History Colorado will spend the next year investigating student abuses and other experiences at the former federal Indian boarding school in Hesperus, as directed by state law.
Colorado House Bill 22-1327 establishes a History Colorado research program intended to improve Coloradans’ understanding of abuses at the former boarding school at Fort Lewis, as well as others like it. The program seeks to learn about “the victimization of families of youth forced to attend the boarding schools and the intergenerational impacts of the abuse,” according to the bill’s language.
The bill also appropriates $618,611 from the state’s general fund to the Department of Higher Education for History Colorado’s use in the research program. Gov. Jared Polis signed the bill into law on May 24.
Colorado’s program comes amid a national effort to uncover abuses and injustices at federally mandated Indian boarding schools. Survivors of the schools cited experiences with leaders changing their names to English names, cutting their hair and preventing them from using their traditional languages and religion.
The former school site is owned today by the Colorado State Land Board and is managed by Fort Lewis College. History Colorado also aims to identify potential burial sites of students who died at the school, according to a news release from History Colorado.
Holly Norton, who is Colorado’s state archaeologist and director of History Colorado’s Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation, will lead the team’s investigations with her expertise in approaching sensitive cultural sites. The nonprofit History Colorado is part of the state’s Department of Education and serves as the state’s historical society.
The research team will report its progress quarterly to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. This will take place during CCIA’s meetings, which are open to the public. The first meeting will be in September, and the bill also requires that History Colorado deliver a final report to the commission and tribes by June 30, 2023.
The recommendations made by History Colorado to better understand the abuses and victimization it discovers will be made publicly available as well.
History Colorado has also been working on similar research at another federal Indian boarding school site in Grand Junction.
The Grand Junction school was known as the Teller Institute, and now the Department of Human Services owns and operates a center for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities on the site. According to HB-1327, the department will be required to vacate the property and sell or transfer the property to a state institution of higher education, a local government, a state agency or a federally recognized tribe in Colorado. This can’t be done until any student graves are identified and mapped out.
An earlier version of this story erred in saying the Old Fort site is owned by Fort Lewis College. The site is owned by Colorado State Land Board and is managed by Fort Lewis College.