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Our View: Indian boarding school findings momentous to Southwest families

Numbers, scale add up to what elders have always said

Last summer, a local firefighter took state Rep. Barbara McLachlan and her team around Towaoc to introduce her to constituents after she gained the Ute Mountain Ute tribe in House District 59 through redistricting.

One Indigenous woman asked what in the world McLachlan had ever done for her. McLachlan told the woman about her bill, the Native American Boarding School Research Program Act, HB22-1327, which directed History Colorado to study former federal Indian boarding schools that operated in Colorado with an emphasis on the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus and the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School.

The woman became teary, and said she had many relatives and friends who died in these Colorado schools. Others whose lives changed forever. She didn’t attend the Fort Lewis school that up to 1,100 students passed through. But she’d been a student at another boarding school, and understood what friends and family endured. Her hair was cut, her tribal name lost, her Native clothing taken away, while forced to assimilate into an unfamiliar culture.

The conversation ended with the woman thanking and hugging McLachlan, while they both held onto each other and cried.

The final report, “Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Colorado: 1880-1920,” was released on Tuesday. The new research focused on the years 1880 to 1920, and found 31 deaths at the Fort Lewis school, a threefold increase over what was reported to Washington, D.C. This includes 15 students of either Ute or Southern Ute tribal affiliation. “Another 30 to 100 burials, or more, associated with the students at the boarding school” could be in that bygone cemetery in Hesperus.

At the Grand Junction school, 37 people had died.

Even more than the findings’ significance to U.S. and Colorado’s historical records, this documentation can’t be underestimated in the lives of Indigenous people in the Southwest. Numbers and scale add context to what Ute tribal elders have known all along. Children never came home, they said. Children died there.

This week on the Fort Lewis College campus in Durango, McLachlan said an Indigenous student was asked what portion of the school’s 46% Indigenous population would be affected by the findings. “One-hundred percent,” the student said. “Absolutely.”

In Southwest tribal communities, the degrees of separation are few with networks of acquaintances knowing local students who attended the Fort Lewis boarding school. Children from 20 tribes or tribal groups were identified. Stories passed through generations. Yellowed photos shared of little ones never seen again. Brothers, sisters, cousins, neighbors.

These painful truths from a shameful legacy of neglect, and unsafe and unsanitary conditions, along with forced labor, beatings, casual cruelties and even sexual abuse open the way toward understanding, healing and reconciliation. We can’t look away.

In The Denver Post on Tuesday, FLC’s Vice President of Diversity Affairs Heather Shotton, a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes and a Kiowa and Cheyenne descendant, said: “Many of us are descendants of boarding school survivors. The impacts we see from the federal Indian boarding school system, the intergenerational impacts, are ones we live through.”

At the Fort Lewis boarding school, Superintendent Thomas Breen allegedly sexually abused women and girls, impregnating them. In 1903, an investigation into Breen by the Post initiated a federal investigation that resulted in Breen’s removal. Yet, 120 years later, Breen, the name of the unincorporated community within the boundaries of the Southern Ute reservation, remains.

Why is this? We hope one day Breen is renamed, another effort toward healing.

After so much time, with so many living with scars from forced assimilation and cultural genocide, we’re grateful that FLC is committed to looking clear-eyed at its racialized history and being accountable for it, while advancing tribal sovereignty. A few years back, panels on the campus’ clock tower, saying children at the boarding school were “well clothed and happy,” were not just ripped down. Instead, the campus came together in a thoughtful manner to recognize this inappropriate representation would no longer stand. This marked a moment in time to shape a better future with Native American students’ identities and tribal affiliations, language and cultures the beating heart of FLC.

After the report was released, FLC’s Native American Studies faculty hosted a gathering with support and open dialogue on the boarding school history. A community potluck happened, too, as a processing event.

Shotton, said in the Post: “The way that the federal Indian boarding school system was designed, I wasn’t supposed to be here. I shouldn’t be in this position.”

Students are included in next steps, talking and listening and articulating actions they want to take in the world. One idea is to advocate for their Native histories in updated K-12 curriculums. We like this.

FLC President Tom Stritikus said, “This report is an FLC mission moment and triples clarity on what we do – and how we do it – is so important for our state and nation.”

Stritikus acknowledged feelings of heaviness on campus but that it’s more than a historical moment. “We have to celebrate where we’re going,” he said. “We need to be trauma-informed, not trauma-centric. We’re student-centric.”

Native students who honor and celebrate who they are, where they’re from. For themselves, for the elders. For the children.

A matron and young Indigenous women on the lawn of the former Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus. (Courtesy Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College)