New report identifies student deaths linked to Colorado’s Native American boarding schools: “No child should ever die at school”

History Colorado issues public report detailing lives of Indigenous youth at state’s former boarding schools

A new investigation into the abuses children suffered at Colorado’s two most prominent Native American boarding schools has identified at least 65 students who died more than a century ago at the state’s two most prominent schools, the bleak legacy of a federal assimilation program that inflicted intergenerational trauma on Indigenous families.

State Archaeologist Holly Norton’s 139-page report, released on Tuesday by History Colorado, weaves together local and national archival records, newspaper clippings, letters, and archaeological findings to illustrate the experiences of Native children who were sometimes kidnapped and coerced into schools. They were subjected to neglect and unsanitary conditions, as well as horrors such as forced labor and sexual abuse.

The report, titled “Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Colorado: 1880-1920,” reveals that the institutions in Colorado served the same purpose as hundreds of other federal boarding schools across the country: separating Indigenous children from their families and traditions in order to strip their culture and assimilate them into American life.

“The confirmation of abuse, the confirmation of deaths is devastating to hear,” said Heather Shotton, vice president of diversity affairs at Fort Lewis College in Durango, which grew out of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and now serves a large Native American population.

“We needed this work done so we could start the process of healing and recognition,” said Shotton, a Wichita and Affiliated Tribes citizen and Kiowa and Cheyenne descendant. “It’s an opportunity to shape a different future and to uphold our responsibilities to communities who have been harmed by the history of our institutions.”

The report, which was made public on Tuesday, is the result of new research mandated by the state legislature, and it comes after the release of the document’s executive summary last month.

This summary revealed that there were more federally supported Native American boarding and day schools in Colorado than had previously been reported. Despite the fact that nine institutions were identified during the research, the final report focuses primarily on the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, also known as the Teller Institute.

According to the report, the new study, which focused on the years 1880 to 1920, identified 31 Native students who died at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and 37 people who died at the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, a total of 34 students, one teacher, the daughter of a carpenter, and a former student.

The deceased, whose identities were withheld in the report, ranged in age from five to early twenties.

The 31 student deaths at the Fort Lewis school over an 18-year period represent “a nearly threefold increase over what appear to have been the deaths officially reported to Washington, D.C., in annual reports,” according to the report.

That could still be an undercount.

An archaeological investigation at the former Fort Lewis site in Hesperus discovered a bygone cemetery where 350 to 400 people may be buried, with 46 of them believed to be children and the rest adults or “adult-sized juveniles,” according to the report. Around 25 to 50 of the graves are thought to be associated with soldiers stationed at the decommissioned Fort Lewis Army post that predated the school.

According to the report, researchers believe there could be “another 30 to 100 burials, or more, associated with the students at the boarding school” in that cemetery. (However, the report states that the upper limit of that estimate “is not supported by data.”)

That leaves up to 250 unidentified graves, which the report speculates could be civilians or community members.

Because the unmarked cemetery was studied using technology that did not penetrate the ground, the scale and identities of those buried are approximate and based on research.

Norton’s acknowledgement at the end of the report thanking the researchers “who are going to extraordinary lengths to locate the cemetery at Teller” suggests that no burial sites associated with the former boarding school in Grand Junction have yet been discovered.

“There is no threshold where the death of children at the boarding schools is acceptable,” according to the report. “Each and every death was a tragedy for the families who lost loved ones.” … No child should die at school.”

“How do we proceed?””

A 2022 House bill directing History Colorado to study the federal Indian boarding schools that operated in the state, with a focus on the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, established the Native American Boarding School Research Program.

The study comes amid national efforts to address the country’s government-sanctioned cultural genocide of Native Americans through boarding schools, which began in the late 1870s.

The discovery of 215 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia by Canada’s Tk’emlps te Secwepemc First Nation in 2021 sparked a search among tribes and researchers for marked or unmarked gravesites holding the remains of Indigenous children. This discovery compelled the U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the country’s first Native cabinet member, will launch a comprehensive review of the country’s own legacy of Native American boarding schools.

According to the report, approximately 1,100 students attended Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School between 1892 and 1909. To date, students have been identified from 20 tribes or tribal groups, including the Cherokee, Southern Ute, Ute Indian Tribe of the Ouray and Uintah Reservation, Navajo, and others.

According to the History Colorado report, native parents were supposed to consent to their children attending boarding schools, but that consent was frequently coerced or ill-informed. According to the report, in some cases, school recruiters — many of whom had military backgrounds — resorted to kidnapping or threatening tribes with ration withholding if their children did not go.

Native students would be restrained by teachers while their hair, which was often of sacred cultural significance, was cut off. According to the report, the children were given militaristic uniforms and stripped of their Indigenous names.

“We lost all of our land that we used to roam,” Manuel Heart, chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, said in response to the report’s release. “Now we’re down to these small reservations.” We, as Native Americans, suffered greatly. Our children were one of the most valuable resources we lost. ‘How do we heal from this?’ we wondered as Ute Mountain Ute. How should we proceed?’It’ll take some time.”

According to reports from Fort Lewis and Grand Junction’s Teller Institute, students were not receiving adequate academic training. Instead, the boys were expected to farm and do agricultural labor to feed their classmates, while the girls were expected to clean the floors, do the students’ laundry, cook, and sew.

Some students, particularly those at the Teller Institute, would be assigned to white families throughout the state to work as agricultural or domestic laborers. While students were supposed to be paid, the report stated that school administration was known for embezzling funds.

Tragedy that spans generations

The adults in charge of the Native students consistently failed them, according to the report.

Dr. Robertson, Teller Institute’s school physician, prescribed four times the maximum dose of a medicine derived from poisonous plants used to treat nervous disorders, as well as opium to children. According to the report, several affidavits about Robertson were sent to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. In his defense, Robertson used fictitious names to write letters of support. The school did not dismiss him from his position.

The report goes into detail about The Denver Post’s 1903 investigation into allegations that Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School Superintendent Thomas Breen sexually abused women and girls who worked and attended the school. Breen was repeatedly accused of impregnating students who were then expelled. According to the report, the Post ran stories about Breen for months, sparking a federal government investigation that resulted in Breen’s removal as superintendent.

According to the report, parents would sometimes write to boarding schools requesting that their children return home, or children would write expressing their displeasure with the school. According to the report, Breen would tell parents that their children did not want to go home and that their parents no longer wanted them.

Buu Nygren, president of the Navajo Nation, stated that the new report highlighted why he advocates for equity in his community.

“We are always trying to fight for fair treatment, fair funding because we have lost so much over the years, including our young ones,” Nygren stated. “I cannot imagine having your child taken away from you and placed in an institution in the hopes that it will help them make a better life for themselves, but instead these unimaginable abuses occur, and you may never see them again.” It hurts my heart.”

Norton, the report’s author and state archaeologist, said the driving force that kept her going throughout the research process was attempting to answer a question she knew plagued many in the Native community.

“The burning question for affected tribes is, ‘Where are the children?'”‘” Norton explained. “Can I assist in determining what happened to these missing children?””

Norton described writing the section about student deaths as a delicate balance of providing answers for victims’ descendants while also avoiding sensationalizing the news.

“I was trying not to revictimize these students who passed away a century ago by just focusing on their deaths,” Norton stated.

While the causes of death for the identified victims were not listed in the report, the study did note how unsafe and unsanitary conditions, such as seeping raw sewage, overcrowding, freezing temperatures, and scarcity of food, contributed to widespread illness. According to the report, pneumonia, chicken pox, tuberculosis, and trachoma — a highly contagious bacterial eye disease — cost students their sight, hearing, and even their lives.

Many scholars have studied how the federal education system and separation of children from their parents during their formative years caused a number of disparities for Native communities, according to the report.

“These include health disparities and important sociocultural impacts on family dynamics,” the report stated. “This entire set of negative consequences is commonly referred to as intergenerational trauma.” It is widely accepted that trauma experienced by an individual can be psychologically, emotionally, and even physically passed down to subsequent generations.”

Native resilience and power

Fort Lewis College has had a tumultuous history. For years, the college’s leaders have pledged to acknowledge their institution’s heinous history and to collaborate with Native students, faculty, and tribal partners to atone for the school’s wrongs and reimagine its future.

Today, the college confers more degrees on Native American students than any other four-year, baccalaureate-granting institution in the country, accounting for approximately 26% of all degrees conferred.

Fort Lewis College president Tom Stritikus said learning about the injustices committed by previous generations of his beloved institution’s leaders was painful but necessary.

“When you read what federal Indian boarding schools deliberately attempted to take away in essence to Native American culture, it reaffirmed my commitment to ensuring Fort Lewis is always a place where Native identity, language, ways of being are incorporated into what we do daily,” Stritikus stated. “If reading this report isn’t your mission moment, you’re in the wrong line of work.”

Tribal leaders and Fort Lewis administrators were given time to digest the report before it was made public on Tuesday. Durango College intends to use the report as an educational opportunity for its students and staff, as well as to provide them with resources to help them deal with the report’s weight.

“Many of us have a deep and personal connection to the broader history of the federal Indian boarding school system,” said Shotton. “Many of us are the offspring of boarding school survivors.” We are living with the consequences of the federal Indian boarding school system, including the intergenerational consequences.”

Native American and Indigenous studies faculty at the college will be available to discuss the report with students and assist them in processing it, according to Shotton. Counseling center hours will be extended. According to Shotton, the school will host gatherings where students can talk about their feelings and practice self-care.

Shotton expects different students and tribes to respond to the report on their own terms, rather than as a group.

According to Heart, the report is only the tip of the iceberg. The chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe wants more information. He wants the US government to answer for its actions.

“I want the U.S. government to say they are sorry,” Heart stated. “I want to ask the United States government for accountability and possibly compensation for wrongdoing.” Building schools to help restore the language and culture that were taken away. Make something in exchange for what they’ve done.”

Norton stated that now that her report is public, the next steps will be tribally led.

She said discussions about what to do with the Fort Lewis burial grounds are ongoing and are leaning toward the establishment of a memorial at the site, which is currently fenced off and monitored.

“Some of the future is a little murky,” Norton admitted. “The funding has been increased. The project is finished… but the work is not. I’d like to continue working on this, albeit at a slower pace than we’ve been.”

Shotton understands the need to confront difficult truths, but she says it’s impossible not to feel hopeful for a better future when she sees Native students on campus pursuing their degrees and achieving their dreams.

“The way that the federal Indian boarding school system was designed, I wasn’t supposed to be here,” said Shotton. “I should not be in this situation.” That our students are thriving in the way they are today was not the system’s intention. When I see them walking across our college campus every day, see the research they’re doing, and hear them introduce themselves in their tribal language, it reminds me of the power and resilience of Indigenous communities, as well as the opportunity and hope we have as a higher education institution to contribute to better futures.

“We have an opportunity to shape a positive educational experience for Indigenous students so they can gain the knowledge and skills necessary to go back to their tribal communities and build those communities and contribute to thriving futures.”

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