Scars of history, hope of healing: Fort Lewis College removes inaccurate depictions of its Indian boarding school past

A committee made up of Fort Lewis College employees, students and community members charged with reckoning with the school's dark past decided the three offending panels needed to go.

Scars of history, hope of healing: Fort Lewis College removes inaccurate depictions of its Indian boarding school past

DURANGO — Ernest House Jr. pulled the plaque off one of the stone columns beneath the clock tower at the heart of Fort Lewis College, one of three panels that for the last two decades have offered an inaccurate portrayal of federal Indian boarding schools.

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe member understood that sometimes a wound must be opened to begin to heal. And so in a ceremony on the southern Colorado campus last week, the scars of history were laid bare beneath the clock tower.

Afterward, stone remnants were the only traces left of three informational plaques that had adorned the base of the Durango college’s clock tower since 2000. A dozen panels lined the tower’s walk-thru base, bearing pictures and text illustrating the institution’s journey to becoming a college that serves a large Native population, thanks to a tuition waiver for students from federally recognized Native American tribes or Alaska Native villages.

The timeline depicted on the panels showed Fort Lewis’s transition from a 19th-century military fort to a federal Indian boarding school in the late 1800s to the college that stands today.

But inscriptions claimed Native students — forcibly taken from their homes and cultures by the U.S. government in an effort to assimilate Indigenous children — were “well clothed and happy” and received “extremely good literary instruction” while participating in enriching activities.

All Lee Bitsóí, the college’s diversity collaborative director and special adviser to the president for Native American affairs, could see when walking past the panels was the despair apparent on the faces of the students captured in the historic photos.

“They were just devoid of joy,” Bitsóí said.

Lee Bitsoi places the final inaccurate ...
Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Lee Bitsóí places the final inaccurate plaque in a box after it is removed from the inside walls of the Dale Rea Memorial Clock Tower on Fort Lewis College’s campus in Durango, Colorado, on Sept. 6, 2021. The plaques will be transferred to a museum to be used for educational purposes about the inaccuracies of 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 Monday’s panel-removal ceremony.

A committee made up of Fort Lewis employees, students and community members charged with reckoning with the school’s dark past decided the three offending panels needed to go. The group now is tasked with coming up with a replacement display beneath the clock tower. The removed panels are expected to become part of an art exhibit, but details are pending.

In addition to addressing the panels beneath the clock tower, the committee worked to establish a campus-wide diversity, equity and inclusion plan and has initiated discussions about how to properly handle the search for the potential remains of children who attended the boarding school.

The latter task comes as U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland earlier this year called for a comprehensive review of the federal boarding school legacy following the discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

In Colorado, discussions led by tribal leaders are ongoing about searching for potential remains at the sites of the Fort Lewis Indian School and a former Native American boarding school in Grand Junction.

Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Attendees stand as a mourning song is played prior to the removal of plaques containing inaccurate information about Native American boarding schools at Fort Lewis College in Durango on Sept. 6, 2021.

History and healing

The ceremony to mark the panels’ removal “is such a momentous occasion,” House Jr. said over lunch at Denver American Indian eatery Tocabe a few days before the event.

“People may look at it as just updating signs. It’s far more than that,” he said. “These students wouldn’t have been given the opportunity to go to this college had children at the boarding school not gone through what they did. We are here because of what our ancestors went through. Now we are thinking, ‘How do we move forward?'”

House Jr. has been on the college’s Board of Trustees for eight years and was the executive director for the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs for more than 11 years prior to his role as senior policy director at the nonprofit Keystone Policy Center.

On Monday, as House Jr. pulled a panel from a column beneath the clock tower, he said he thought of his namesake father.

As a child, Ernest House Sr. was sent to a federally-run Indian boarding school headquartered on the Southern Ute Reservation, nearly 100 miles from his home and family on the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation.

House Sr. fled the school on foot as a young boy, somehow making it back to family in Cortez more than 50 miles away. He grew up to become chairman of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe for more than a third of his life.

On the six-hour drive from Denver to Durango, House Jr. saw mental images of his father traversing the land in search of loved ones and a place where he would not be punished for being himself.

“Here’s this little boy,” House Jr. said. “He broke out. He’s missing his family. He’s running through night, day, cold weather. I have a 9-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter now. I can’t imagine them having to — he went all the way home. I will never come to grips with that, but sharing this, hopefully, will help the healing process. We can’t move forward until we talk about the past.”

Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Speaking in front of the crowd, Irene Bitsóí closes her eyes recalling the experience she had while attending a boarding school as a young girl during the ceremony at Fort Lewis College in Durango on Sept. 6, 2021. The crowd sat listening in silence.

Facing the past

The past was palpable Monday in Rick Gray’s bones.

Gray, of the Navajo Nation, drove from Arizona to Durango with his family to deliver a special garment, the Jingle dress, to his daughter and Fort Lewis freshman Georgia Gray, who was to perform the Indigenous people’s Jingle Dress Dance at the ceremony.

“When we first got here, we could feel the spirits of our people tormented and tortured,” Rick Gray said.

Fort Lewis originally was a U.S. Army post constructed in Pagosa Springs before being relocated in 1880 to Hesperus, about a 20-minute drive west of Durango.

The Army post, House Jr. said, was created in part out of the U.S. military’s fear that Native Americans would retaliate following the 1864 Sand Creek Massacre, in which the Army slaughtered more than 100 Cheyenne and Arapaho people — largely women, children and the elderly — in Colorado.

In 1891, Fort Lewis was decommissioned as an Army post and converted into the Fort Lewis Indian School, which operated until 1911 in Hesperus. The campus moved to its current Durango location in 1956 and began anew as a college.

On Monday, deer ambled through the courtyard not far from gathering students, staff and community members, many wearing traditional Native attire. The sense of community, the honoring of culture — it was a starkly different scene from what Rick Gray imagined took place on the land decades ago.

“It didn’t hit me until I got here, the significance of it all,” he said, remembering the stories of his grandmother having her mouth washed out with soap at a federal boarding school and his great-grandmother being a victim of the 1864 “Long Walk” in which hundreds of Navajos died as they were forced at gunpoint by the Army to march from their homes in Arizona and New Mexico hundreds of miles away.

“The murders, the rapes, the hardships our ancestors faced,” Gray said. “And now my daughter is getting an education here, dancing in front of this school. It is a beautiful, beautiful thing. She will be a part of making sure this never happens again.”

Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Destiny Morgan and Denica Tafoya sit among the crowd listening as Melvin Baker from the Southern Ute Tribe speaks at Fort Lewis College in Durango on Sept. 6, 2021. Hundreds of people gathered to watch the removal of plaques that displayed inaccurate information about Native American boarding schools.

Forging the future

Like any on-campus event, the panel-removal ceremony began with a reading of Fort Lewis College’s land acknowledgment, which honors the tribes and nations that have populated the area and notes “the narratives of the lands in this region have long been told from dominant perspectives, without full recognition of the original land stewards who continue to inhabit and connect with this land.”

Native community leaders spoke about the significance of the day. Burning sage and sweetgrass washed over attendees in a cleansing ritual. A group of Indigenous students circled up around a drum, striking the instrument and singing together a somber mourning song that led into a song of victory after the panels were detached.

Georgia Gray dances to the beat ...
Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Georgia Gray dances the Jingle Dress Dance at Fort Lewis College in Durango on Sept. 6, 2021.

Georgia Gray danced the Jingle Dress Dance. The 18-year-old’s polka-dotted dress, handmade rainbow moccasins and feather headpiece were striking, but even more hypnotic was the chime of the metal cones affixed to her skirt as she bounced and kicked her heels to the steady thump of a drum.

“It’s like a heartbeat,” Georgia Gray said. “When you’re dancing, the drum is keeping you alive.”

Rebecca Slezak, The Denver Post
Georgia Gray, a freshman at Fort Lewis College, poses for a portrait at the college in Durango on Sept. 6, 2021.

It was Georgia Gray’s first week as a Fort Lewis freshman, and she already had been a part of a sacred ceremony honoring her culture.

“The emotional trauma of it all is still there passed down in families, but today felt good,” she said. “Today felt different.”

Georgia Gray is studying early childhood education because she believes in empowering youth.

“I want to be able to set and help build a foundation for them to grow and learn as my parents have done for me,” she said. “I would like to be a part of an education program and help grow the hearts and minds of our beautiful, young generation.”

House Jr. said that while many Americans were only just learning about the horrors committed at the schools, it’s rare to find an Indigenous person who doesn’t know someone who attended an Indian boarding school.

The trauma is woven into family lineage, but so is the strength and resilience, House Jr. said, smiling as he watched young Native students on their way to class, pursuing their degrees and pushing for change.

“Here we are reversing everything these boarding schools did,” House Jr. said. “We are encouraging Native language. We are encouraging our culture. We are encouraging Native educators to teach young minds. Now if you’re Native, it is rare to find somebody who doesn’t know someone connected to Fort Lewis College. This is where it starts.”