New Colorado law mandates research into former Fort Lewis Indian boarding school

History Colorado will spend the next year working with tribal partners to research the events, physical and emotional abuse, and deaths that happened at the onetime federal Native American boarding school that’s now Fort Lewis College.

The research, which is to result in a report with findings and recommendations, is mandated by HB22-1327, which was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on Tuesday.

The bill requires History Colorado to research what occurred at the former federal Indian boarding school that is now a southern Colorado college, “including the victimization of families of youth forced to attend the boarding schools and the intergenerational impacts of the abuse.”

“This bill is hugely important,” said Ernest House Jr., a Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member who sits on the Fort Lewis College Board of Trustees and whose father was sent to an Indian boarding school. “Folks might be surprised that this is part of Colorado’s past.”

When the research is complete, History Colorado is required to provide the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe with a final report on its findings and work with tribal partners to develop a plan for what’s next.

“I’m really excited and grateful the state legislature and governor have recognized the need for us as a state to take the lead in making sure that we’re addressing what’s occurred on what’s now state land,” said Holly Norton, state archaeologist and deputy state historic preservation officer at History Colorado.

A recent federal investigation found five federal Indian boarding schools once operated in the state:

  • 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

The new state legislation, however, only addresses two of the schools: Fort Lewis’s former site in Hesperus and the Grand Junction school, which also was known as the Teller Indian School.

The state Department of Human Services now owns and operates a regional center for people with intellectual disabilities on the Grand Junction property, the bill said.

The bill requires the state agency to vacate the property, sell all or a portion of it or transfer all or a portion of the property to a state institution of higher education, a local government, a state agency or a federally recognized tribe in Colorado.

The department doesn’t have to sell or transfer the Grand Junction property until after the identification and mapping of any graves of former boarding school students are located on the land and after the department develops a plan with tribal governments to “acknowledge the abuse and victimization of students and families related to the operation of the school.”

Hundreds of Native American boarding schools existed across the nation as federal government institutions used to recruit Indigenous children in an effort to strip them of their culture and force assimilation.

Norton will be leading the research, noting that the focus this year will primarily be on deep archival research and archaeological work.

The former federal facility at Fort Lewis does have federal documents in the National Archives that will be investigated, but Norton said a good deal of research will be done using local information such as old newspaper reports.

Norton and her team also will sift through archaeological work done in the area in the past and embark on new work using contemporary remote sensing tools to search the grounds for gravesites.

“What we’ll do is set an incredible groundwork and really start to identity a lot of the daily experiences of the students who attended and we’ll be able to take that to our tribal partners and take their perspectives and identify what needs to be done next, whether that’s further research in different avenues or other types of programming where we can start to hopefully heal or at least address these atrocities that have occurred and identify substantive ways that we can start to make amends as a state,” Norton said.

House Jr. said the bill positions Colorado well in establishing strong relationships with the Indigenous communities here to have these important conversations.

“The tribes need to be the ones in the driver’s seat,” House Jr. said. “They need to be the one giving the direction on how these conversations should go, so using this funding to start the tribal consultation process and have the tribes directing — that’s huge.”

The bill appropriates $618,611 to the Department of Higher Education for use by History Colorado for the research program.

“Even though this legislation is for one year, these conversations will be ongoing for many years,” Norton said. “This is a big issue and it won’t be done by June of 2023.”

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