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Southern Ute archivist dives into boarding school history

A look into what the Southern Ute Dormitory was and its relation to other institutions during the time
This photo shows the girls’ dormitory at the Southern Ute Boarding School. (Courtesy of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe)

A research effort launched in 2022 by the state of Colorado to better understand the physical and emotional toll federal boarding schools had on the Native American population kicked off a dialogue on the victimization that occurred between 1880 and 1920.

But last week, an archivist for the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum weighed in on the state’s dark history involving boarding schools.

Fabian Martinez took a deep dive into the Southern Ute Dormitory, located north of Ignacio, that he said was an extension of the federal boarding school experience from 1955 to 1980.

His family has a long history of being enrolled in various boarding schools in the area.

Martinez’s great-grandmother was enrolled at the Southern Ute Boarding School from about 1908 to 1920. His grandmother attended the Southern Ute Vocational School during the 1940s and 1950s. And his father was placed in the Southern Ute Dormitory from 1968 to 1981.

Much of the information surrounding boarding schools in Southwest Colorado is about three institutions: Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, Southern Ute Boarding School and the Southern Ute Vocational School.

Martinez wanted to learn more about the Southern Ute Dormitory.

Fabian Martinez, archivist for the Southern Ute Cultural Center & Museum, shares a slide about the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School during last week’s History, Culture, and Legacy event at the Durango Public Library. (Tyler Brown/Durango Herald)

The dormitory was the consolidation of Southern Ute Vocational Schools with Ignacio School District in 1955. It was around the time of the Termination Act of 1953, Martinez said during his presentation.

“This was a policy aimed at ending the federal government supervision over federally recognized tribes by making tribes and its members subject to the same laws and privileges as other citizens of the United States, ending their status as wards of the United States,” he said during a talk Thursday at the Durango Public Library.

At the time, more than 60 tribes received a termination status and over 30 million acres of land were turned over as a result, according to his research.

“The Southern Ute Indian Tribe was not directly affected by the Termination Act, but it did have some repercussions,” Martinez said. “More specifically, within the Southern Ute Indian Tribe: We have the rehabilitation program.”

The rehabilitation program came as a result of the Termination Act and it forced the Southern Ute Tribe to work toward self-determination. This resulted in the Southern Ute Tribe developing a corporate charter and a financial plan.

At the time, education was seen as one of the top priorities, Martinez said.

He said the tribe and the Bureau of Indian Affairs came to an agreement with the Ignacio School District to combine youth vocational schools and the school district.

“The reason for this is that the students attending the Ute Vocational School, they believed they were receiving a second-class education,” Martinez said.

The agreement also allowed the Southern Ute Tribe full autonomy over how its children were being educated, unlike previously.

“So as a result, they decided to desegregate the public school and include Native American children into public schools,” Martinez said. “And what happened was those students who were attending the vocational school were housed in the facilities that the old school had previously existed on.”

He said students would stay in dormitories and be transported to public school.

His father was in a dormitory between the ages of 5 and 18.

He said children who were considered welfare cases were put in the dormitory.

“For example, if an individual had a difficult upbringing or had issues with their family, then they could be housed in the dormitory,” Martinez said.

This was the case for his father and uncle because their grandmother had lost custody of them.

It was supposed to last for only four years but it ended up lasting for 20, he said.

Through his research, he found that similar instances of abuse, hazing and rigid structure occurred at the Southern Ute Dormitory.

The dorms were closed in 1982 because of a low student population and a lack of Bureau of Indian Affairs funding. The buildings were then turned over to the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

Looking at the Southern Ute Dormitory and the other boarding schools affiliated with the Southern Ute Tribe, Martinez found both positive and negative impacts.

When describing the positive impacts, Martinez said it’s a “gray area.”

“I know it’s kind of difficult to imagine the positives that can come out of something like this,” he said.

He said cultural and language reclamation programs, developing historical curriculum about boarding schools in public schools, and the Fort Lewis College Native American tuition waiver are positives.

He listed alcoholism and drug abuse, loss of identity, and intergenerational trauma as some of the negative impacts from boarding schools.

When asked about how the subject is researched now, he said there is an abundance of information about boarding school institutions through primary research.

He said most of the information is factual regarding what happened at those institutions, but some federal documents from the time may not have painted the most accurate picture.

Documents often highlighted the positive impacts of boarding schools rather than showing the full scope of how students were treated, he said.

“You don’t really know exactly what the day-to-day was like within the school,” he said.

Martinez said researching family lineage in boarding schools can be hard or easy depending on the tribe or state records.

As a Southern Ute tribal member, he said there are ways to trace family history.

“More specifically, that’s within the records retention division, because they have some of the records for specific tribal members,” he said. “They can kind of look to see if their ancestors attended the school.”


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