By: Madeline Ryan 

Despite her efforts to stay calm, Charmayne James left the school auditorium in tears. While the rest of her classmates emptied into the hallway, James kept her head down as she hurried in the direction of her dorm, preventing anyone from noticing how the tears wouldn’t stop. Her younger brother, a freshman at her high school, was somewhere in the mass of students. She avoided him too, hoping he wouldn’t realize how distraught she was at the news they’d just received. When she reached the solitude of her dorm room, she broke down. The first person she called was her mom.  

“I don’t know how she already knew,” James says. “But she already knew that they were sending us home.” 

This moment marked the beginning of an abrupt end to her senior year of high school at Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon. It was the second week of March, and Chemawa, one of 183 schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE), was following orders to shut down. As a boarding school, Chemawa had to send their roughly 300 students home to cities and reservations across the nation during a pandemic. 

Home for James is the town of Pinon in the Navajo Nation in Arizona. She had been enjoying her senior year and looking forward to her graduation for months, especially because her family planned a road trip from Pinon up to Salem so they could see her graduate in the spring. Her mom raised her to value education over all else. When her principal announced that the entire student body had to return home early, Charmayne knew that meant she and the rest of her senior class wouldn’t get the graduation ceremony they’d been dreaming of for their whole lives. She was devastated. 

“My heart stopped. It felt like it just dropped to my stomach,” James says with a small laugh and then a sigh. 

“I started thinking about it, and then finally that’s when it hit me,” James says. “And I was like, ‘Wow. This last year of high school really went to shit.’”

In the coming months, James and her family would not only be impacted by the canceling of her graduation; soon, several of them would test positive for COVID-19. They would lose a family member to the virus without a chance to say goodbye. And they would begin preparations for James’ younger brother, now a rising sophomore, to begin a school year at Chemawa unlike any other. 

While the coronavirus pandemic has affected everybody in the country, it disproportionately harmed Native American communities and students. Struggles in education quality, technology access and health experienced by Native American students, including students at Chemawa Indian School and other Bureau of Indian Education schools, have become exacerbated during the pandemic.  

Even before the pandemic, Chemawa had difficulties with the overall quality of the education and attention their students received. According to a 2015 report by the Department of the Interior, the school was not following the requirements in the No Child Left Behind Act by repeatedly failing to properly assess the academic needs of their students. 

The same 2015 report detailed the gaps between standard public schools and the schools operated by the Bureau of Indian Education. According to the report, test scores for Bureau of Indian Education-funded schools are lower than public schools. “In general,” the report reads, “BIE students lag behind the public school population.” 

Like most early boarding schools for Native American youth, Chemawa was founded in the late 19th century with the intention of forcing students to assimilate to Western culture. Chemawa’s design as an off-reservation boarding school was intentional, immersing students in white culture away from their communities. Now Chemawa encourages students to celebrate their culture with regular festivities like pow wows and drum circles. Even so, structural barriers to equality have been in place for Chemawa students since its founding.

The devastation of not having a graduation ceremony was particularly intense for James because only half of Native students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools get the experience of graduating. According to statistics on the Bureau of Indian Education website, American Indian and Alaskan Native students have a graduation rate of 69 percent nationally, but the average graduation rate for Native students attending Bureau of Indian Education schools is only 53 percent. For context, the national graduation rate is 81 percent. 

By the time Chemawa announced that everyone was going home, James had technically already graduated. After finishing up her remaining credits by the end of her first term, James spent her second term at school entirely focused on extracurriculars. This meant that once she went home in the spring, she didn’t have to worry about online schoolwork or the fact that she didn’t have access to a laptop at her house. 

Other students at Chemawa still had work to do before they could graduate. But receiving an online education is often more difficult for Native American students because they have less access to technology and internet than other racial groups.

Kalorie Dillinger, a 17-year-old Chemawa sophomore from the White Mountain Apache Tribe in Arizona returned to her reservation in March, panicked about how she was going to access her online courses. Dillinger says Chemawa told her she would be required to pass online core subject courses in order to complete the year. But she didn’t have the necessary internet access or technology at her parent’s home to participate in the courses. 

With libraries already closed by the time she returned to her reservation, Dillinger decided to finish her last few months of school staying with a cousin who lived nearby and had a laptop with an Internet connection she could use. 

Dillinger’s challenges in finding internet access are common among Indigenous youth. Almost 30 percent of Americans on tribal lands lack broadband access, according to the Federal Communications Commission 2020 report on broadband deployment. By comparison, the same report concluded that only 5.6 percent of Americans lack access. This digital divide makes receiving an online education significantly more difficult for Native American students.  

Chemawa Indian School didn’t receive a lot of resources or guidance during the transition to online learning. The Bureau of Indian Education offered only vague guidance to their schools and did not share explicit plans for the $153 million they received under the coronavirus relief bill quickly enough for it to be distributed when it was desperately needed during the spring. According to legal experts, their response was slow and sparse in comparison to the responses of other school districts.

“What we’ve seen is that they’re behind,” Heather Hoechst, a staff attorney at the Native American Disability Law Center, says of the Bureau. She says state educational agencies in Arizona and New Mexico were fairly quick to put out guidance for their schools, while the Bureau of Indian Education put out limited guidance.

The Academic Guidance Memorandum provided by the Bureau on March 30 was two pages long and contained only vague advice. A bullet point in the guidance titled “Plan for Student Learning” instructed administrators to “build on a student’s current location, family, strengths, interests, goals, and needs, and use this knowledge to positively impact student learning.” 

In comparison, the New Mexico Public Education Department provided a 31-page guidance document that was more thorough, including a structured 5-day training plan for teachers to adjust to online instruction and grade-specific time commitment maximums with content options for ‘learning time.’ 

Hoechst learned from clients that many Bureau of Indian Education schools reacted in vastly different ways from each other during school closures as a result of incomplete guidance from the Bureau. 

“It seemed apparent that schools didn’t know what to do. If the Bureau had been a little more proactive about issuing guidance to the schools, then there would have been a more uniform response and parents and families would know what to expect,” Hoechst says. 

The Executive Director of the Bureau of Indian Education, when reached for comment, redirected questions to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The Bureau of Indian Affairs did not respond by the time of this writing. 

When Chemawa Indian School announced that they were closing the school, some students celebrated the long summer and the chance to return home early. This reaction angered Myka Taho, James’ roommate. Taho was upset about the abrupt end to her senior year, but also felt that students didn’t understand the dangers that waited for them at home. 

“It was that worry of, ‘are we going to be safe? Are we going to be okay?’” Taho says. “And are we getting sent home to where things are not going to be okay?” 

Both Taho and James’ families live in the Navajo Nation. While Taho was able to move out of her grandparent’s house and live on her own in Flagstaff at the beginning of the summer, James stayed at home, helping her mom and siblings. 

Cases began to rise in her town of Pinon. The Navajo Nation quickly became a COVID-19 hot spot. “Since this is a small community,” James says, “we knew who had COVID. We knew who passed away from it.” 

In May, her family tested positive for COVID-19. A few days later, her stepfather Lewis was hospitalized, and shortly after being flown to a bigger hospital in Scottsdale, he died. He was 41. 

“I didn’t expect him to...” James trails off in thought. “I had seen him that morning when my mom took him to the hospital, and that was my last time seeing him.” 

By June, the Navajo Nation had a higher infection rate than any state. This disparity ties back to disparities in health that were present before the pandemic. According to the Indian Health Service, American Indian and Alaska Native individuals experience and die from diabetes, chronic liver disease and respiratory disease at higher rates than other Americans, all immunocompromising conditions that increase the dangers of COVID-19. 

The pandemic continues on, and since spring, schools have adapted. James’ younger brother is now a sophomore at Chemawa, and according to James, Chemawa is sending him a laptop through the mail. She says the school may also purchase a Wi-Fi router for the laptop. Online classes began in September, and the earliest students can return to campus will be at least after Christmas break. James sees the school’s decisions as a step in the right direction. 

“I was like ‘Oh, okay, they pulled themselves together and found a solution,” James says with a laugh.

James hasn’t applied to any colleges yet, but she’s considering going to school in various states. She knows moving away will make her worry about her family, but she thinks maybe she’ll outgrow it. 

A few weeks before her stepfather’s death, James was sent by her mom to pick up the mail. She drove to the mailbox and when she opened it, something caught her eye. 

“I went to check the mail and I see the package from Chemawa. I opened it, and I was like, oh my gosh. This was what I was supposed to wear,” James says. Neatly folded inside the package alongside her yearbook and diploma lay her graduation regalia.

“And I just started crying in the car. I was looking at it and I was crying. But after it was over, I was like, I’m really glad I went through that so none of my other siblings would’ve gone through it. I just really, really hope that none of my siblings have to endure that.” 

“And I was just thinking. When I graduate college, I will wear that cap,” James says clearly and slowly. “I will wear that tassel. I will wear that stole. And I will cross the stage with it finally.