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Fort Lewis College considers search for Indigenous human remains at ‘Old Fort’ site

Bodies have been found at former boarding schools in Canada, Pennsylvania
Fort Lewis College and its tribal partners consider searching for unmarked Indigenous student graves at the Old Fort, a former boarding school in Hesperus. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College)

Fort Lewis College and tribal nations might search for human remains buried at the college’s original campus in Hesperus, which was a Native American boarding school until 1910.

FLC began considering the idea in early June after hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered at government-run schools for Indigenous children in Canada. The U.S. Department of the Interior also launched a new program in late June to search for student burial sites around the country.

“As you might imagine, there are deep cultural, moral and ethical sensitivities for FLC to consider regarding the possible existence of human remains at the Old Fort,” said Lauren Savage, FLC spokeswoman, in a prepared statement.

The U.S. government spent a century and a half taking Indigenous children from their families and putting them in boarding schools intended to assimilate them through legislation. The strategy was formalized in 1819 legislation, called the Civilization Fund Act.

During that time, hundreds of thousands of children were housed and educated in a network of institutions, according to The New York Times. The mentality of the time was summarized in a statement attributed to Capt. Richard Pratt: “Kill the Indian in him and save the man.”

The discovery in May and June of nearly 1,000 unmarked graves in British Columbia and Saskatchewan shook open an international conversation about the possibility of additional student burial sites.

The Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative, a federal program announced in late June, will identify American facilities and sites where there may have been student burials and find the tribal affiliations of the children.

In early July, nine Native American children who died at a federal boarding school in Pennsylvania were reburied by the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota, according to news reports.

The discoveries in Canada sparked discussion with the FLC Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee of the board of trustees, according to a June 8 statement to the FLC community.

“We will work with experts to continue to build our understanding of the Old Fort property,” said Bitsóí, who is Diné and associate vice president for diversity affairs at FLC, in the statement.

An historic walking tour held in May 2016 at the Old Fort campus in Hesperus. The college is considering searching the campus for human remains from past Indigenous students. (Durango Herald file)

A New York Times story published Monday confirmed the college was considering searching for student burial sites. The Grand Junction Indian School in western Colorado is also searching for the bodies of students.

In the article, Navajo, Ute Mountain and Southern Ute people shared their experiences in boarding schools and the traumas they endured.

Older and younger generations are still grappling with those traumas as they grieve for the lost children. Institution names, like FLC, are daily reminders of the Indigenous erasure, Bitsóí said in a June statement.

“At this time, the deaths are believed to be undocumented – a dark reminder of the boarding school premise and intent of Indigenous erasure,” he said. “We acknowledge how heavy this tragic news weighs on Indigenous families who experienced the atrocities of boarding schools in Canada and the U.S.”

The college lacks burial records or affirmative evidence of unmarked Indigenous graves, according to Savage’s statement Friday.

However, the FLC board of trustees is investigating the matter. As of Friday, the college was engaged in initial conversations and outreach to tribes whose ancestors likely attended the Fort Lewis boarding school, the FLC statement said.

No searches are actively being conducted at the Old Fort. Any attempts to investigate the presence of any human remains would be under the guidance of the college’s tribal nation partners and consultants, the college said.

If student graves were discovered, FLC would work with tribal nation consultants on repatriation and reburial in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the statement said.

Majel Boxer, professor of Native American and indigenous studies at Fort Lewis College, discusses the panels mounted in stone in the walk-through area of the FLC clock tower. A committee will consider updating the panels to present a more realistic synopsis of the college’s history as a boarding school for Native American students. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

A stakeholder meeting is scheduled for August. Also in progress is the removal of 12 panels on the school’s clock tower that portray the inaccurate depiction of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School experience.

The ceremonial removal of the panels will take place this fall, Bitsóí said in his June 8 statement.

“Acknowledging our complicated and complex history is difficult and challenging; however, now is the time to acknowledge such pain and suffering in order to begin the process of healing and moving forward,” he said.

smullane@durangoherald.com

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