Examining Fort Lewis College’s dark past

by Nick Gonzales

At an 1892 convention, Capt. Richard H. Pratt began a speech with the following words: “A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

A Civil War veteran, Pratt was placed in charge of prisoners captured during the Red River War of 1874-75 – a military campaign launched by the United States Army to displace the Comanche Kiowa, Southern Cheyenne, and Arapaho tribes of the Southern Plains. Instead of simply detaining the prisoners, he used his posting at Fort Marion, Florida, to conduct a social experiment: educating the captive Native Americans in the English language, art, and craftsmanship. The federal government noticed his success in “civilizing” the prisoners and granted Pratt’s request to establish a boarding school in 1879.

The United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, quickly became the flagship in the country’s effort to assimilate its indigenous peoples. Native American boarding schools were opened across the country, including in Southwest Colorado, essentially franchising Pratt’s model of cultural genocide.

Fort Lewis began as an army post built in 1878 to police the Ute community in Pagosa Springs. It maintained the same mission when it relocated to Hesperus, just west of Durango, in 1880. Eleven years later, it was decommissioned and converted into a boarding school to educate the region’s indigenous peoples.

The Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School closed in 1910, and the institution began the process of transitioning into the four-year college that exists in Durango today. But the school is still wrestling with how it should represent that dark period of its history.

Life at a boarding schoolAccording to documents at FLC’s Center for Southwest Studies, Lewis Morgan of Fort Defiance, Arizona, arrived in 1892 to open the Fort Lewis Indian School with an enrollment of 51 students. Morgan brought several Navajo children with him and others soon arrived, with the school reaching capacity at 345 students. Children could range anywhere from 5 years old to their early 20s.

Majel Boxer, an Associate Professor of Native American & Indigenous Studies at FLC, said many of the Navajo students arrived from what was then known as Navajo Springs, an area just south of Towaoc near Cortez. Jicarilla Apache and Puebloan students traveled there from northern New Mexico. Utes also made up much of the student body, though few came from Ignacio, as Chief Ignacio was very resistant to sending students to the school in Hesperus.

[image:2]In many cases, students were taken to boarding schools unwillingly, said Visiting Professor of Native American & Indigenous Studies Bridget Groat.

“Parents didn’t willingly send their children to boarding schools. In order to get the children, the federal government withheld annuities. They would also imprison the parents if they didn’t send their children, and they also captured children,” she said.

Upon arrival, students would have encountered cruel and confusing conditions. Many boarding schools were run, like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, using military methods. This involved cutting the students’ hair, which is only done as a sign of mourning for most tribes; the w earing of uniforms; and punishment when students spoke their own languages, she said. Physical and sexual abuse was widespread.

Naturally, the students didn’t take well to their new environment. According to a May 1931 issue of Colorado Magazine, the students burned down most of the buildings on the campus, leaving only two houses.

At the rebuilt school, students at the Fort Lewis Indian School were taught English, reading, writing, arithmetic, and history, in addition to skills such as cooking, homemaking, blacksmithing, and farming – if and when they survived. An epidemic hit the school in 1894, killing a number of students.

“It’s well documented that boarding schools students suffered a lack of nutrition. It was a diet that lacked variety. … Overcrowding became an issue,” Boxer said. “Tuberculosis was a disease that spread, trachoma – which is a disease of the eye – spread, all because of unsanitary conditions.”

[image:3]The school itself also lacked resources to adequately care for its pupils. In letters, the superintendent of Fort Lewis even acknowledged that the military post had been poorly built and that the dormitories were cheaply made and extremely cold in the winter.

After the outbreak, parents removed many of the children by force and the school was abandoned for a year, at which time it was looted for everything of value, including its plumbing.

The school reopened and stayed open until 1910 under the supervision of first superintendent Thomas Breen, followed by William Peterson. The school reached capacity with 200 to 250 students, but struggled to maintain that number year to year, Boxer said.

Eventually, on-reservation day schools became more practical in terms of resources, and their emergence helped remove the need for off-reservation boarding schools, though some did not close until the 1970s. There are many Native Americans alive today who attended the boarding schools, and the initial generation that attended them were the great-grandparents of those alive today.

The main campus of Fort Lewis College has since moved from the Hesperus location to its current location on the mesa above Durango, but the location of the boarding school campus is still maintained by the institution. Now known as the “Old Fort,” it is home to a variety of agricultural programs offered by the college.

Short- and long-term effectsWhen students left the boarding schools, some returned to their families while others did not. Those who did return often found themselves unable to resume the life they would have led had they not attended the schools.

In the short term, the schools removed a generation of children from their families, Boxer said. As a result, it disrupted the transfer of generational knowledge and tribal traditions. Children were expected to stay at the school, staying through the summers to participate in activities. As a result, they may not see their family again until they graduated as an adult.

Tribal traditions survived in spite of the generational gap, she said, but the children’s long absence left an indelible mark on indigenous cultures. Young girls and boys missed important coming-of-age ceremonies, and young men, having missed traditional training about how to provide for their families, shifted to the farming methods they learned at the schools instead.

[image:4]Scholarship on the long-term effects of the boarding schools cite them as a root cause of intergenerational trauma that indigenous communities are still suffering from today, Modern day social issues, including high rates of depression, abuse, and suicide and the prevalence of diabetes, alcohol, and substance abuse can be linked to schools like the one in Hesperus, Boxer said.

“The teachings of what it meant to be a parent how to be a family – all of that to got disrupted. It’s not at all to say that those are gone, because there are healthy families out there,” Boxer said. “But overall there has been much, much harm caused by boarding schools.”

Groat points out that while the boarding experience was overwhelmingly negative, forcing members of different tribes to share the same brutal experience inspired inter-tribal camaraderie.

“One surprising thing that came out of the boarding school was a pan-Indian movement, where many tribal nations came together and developed an Indian identity instead of just their tribal identity, which led to the American Indian Movement,” she said.

A lot of inter-tribal marriages also resulted from boarding schools, she said.

[image:5]What now?
In response to criticism, Fort Lewis College has formed a committee and advisory group to reevaluate how it publicly portrays its days as a boarding school. Jesse Peters, dean of arts and sciences, said the issue currently revolves around a series of panels inside the clock tower on the modern campus, but displays inside the Delaney library at the Center for Southwest Studies and photos displayed in a building at the Old Fort campus are under scrutiny.

While the panels do not deny that Fort Lewis was once a boarding school, they fail to describe the harsh reality of what that meant. Among portraits of the students and staff, the photos on the panels depict the boarding school’s marching band and baseball team. Captions note that the school received high praise for its “extremely good literary instruction” and “excellent work.” They also say that the children there were “well-clothed and happy.”

Peters said FLC is working on making sure that the campus is inclusive to its entire student body, 41% of which is Native American. The committee, which just held its first public meeting on Dec. 13, is gathering input from students, faculty, and staff. He said the college is also reaching out to the tribes of the students who attended the boarding school to find out how they would like to see that period of history represented.

“Too often we ignore the realities of the past that inform our present time,” he said.

The committee hopes to present the president of the college, Tom Stritikus, with recommendations on what action to take by the end of the academic year in April, Peters said.

[image:6]In the meantime, a plaque has been added alongside the panels, explaining what the college is currently doing to replace them.

It’s not clear where the panels inside the clock tower originally came from – the committee is looking into that as well – but the clock tower itself is only 20 years old. The fact that opinions about the panels have changed in such a short time may reflect the community’s changing views on history and multiculturalism.

And it may be time for Fort Lewis to publicly memorialize the truth of what happened during the darkest period of its past.


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