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Memories Abound at Chilocco Reunion

Memories Abound at Chilocco Reunion
June 05
14:16 2019

Reuben and Bernice Begay

The Chilocco Indian Boarding School, in Newkirk, Oklahoma, celebrated its 125th annual reunion last week with a banquet, a small pow wow, a veteran’s breakfast to honor alumni who served their country and the ever-popular barbecue.

And there were the memories.

Always the memories of boys and girls who were snatched from their homes and placed under the care of complete strangers to learn new ways, a new language and to survive in a new world.

Life is a series of adaptations.

There are always those who rise to new challenges and thrive. One of those is veteran actor Wes Studi (Class of 1964), who is scheduled to receive an honorary Academy Award this year in recognition of his long and successful career. Studi, a member of the Chilocco Hall of Fame, will be the first Native American to receive an Oscar. Other prominent Chilocco alums include Hall of Famers Jack Jackson and Dean Jackson, both prominent Navajo tribal members, and Mitchell Cypress, who was recently re-elected as president of the Seminole Nation.

The less successful boarding school alums can be found wandering the streets of border towns from Washington State to Florida, pleading for change and in search of the next high to help them cope with the trauma of their youth.

Bernice Austin-Begay, of Page, Ariz., is one of the success stories. A member of the Class of 1965, she spent nearly 50 years as a teacher – including as the first Navajo language teacher in Page. She is also a member of the Chilocco Hall of Fame.

Sitting in the shade of an overhang during the reunion Austin-Begay pointed to a decrepit building that was once the center of her life.

“That used to be the girl’s dormitory,” she said, indicating a stone and mortar building with two large windows in the front. “I used to have nightmares about those windows up until a few years ago.”

In her nightmares unseen beings were coming through the windows, trying to snatch her away.

Much in the same manner as she came to Chilocco.

Government officials would come to the Navajo reservation in search of school-age children. The Austins were one of many families that tried to keep their children from being taken far away, from their homeland.

Few Navajos owned cars in the 1960s and they were rarer still in the high up plateaus of Black Mesa, so when a car appeared the children were instructed to run and hide until the strangers left.

“One day I was too slow and they captured me,” Austin-Begay said.

She was taken from the wilderness of Black Mesa to the desolate plains of Oklahoma, away from everyone she knew. She was about nine – or so the Bureau of Indian Affairs guessed.

Having been born in the reservation there were no official birth records for her so the BIA assigned her a birthday: May 28.

“I just celebrated my 73rd BIA birthday,” she laughed.

Coming to Chilocco opened a new world for her. Before she came to boarding school she had never heard of Elvis Presley and had never tasted pizza.

“I didn’t like (pizza),” she recalled.

One of the scariest moments happened just after she arrived on the campus.

“The wind started blowing real hard, little pebbles would sting when they hit your legs. We girls all had to wear dresses,” Austin-Begay said.

The sky darkened, the wind howled and the earth seemed to whirl around.

“That was the first time I saw a dust storm here – and I thought the world was coming to an end,” Austin-Begay said.

After graduation, she had a chance to work for NASA, but didn’t want to leave the reservation.

Her husband of nearly 51 years, Reuben D. Begay, Sr., has fonder memories of his days at the boarding school. An athletic young man Begay participated in several sports, including track and field and JV football.

He remembered walking to the closest town – Arkansas City, Kansas, about seven miles away – and hanging out with his friends.

He graduated as the salutatorian for the Class of 63.

Begay began his career as a science teacher – he reads Carl Sagan for fun! – before moving to the Navajo Generating Station, where he retired after 30 years.

When Begay was first taken away to school – at Seba Delkai –he was five-years-old He hated it and ran away several times. Once, his uncle found him in the middle of a snowstorm.

At Chilocco he blossomed. His grades were so good some of the teachers wanted to organize a scholarship to send him to medical school!

He looks forward to the annual reunions and sharing recollections with his friends.

“It was the best time of my life,” Begay said.









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