Five Native American boarding schools designed to strip indigenous children of their culture, heritage and language operated in Colorado for decades, part of a centuries-long federal effort to subjugate the tribes and people that lived on this land for thousands of years.
The list of Colorado schools, which spanned the Ute Mountain Ute reservation in the southwest corner of the state all the way to Denver, is part of a first-ever federal inventory and investigation from the U.S. Department of the Interior to identify federally-run boarding schools from the Florida Everglades to the Alaskan tundra.
The report’s 106-page first volume, released Wednesday, was commissioned last year by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native cabinet member in U.S. history. It says the investigation found evidence of more than 500 deaths of Native children.
The findings, which list the locations and years of operation of 408 of these boarding schools across 37 states and territories, mark a somber acknowledgment of the cultural genocide authorized and encouraged by Haaland’s predecessors at the Department of the Interior, and across all three branches of government, for generations.
“The languages, cultures, religions, traditional practices and even the history of Native communities — all of it was targeted for destruction,” Haaland said during an emotional news conference in Washington, D.C. “Nowhere is that clearer than in the legacy of federal Indian boarding schools.”
Initial analysis suggests 19 federal boarding schools across the United State accounted for the deaths of more than 500 American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children, the report said.
The report identified marked or unmarked sites at 53 different schools across the country where indigenous children were buried — though the department said it expects that number to rise as the investigation continues. The Interior Department is not identifying where the burial sites were found out of concern for grave-robbing and vandalism.
The federal investigation identified five Native American boarding schools that once operated in Colorado:
- Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus, 1892-1956
- Good Shepherd Industrial School in Denver, 1886-1914
- Grand Junction Indian School, 1886-1911
- Southern Ute Boarding School in Ignacio, 1886-1981
- Ute Mountain Boarding School in Towaoc, 1907-1942
Efforts to search for potential burial sites at Fort Lewis College’s old campus in Hesperus and the Grand Junction location, which also was known as the Teller Indian School, began to get underway last year.
In Denver, the Good Shepard Industrial School, with a capacity of 150 boarders, was run by the Benedictine (Catholic) Sisters, a local branch of a worldwide Catholic institution dedicated to the reform of delinquent girls and young women, the report noted. It also possibly operated in the late 1800s under the names Home of the Good Shepherd for Homeless Girls and E. M. Byers Home for Boys, according to the report.
Initial investigation results show religious organizations, such as the one in Denver, played a central role in operating these schools. Roughly 50% of federal Native American boarding schools may have received support, funding infrastructure or personnel from a religious institution or organization, the report found.
The U.S. may have even used money held in tribal trust accounts — including some based on cessations of Native American territories to the United States — to fund children attending these schools.
“Our children had names; our children had families; our children had their own languages; our children had their own regalia, prayers and religion before Indian boarding schools violently took them away,” said Deborah Parker, CEO of the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, during the news conference.
The investigation found that the federal boarding school system “deployed systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies in an attempt to assimilate American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian children.”
James LaBelle Sr. was just 8 when he was forced to attend one of these schools as a native Alaskan.
“I learned everything about European-American culture, its history, language, civilization, math and science,” he said at the news conference. “But I didn’t know anything about who I was as a Native person. I came out not knowing who I was.”
Instructors there gave Native children English names, cut their hair, limited their use of cultural and religious practices, and forced them to perform military drills. The school system largely focused on manual labor and vocational skills, the report’s authors found, leaving graduates with employment options “often irrelevant to the industrial U.S. economy, further disrupting Tribal economies.”
Fort Lewis College, in Durango, has been public in its efforts to reconcile its troubling past, reaching out to tribal nations whose ancestors would have been students at the time, as officials search for any potential graves on the school’s former site. The college also removed plaques on campus last year that provided an inaccurate depiction of its Native boarding school history.
The real history of the Fort Lewis Indian School was “nothing short of attempted and, sadly, sometimes successful cultural genocide,” Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus said during the panel-removal ceremony last year.
The search for missing children is also ongoing at the Grand Junction boarding school. John Seebach, a Colorado Mesa University archeologist, believes some 21 children may have died and been buried at the school, and has been searching for the gravesite for years.
Tribes and other researchers have been looking for these marked or unmarked gravesites around the country ever since the discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. It was that discovery that prompted Haaland to launch a full review last year of the United States’ own tortured legacy of Native American boarding schools.
“Our children to deserve to be found,” Parker said Wednesday, holding back tears. “Our children deserve to be brought home.”
Colorado was already in the process of examining the state’s fraught history with federal Indian boarding schools. HB22-1327, the Native American Boarding Schools act, would establish a research program to look into “the events, physical and emotional abuse, and deaths that occurred at Native American boarding schools in Colorado, including the victimization of families of youth forced to attend the boarding schools.”
The state legislature approved the bill last week and it’s headed to Gov. Jared Polis’s desk.
“This is all very timely for Colorado,” said Ernest House Jr., the former executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs and a Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member, calling Wednesday a “historic day.”
“This is Colorado history, too,” he said.
In conjunction with the initial report, Haaland on Wednesday announced she will be embarking on a year-long tour called “The Road to Healing.” The nationwide tour will allow American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian survivors of the federal boarding school system “the opportunity to share their stories, help connect communities with trauma-informed support, and facilitate collection of a permanent oral history,” the Interior Department said in a news release.
Next up for the federal government: Finding out how many students attended federal Native American boarding schools, how many died at the schools and how many may have been buried on those grounds, as well as how much money the U.S. government spent to prop up these institutions. That’s coming in subsequent volumes, aided by a new $7 million investment from Congress.
“Recognizing the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system cannot just be a historical reckoning,” Haaland said during the news conference. “We must also chart a path forward to deal with these legacy issues, to address the intergenerational impact of federal Indian boarding schools and to promote spiritual and emotional healing in our communities. We must shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past. Today, we take a critical step forward in that work.”
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