Nine institutions in Colorado with federal financial support served as Native American boarding and day schools between 1880 and at least 1920, with the goal of stripping Indigenous children of their culture, according to a summary of new research by History Colorado released Friday.
That’s more than the five institutions in Colorado identified last year in a federal report on Native American boarding schools, which existed across the United States as government-sponsored tools of cultural genocide used to forcefully assimilate the nation’s Indigenous communities.
The research, led by State Archaeologist Holly Norton, was mandated by legislation passed last year that required an executive summary be released by Sept. 1. History Colorado officials said the results of their investigations to date have been released to the leaders of tribal nations whose students attended those schools.
The full report, History Colorado said, will be made public Oct. 3 after the tribes “impacted by this history have had time to review, reflect and process its contents.”
Seven of the Native American schools identified by History Colorado were managed by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, while the state and the Catholic Church each managed a school as well.
“These schools included on-reservation day schools, on-reservation boarding schools and off-reservation boarding schools, all of which served different roles within the federal Indian education policy, but ultimately served the same goals of assimilation,” Norton and History Colorado president and CEO Dawn DiPrince wrote in the executive summary.
History Colorado found the following institutions worked toward Indigenous students’ assimilation in Colorado:
- Ignacio School, 1884-1890. Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, 1886-1911. Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- State Industrial School for Boys in Golden, 1890-1926. Managed by state of Colorado
- Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus, 1892-1909. Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Good Shepherd Industrial School for Girls in Denver, 1893-1895. Managed by Catholic Church
- Southern Ute Boarding School in Igancio, 1903-(?). Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Navajo Day School near Towaoc, 1910-(?). Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Allen Day School in Bayfield, 1912-(?). Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Towaoc Day School, 1916-(?). Managed by Bureau of Indian Affairs
In addition to identifying more schools, the History Colorado list also differs from the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ roster of federal boarding schools released last year in the exact names of the Colorado schools and their years of operation.
History Colorado officials told The Denver Post that it appears the federal list may have combined the Ignacio School and the Southern Ute Boarding School in Ignacio as a single entry, while state researchers found there was a long enough gap between the two schools’ operations that they should be considered distinct institutions. The federal roster also includes a single entry for a Ute Mountain Boarding School in Towaoc, while History Colorado lists two different day schools that operated in or near Towaoc.
The schools History Colorado identified in Golden and Bayfield are not included in the federal registry.
“This is about their relatives”
The state legislature last year mandated History Colorado research what occurred at the former federal Indian boarding school that is now Fort Lewis College, a southern Colorado higher education institution that serves a large Indigenous student population and is working on reconciliation efforts to face its sordid past and forge a future of healing.
Nationally, tribes and researchers have been searching for marked or unmarked gravesites holding the remains of Indigenous children around the country since the 2021 discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
That discovery prompted Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native cabinet member in American history, to launch a full review of the U.S.’s own legacy of Native American boarding schools.
History Colorado’s full report next month will feature additional details on the archival research into the state’s Indian boarding schools and more information on archaeological findings, as researchers specifically were instructed to identify and map graves of Native American students buried at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and in its off-campus cemeteries.
The executive summary released Friday does not say whether grave sites or human remains have been discovered as part of the new research.
“The tribal nations that we have been consulting with — this is about their relatives,” DiPrince said in an interview. “They really need the space and time to privately work within their communities and families to be able to process and work through this before there is a much larger public engagement around it. We have been getting a lot of questions around the numbers (of potential graves) because oftentimes that feels the way people know how to engage in this kind of study, and I just caution us to remember that these are humans.”
“This was a system”
The main focus of History Colorado’s report was the off-reservation boarding schools, specifically the Teller Institute, later known as the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, and the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School.
Both of those schools participated in what’s known as an “outing system,” the executive summary said, which was a program where students were placed with white families across Colorado over summer vacations or entire school years to work for under-market wages as agricultural or domestic laborers.
“This was a system,” DiPrince said. “This shows us how this is threaded throughout the state and not just confined to the sites. That’s an important thing for us to collectively contend with.”
DiPrince noted the legislative constraint of having about a year to do this research was an “ambitious timeline” and that much more work needs to be done moving forward. The research, she said, must be paired with deep consultation and guidance by the impacted tribal nations.
“They inform the steps we take, the decisions we make,” DiPrince said.
Because of the time constraint, the research in the report mostly focuses up to 1920. But DiPrince said she expects more information to come out as researchers work beyond that cutoff.
History Colorado was tasked with writing recommendations for the state following its research.
Those recommendations include:
- Consultation with representatives from the 33 impacted tribal nations
- American Indian/Alaska Native listening and learning sessions
- Travel to impacted reservations
- Additional archival research
- Maintaining and hiring research positions at History Colorado dedicated to this work
- Developing oral histories centered on Indian boarding school survivors and their communities
As part of the legislation, History Colorado also was tasked with gathering oral histories, but DiPrince said the researchers could not do so properly during the time frame given.
“While the directive to conduct oral histories arose from good intentions, I would ask that we as a State government identify the purposes of oral histories. It cannot be simply a performative action,” the executive summary states. “I would caution that oral histories must serve a greater purpose than simply recording the trauma of already victimized people, who do not owe the State their emotions or stories.”
Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College, said History Colorado has been “an exceptional partner” in the school’s efforts to learn about its past and work toward a better future.
“We think very deliberately about what responsibility is created because of the fact we began as a federal Indian boarding school and what it means to be accountable to a very dark chapter in American history and what it means for language revitalization and honoring Indigenous practices and telling an accurate version of the story of our students who are thriving on our campus today,” Stritikus said. “You can’t heal unless you look back with honesty and accuracy and, for us, the healing is the forward momentum we want to keep building on.”
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