Students at the Fort Lewis Indian School

An 1895 group picture shows students at the Fort Lewis Indian School in Hesperus. The institution, which was renovated from an old miliary installment into a school, closed in 1911, as did the Teller Indian School outside of Grand Junction.

The original peoples of the High Rockies, and Colorado more broadly, have a long and storied history that spans thousands of years and contains complex relationships with this region. This year, the Herald is featuring a series on Indigenous histories of the High Rockies.

In this series, the Herald aims to expand readers’ knowledge of Indigenous peoples who have lived in the High Rockies for millennia, including their legacy of displacement and inequitable treatment following contact with European settlers.

Shortly after the forced removal of Ute bands from northern Colorado, the Indian Residential School system took hold, and two such schools operated near Ute reservations with the express goal of assimilating the region’s Indigenous children.

The institutions were created by U.S. Army General Richard Henry Pratt, who started the first Indian Residential School in 1879. Starting with the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania, the model made its way west and served as the foundation for similar schools across the U.S.

As began with Indian agencies, the schools acted as the next step in the U.S. government’s systemic program of assimilation and were effectively designed to “kill the Indian in him, and save the man,” as Pratt quipped.

Operated on a military model honed by Pratt, conditions at the boarding schools were nothing short of abusive, and regularly proved fatal for the Indigenous children forced to attend.

From their beginning, the schools were established as a tool of cultural imperialism, with the educational programming that was offered serving to introduce Indigenous children to Anglo ethics and societal norms.

In her essay “Cheaper than Bullets: American Indian Boarding Schools and Assimilation Policy, 1890-1930,” Tabatha Toney Booth writes:

“Indeed to ‘civilize’ American Indian people, officials wanted to use the institutions to instruct them in the academics, hygiene, diet, and work habits of the Anglos. Assimilative education targeted small children, whom the government thought easier to change and least able to resist, and sought to destroy tribal nations, culture, language, religion, and community.”

Indigenous children as young as six years old were forcibly placed in the schools under newly-established compulsory attendance laws. Families who admitted children willingly often did so under the pressures of poverty and illness prevalent on reservations, according to Booth’s summary of the circumstances that compelled attendance.

By 1891, two such schools were operating inside Colorado’s borders: the Teller Indian School outside of Grand Junction and the Fort Lewis Indian School at Hesperus.

The two off-reservation schools were established on historically Ute-held land with the purported goal of educating Ute youth, though historical reports, including first-hand experiences and later government-sanctioned investigations, found the programs to be ill-equipped, abusive and toxic.

Many of the institutions, including the school at Fort Lewis, were renovated military installments which lent themselves easily to the military-style organization of the boarding schools.

Upon arrival, students had their hair cut and clothes taken to be replaced with Anglo attire, were made to select “Christian” names, and forbidden from speaking their native languages.

The underfunded programs left children malnourished, and the personnel charged with overseeing what was meant to be an education for Indigenous youth resorted to corporal punishment and psychological abuse to insure compliance, as reported in the exhaustive Meriam Report issued in 1928, a large section of which was dedicated to the failings of the Indian Residential School system.

Overcrowded and underfunded, the schools allowed for disease and infection to spread among students, many of whom died as a result, the Meriam report found.

Between 1891 and 1894, records from the Teller Indian School showed outbreaks of measles, influenza and scarlet fever. Similarly, tuberculosis and trachoma, a viral infection of the eye, were commonplace at Fort Lewis and other boarding schools.  

When students fell ill, families were frequently not notified, and in multiple cases relatives only learned of a child’s illness after the school contacted them with news of their child’s death.

“With high mortality rates, almost every school had its own graveyard with student carpenters constructing the coffins,” Booth writes.

This is true of the Teller Indian School in Grand Junction, which has operated as the Teller Institute since the school’s closure in the early twentieth century.

Unmarked and yet-to-be fully recorded graves of Indigenous children remain on the grounds where the boarding school once operated.

As part of a national shift away from the boarding school model, both the Fort Lewis Indian School and the Teller Indian School were shut down in 1911. The Grand Junction facility transitioned to the Teller Institute while Fort Lewis became an agricultural school. The last of the nations’s boarding schools operated until 1973.

While both boarding schools in Colorado were shut down in the early twentieth century, the trauma inflicted on those who attended the schools persists in Indigenous communities.

One such impact has been described by author and scholar Amelia Katanski as a stranding of Indigenous youth between two cultures. After being removed and alienated from their Indigenous communities, some were unable to return and have a sense of belonging, yet they were not fully accepted within white society because of their Indgineity.

In Booth’s assessment, this cultural estrangement manifested in substance abuse issues out of despondency, and the issue has persisted.  

While the harsh experience of the boarding schools was not universal, the erasure of Indigenous practices, language and culture was. Some students enjoyed their time at the schools while others suffered, but all were subjected to a program of assimilation specifically designed to subsume Indigenous children into white, Anglo society.

The rise and fall of the boarding school system happened in conjunction with the implementation of the Dawes Act, which partitioned Ute and other Indigenous lands into individual parcels and set the stage for even further land loss.

In future installments of this series, the Herald will discuss the Dawes Act and its impacts.  

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