Marsha Small to Graduate with Masters Degree

Marsha Small, 54, will be graduating Saturday with a master’s degree in Native American studies.

Marsha Small, a 54-year-old grandmother who grew up on a ranch on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, is far from the most likely person to be graduating from Montana State University with a master’s degree today.

There’s a good chance, however, that she’s also the most passionate about her studies.

“I never thought I would get this far,” the boisterous Small said this week in her Wilson Hall office, where her desk is decorated with pictures of her grandson and stacked with books like Paulo Friere’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

“Come on, I’m a kid from a reservation,” she said.

But ask her about her research — which used ground penetrating radar to map grave sites at a cemetery outside of Salem, Oregon, containing often unmarked remains from American Indian children who died while attending the nearby Chemawa boarding school — and it’s immediately clear why she’ll be crossing the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse stage this afternoon.

“If this was my grandson in there, and we lost his name, I would give anything for someone to come in and find him and give him his voice,” she said.

Indian boarding schools like Chemawa were operated by the U.S. government in the late 1800s and early 1900s in an effort to forcefully assimilate tribal people into mainstream white culture — under a philosophy infamously articulated in an 1892 speech by Army officer Richard Pratt as “Kill the Indian... save the man.”

“They were tired of fighting the Indians,” Small said, calling the process “cultural genocide.”

“Assimilate these Indian kids as fast as you can,” she said.

Stories of physical and sexual abuse at boarding schools are common, trauma that’s often referenced as an underlying cause of the high rates of violence and sex crimes faced by many tribal communities. Additionally, many of the Indian children who attended boarding schools — some leaving home as young as the age of 6, Small said — never returned.

She’s located “hundreds” of previously forgotten graves at the Chemawa cemetery. Her aunt and three of her uncles attended the school. Many of the burial markers have been lost over the years, she said, some stolen by vandals.

Her long-term goal is to make it possible for relatives of the children buried in the cemetery to reclaim remains, she said.

After graduating from high school in 1976, Small bounced around, working as a welder and gas station attendant in Montana and Oregon. She raised her daughter as a single mother while working nights as a bartender.

“I was crazy, super-crazy,” she said, describing herself as a “rebel.”

She eventually went back to school in the early 2000s, earning an associate’s degree from Chief Dull Knife College, the Northern Cheyenne tribal community college in Lame Deer, in 2002 and then a bachelor’s from Southern Oregon University in 2009 before beginning her master’s program at MSU in 2012.

“You’re supposed to bounce around to get your eduction,” she said. “You don’t want it all out of one box.”

The process, however, hasn’t necessarily been easy, Small said, noting she’s had to teach herself things as basic as using Microsoft Word and Excel.

“It’s been hell,” she said.

“Now it’s my passion,” she said of the cemetery mapping work, adding she plans to pursue a Ph.D. so she can continue the work. “You feel it when you go in there. You feel it.

“This is actual history,” she said. “Such genocide happened.

“It took me a long time to do my dream,” she said. “It’s not every day an old woman gets a master’s degree.”

Eric Dietrich can be reached at 406-582-2628 or edietrich@dailychronicle.com. He is on Twitter at @eidietrich.

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