Growing up in Northern Michigan, Susanna Hayes had no idea that her life’s path would lead to the heart of the Native American experience. After graduating from Loyola University Chicago in 1964, with a double major in English Literature and history, she planned to continue on to graduate school, envisioning a future career in academia. But when a Jesuit faculty member returned from a visit to St. Mary’s Mission on the Colville Indian Reservation near Omak, Wash., and shared with Hayes the mission’s need for volunteers, she decided to take a gap year. Her venture west would be life changing, launching Hayes on a professional journey that would end 49 years later where it began, on the Colville Indian Reservation, and inspire her generous gift of support for Seattle University’s Indigenous Peoples Institute (IPI).
St. Mary’s Mission was a Jesuit-driven community about 10 miles outside the town of Omak, on an isolated rural piece of the 1.5-million-acre Colville Indian Reservation. On arrival, Hayes learned that a second-grade teacher was needed at the mission boarding school, which served children in first through eighth grades, and that would be her charge.
“I had never had an education class in my life,” she says, “and I hadn’t a clue what or how to teach second graders. The boarding school was loosely affiliated with the Spokane Diocese Parochial School System, but it did not have a curriculum. On top of that, it was late August, and the kids were coming in after Labor Day.”
The first order of business was to get the classroom in shape. “It was a small room, but well-lit and adequate for the kids,” she recalls. “We got a lot of sunshine and could look out the window onto the hillside, which was very pleasant. We did a lot of reading, writing and storytelling. I used beans from the kitchen to teach addition, subtraction and multiplication. Our science was going into the hills and looking for fish and tadpoles in the water and watching the deer. All of this seemed appropriate to me for second graders, giving them a start.”
Hayes continues, “There was a lot of variation in the kids’ reading skills, but I was struck by how intelligent they were—they really caught on quickly—and were so creative! They were strong and self-confident with a lot of personality, which endeared them to me.”
Hayes heard from non-Native people living outside the reservation that kids “on the rez” didn’t go much beyond the eighth grade. It was 1964, and most of the high schools were outside the reservation.
“I could understand why families on the reservation chose to send their young children to the boarding school,” she says. “It was all Native American and the kids were with their siblings and cousins. These bright, creative, promising young people faced a vastly different world when it came time to go to high school.”
Volunteering at St. Mary’s with a room in an old building above the kitchen, Hayes would be up at 4:30 a.m. to be on time for 5 a.m. Mass. Afterward, she helped the cook prepare breakfast and served it to the children together with other volunteers. Afterschool there was recreation time, and the volunteers would play outside with the kids. Then it was dinner, followed by study hall. When the kids went to bed, the teachers planned their lessons for the next day. “We were completely immersed in the work and spread thin,” Hayes recalls.
Life at St. Mary’s Mission was different from anything Hayes had known, but she loved it and stayed another three years.
The four years at St. Mary’s inspired a change in Hayes’ focus but her academic ambitions never waned. “I would ask myself over and over why some of these brilliant, interested, eager-to-learn kids were not succeeding in school,” she explains. “And I decided that I wanted to learn about the psychosocial aspects of education.”
She enrolled at the University of Arizona and researched what caused some kids to fail while others did not. She says she discovered research showing that from the time they started going to school, Native American children were taught to assimilate into White culture—they had to speak English, dress and act like their White peers and learn from a standard curriculum. Their Native cultures were stripped away. A fellow graduate student from the nearby Navajo tribe, Sam Billson, had personal experience attending St. Michael’s Parochial Boarding School in the 1950s and 1960s. If a teacher caught him speaking Navajo, he would be punished.
After completing her Master’s in Education, along with teaching and counseling credentials, Hayes went on to the University of Michigan, where she earned a PhD in Counseling Psychology.
“My dissertation was titled, ‘The Resistance to Education for Assimilation by the Colville Indians, 1872-1972,’” she says. “I did a historical study of the effects of federal policies and federal laws on the people of the Colville Indian Reservation. It was very similar to what happened on other reservations across the country.”
In 1973, after completing her PhD, Hayes returned to Washington to accept a counseling position at Nespelem Elementary School on the Colville Indian Reservation. There she met Pat Twohy, S.J., whose vocation as a priest is in serving Native peoples and who has a longstanding relationship with Seattle University. Father Twohy was the pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Nespelem at that time. The two have remained friends ever since.
“It was a different experience living in Nespelem,” she says. “Where St. Mary’s was on a rural, isolated part of the reservation, Nespelem was a village. I went to church with the people, shopped at the same grocery store—it was more of a community life. When I came home from work kids were usually waiting for me on my doorstep. They liked to come over to read books, play games and eat the peanut butter sandwiches I’d make for them. I felt like I was truly living with and among the Native people.”
Four years later, Hayes was hired to create a program for paraprofessional educators working with tribal education programs and in Western Washington’s public schools, at Western Washington University (WWU). The program assisted these paraprofessionals to understand some of the dynamics of the Native American community and Native students so they could better meet these students’ needs.
Hayes later taught in the Psychology Department’s Counselor Training Program at WWU, where she met Louie Gong, the talented Coast Salish artist and future founder of Eighth Generation. “Louie had a simple life on the Nooksack Reservation with his maternal grandmother and was a wonderful student with a very expressive ability in writing and in speaking and was extremely creative.”
Gong became a child and family therapist working on behalf of low-income, first-generation students, first at the University of Washington’s Educational Opportunity Center and then at Muckleshoot Tribal College, before realizing his dream to be an artist and entrepreneur. In 2008, he founded Eighth Generation, a Seattle-based art and lifestyle company that recognizes Indigenous artists as true partners and collaborators empowering them to make a living through their art. In 2019, Gong sold the company to the Snoqualmie Tribe.
“Louie’s teachers in the Nooksack Public School recognized his gift when he was a young child and encouraged and guided him,” Hayes says. “It’s a testament to the impact that kind of support plus a formal education can have on a young person’s life.”
Hayes retired from WWU in 2006, but in her free time became a counselor at Lake Roosevelt High School in the town of Coulee Dam on the Colville Indian Reservation. She ended her career seven years later where it began.
At Lake Roosevelt, four of Hayes’ students received Gates Foundation grants out of 10 grants available in the state. Each graduated from college and went on to a successful career.
In 2021, Hayes read about Seattle University’s Indigenous Peoples Institute (IPI), which supports Native American student success and raises awareness about issues of critical importance to local and global Indigenous peoples. She noted that her longtime friend, Fr. Pat Twohy, who now works with urban Native populations in and around Seattle, is actively involved with the IPI. She gave him a call.
“More Native students are going on to college these days, which is one reason why I’m very interested in what the IPI is doing,” she says. “These students need the support the IPI provides them, and they also need financial help. College is expensive and getting more so. I told Fr. Pat I wanted to make a donation to give the organization more stability, to strengthen its foundation.”
Hayes made a gift of $1.09 million to the IPI, its largest gift ever. Half supports the Indigenous Peoples Institute Endowed Scholarship, which provides student scholarships. The other half supports the Indigenous Peoples Institute Patrick Twohy, S.J. Endowment, which provides for the institute’s sustainability in perpetuity.
“My time at St. Mary’s Mission opened my eyes and my heart to what all the beautiful, intelligent children I worked with were capable of, and they were being overlooked, unable to further their education. I’m grateful for the doors that have been opened for Indigenous students since that time and I know any gift that provides these students access to a college education will reap rewards for our communities many times over.”