was following you and you could be killed at any moment, like so many Indian children that died and were never found. Her wits, skill and traditional knowledge helped her to survive.

She married my grandfather when she was 18 or 19, and then she didn’t have to go back.

If you want to terminate, acculturate and assimilate a people what is the quickest way? Take their children!

At first, the government took our children from their homes and family in an effort to acculturate and assimilate into the white world. But then there was this transition, through a couple generations of learned behavior and assimilation where families sent their children to boarding schools. Families believing that the Whiteman’s education would help their children survive in this new world.

Our people internalized trauma past down from generation to generation, learned new behaviors and beliefs including oppression, acculturation and organized religion, that continues today.

Native people became wards of the government during the time of signing treaties. It wasn't till 1978 that we got the right to our spiritual-traditional practices (what non-Native people call religion), and that we got the right to our children with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act.

Consider that: We didn't have the legal right to our children until 1978. That's not that long ago. Our children were being taken away and put in boarding schools, foster care and adopted at enormous rates. Many families never got their children back.

Most Native children were wards of the government. They didn't belong to their families or their tribes. They belonged to the federal government.

Prior to 1978, any social worker could come into your home and determine the cleanliness of your home or abuse of children and take them. Seldom was there abuse for most Indian children.

Most of the time, it was Indian families living as they always had with many family members living together, including aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins and their houses were messy. They did not meet the criteria of what a home “should” look like or how many people could live in one home. For many families, this was the last time they saw their children.


very year, I go huckleberry picking with my cousin. A couple of years ago, we were huckleberry picking, and my cousin cut her hand. I got some Band-Aid plant, and I was putting it on her hand, and she said, “How do you know this stuff?”

And I said, “How do you not? I was raised by our gram/tupa.”

She looked at me, and said, “Because I was in boarding school.”

I literally started crying. I said, “Oh, my God, that's right.”

My gram/tupa would say, you have to heal what is sick. What food are you feeding your mind, is it good thoughts? What foods are you feeding your body, are they good foods to keep you strong? What foods are you feeding your spirit, are you praying with gratitude and humility for our people and our world? What foods are you feeding your heart, are you filled with anger or love? Because when you carry that bad medicine, it will make you sick, and all you touch will become sick.

I spent too many years being in pain and anger, never feeling good enough, worthy or belonging, but the creator has a great sense of humor, I’m always asking; What the hell? You want me to do what? The creator puts me in places, jobs, experiences that I least expect, but know it’s for a reason, to learn whatever life lessons I’m supposed to learn and help others.

I do this work to give honor to all those that came before us and all those that will follow and maybe, just maybe I’ll have earned the right to carry the title Elder one day, not just another grumpy old person. But most of all for my granddaughter and generations to come to break this cycle of trauma so that she may know who she is and know what it means to be Indian, not read about being Indian in a history book, but through her own eyes and life experience.

I do not walk this journey alone as before me, many elders, people, teachers and family have guided my path. My hope is to take these traumas of suffering, boarding schools, wars, loss, and embrace them as our resiliency. The truth of our stories and experience from our voice, not someone else’s. To allow the world to know the truth of our experience so people of this world may find their own healing.

Pam James attended St. Mary's Mission boarding school in Omak, Washington, in the 1970s.

If you would like to share a story about boarding schools, or are looking for information about your relatives, please email Your email will reach the two journalists working on this project, Ashley Hiruko and Isolde Raftery.

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