DURANGO, Colo. — The clock tower standing at the center of the Fort Lewis College campus is also at the center of a very painful history.
As the name suggests, Fort Lewis was a military post in the late 19th century. But then the army base transitioned into an Indian Boarding Schoolthat operated for nearly two decades, from 1891 to 1910. It was an institution designed to forcefully erase the culture of Native American children.
Many of the boarding school students were kidnapped from their homes and families. They were beaten for speaking their own Native languages or for practicing any of their cultural and spiritual rituals. Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus has described it as “cultural genocide.”
“My biological parents and aunts and uncles attended these boarding schools,” said LeManuel Bitsóí, the Associate Vice President for Diversity Affairs at Fort Lewis College. Bitsóí is an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation. “So when they spoke in Navajo, they were punished or they were beaten. And when I ask my mother questions about her experience she doesn’t elaborate too much.”
The Indian Boarding School at Fort Lewis was modeled after the institutions that came before it, like the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. That boarding school’s superintendent, Richard Henry Pratt, is known for the infamous phrase "kill the Indian, save the man."
"So if you 'kill the Indian,' you're to 'save the person,' that was the notion,” Bitsóí explained. “And it's so wrong because if you look at it, language and culture is what distinguishes us as Indigenous people."
Despite this sordid chapter of Fort Lewis’ history, the current campus’ clock tower displayed three placards for decades—each depicting different eras of Fort Lewis history—without any details about the traumatic, violent history of the boarding school years. That changed this Labor Day.
Fort Lewis College removes inaccurate panels describing Indian Boarding School
“Some of the language [on the panels] is overly simplistic in its view of the purpose of Indian boarding schools,” explained Dr. Majel Boxer, Chair and Associate Professor of Native American & Indigenous Studies at the college. “It paints a picture of Indian boarding schools as beneficial to Native children, as teaching helpful and useful skills … So it really casts a positive light on Indian schools in general, and as Fort Lewis being positive, a good thing that happened to Native people. And of course, we know that that's not the case. There is a darker history that those panels don't fully encapsulate.”
Boxer said through research, she discovered that several Native children died while attending the boarding school at Fort Lewis.
“In the U.S., we’re getting to that point where we’re acknowledging and understanding the history of Indian [boarding] schools,” Boxer said. “And now the follow up is to put forward the same energy into finding and locating children who didn’t survive Indian Boarding School. They were buried having never been returned to their families.”
Once the stories of Indian Boarding Schools became national news after hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered in Canada, Bitsóí and others at the college knew they would be asked questions about any unmarked burials at the old fort site in Hesperus where the school had been located. “And that was a question we don’t have an answer to,” he said, adding that they would be working closely with the tribes who had students at the boarding school to determine how to move forward with surveying the property while still respecting tribal sovereignty.
A reconciliation process began in 2019 after Fort Lewis alumna Dr. Joslynn Lee, a chemistry professor and enrolled member of Pueblo of Laguna, wrote a heartfelt email to President Stritikus candidly asking why the panels were still in place.
“When I was putting the email together, I had to revisit some of my own family history of my grandparents who had to go to boarding school,” Lee said. “It wasn't here at Fort Lewis, but [at] boarding schools throughout the U.S. So for me, it was very important and personal, and I knew that I wasn't the only one as a faculty or staff, but also a lot of our students have that in [their] history.”
“I don’t think I understood the depth of trauma that was caused by boarding schools,” Stritikus told Rocky Mountain PBS. “I don’t think I understood the inconsistency in which we portrayed the history of boarding schools.”
On Labor Day, the panels were removed in a somber ceremony. Fort Lewis College senior Joe Kinneen from Nome, Alaska and of Inupiaq heritage, attended the panel removal.
“The whole ceremony was conducted with a sense of respect for the people who have historically inhabited this land,” Kinneen said. “Having representatives from several tribes present at the ceremony gave me the sense that this was a true reckoning of a painful history and in some ways an open apology.” [Note: Kinneen is a filmmaker and intern with Rocky Mountain PBS]
Today, over 40 percent of the Fort Lewis student body is Native American/Indigenous. This is in part because of a tuition waiver that the state of Colorado is required to fund in exchange for receiving these tribal lands from the federal government when the boarding school closed in 1910.
“The waiver is the mechanism that acknowledges that the state of Colorado played a role—an active role—in forcibly removing Native people from the Western slope. And that is connected to the current and future version of the Native American tuition waiver,” President Stritikus said.
The panel removal ceremony also included traditional Native dances and the burning of cedar. Kinneen noted that the audience was asked to bless themselves during the cedar burning.
“I no longer had the sense that we were just an audience, but that we partook in the ceremony as well,” he said.
“I believe that this ceremony can be the beginning of us not just as a college, but as a country,” Kinneen continued. “Reconciling our dark history and looking to how we can make amends not in the future, but now.”