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Fort Lewis College featured on PBS NewsHour for efforts to reckon with its past

Boarding school stripped Native Americans of language, culture and identity
Fort Lewis College was featured this week on PBS NewsHour for its efforts to acknowledge and accurately portray its history as a boarding school for Native American students. (Screenshot)

Fort Lewis College was featured this week on PBS NewsHour as part of a national segment about the United States’ history of removing Native American children from their families and placing them in boarding schools, where they were forced to give up their language and culture.

The eight-minute segment, titled “Colorado college reckons with a troubling legacy of erasing Indigenous culture,” includes interviews with FLC President Tom Stritikus, faculty members and a student. It also features several shots of the college, the Old Fort campus in Hesperus and footage of a powwow held at FLC.

“There has been a huge reckoning in this country to say that institutions must take a look at their own racialized history and understand the implications of that racialized history,” Stritikus told PBS NewsHour. “For Fort Lewis College, that racialized history is embedded in the fact that we started as an Indian boarding school.”

The college offers a Native American tuition waiver as part of a land agreement struck more than 100 years ago. Indigenous students make up about 45% of the student body, from 185 nations, tribes and villages, according to the college.

FLC is engaged in an effort to explore its history, acknowledge its past and provide a “more supportive learning environment” for Indigenous students, the PBS NewsHour narrator explains.

Thousands of Native American children attended school at the Old Fort campus 15 miles west of Durango where they were “stripped of their language, their culture and, frankly, their identity,” he says.

Majel Boxer, an associate professor in the department of Native American and Indigenous Studies at FLC, had grandparents who attended boarding schools around the country. Her father didn’t learn the Dakota language, she told PBS NewsHour, because his parents determined he would be better served to learn English without any accent.

The news segment also speaks with Joslynn Lee, a former student and current assistant professor of chemistry at the college, who helped lead an effort to update the language used on panels under the college clock tower explaining the school’s boarding school history. One of the panels read: “The children are well-clothed and happy.”

Lee told PBS NewsHour it was an inappropriate representation.

She sent an email to Stritikus in August 2019, and the college formed a History Committee to re-evaluate the school’s history. The panels were removed last year.

Noah Shadlow, a senior, told PBS NewsHour he has seen a change in campus culture since the reconciliation efforts began.

“I feel more recognized. I feel more acknowledged on this campus, rather than how it was before, where it’s just like, ‘Oh, there’s just some Indian kids over there,’” he said.

But he said more needs to be done, including hiring more Indigenous staff members, including a counselor.

And the college is working to improve its graduation rate among Native American students, which is about 30%, slightly below the national rate, according to PBS NewsHour.

The school’s effort to recognize its history and learn from it has been meaningful, according to those interviewed.

“I think this has opened up a lot of discussion on how we can start to learn more about each other’s culture,” Lee said.

shane@durangoherald.com

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