Fort Lewis College takes another step in reckoning with its boarding school history
Fort Lewis College prides itself on its support for Native American students. The college offers tuition waivers to students of Native descent, and more than 150 tribes are represented in the student body. But Fort Lewis is still reckoning with its past as an Indian boarding school and has recently taken some small but essential steps toward healing.
Last week, an art exhibit called As Seeds, We Grow closed after 12 months. The exhibit presented Native perspectives on the colonial history of Fort Lewis, especially boarding school atrocities.
The college presented As Seeds, We Grow in an on-campus gallery space at the Center of Southwest Studies. Dozens of art pieces from Native American students and Fort Lewis alums blended contemporary ideas with Native American tradition: handmade pottery, small paintings, colorful woven cloths, and a jingle dress.
"College president Tom Stritikus invited me to create an exhibit with students about their perspectives on intergenerational trauma related to the boarding school era," said Elise Boulanger, the exhibit curator and a recent graduate of Fort Lewis College.
The exhibit also featured a poem written by Kirbie Bennett*, a Fort Lewis College alum, which was printed on a large sheaf of paper:
"... it's heartbreaking to realize those children in those boarding schools in those unmarked graves are my ancestors & their prayers are still circulating in the air & some days I see them as sunbathed birds reaching for the sky & I cherish being an alumnus, but I know the same cannot be said for those children for my ancestors because what's another word for having your tongue cut out having your hair ripped off having your heart stomped out…."
* Editor's note: As a point of disclosure, Bennett is an independently contracted news reporter for KSUT.
For Boulanger, a member of the Osage Tribe, curating the exhibit meant working closely with students while they created art from trauma.
"I had to focus on healing with the students and about their own personal stories with the boarding school days and intergenerational trauma in their family," she said. "By focusing on cultural resilience, we could show that we're still here and we're going to school here. We're a very important part of the culture on campus."
Controversial clock tower panels
The exhibit came on the heels of another very public effort by the college to address its complicated history with Native people. A prominent clock tower on campus displayed panels depicting college history. But the panels depicting the college's boarding school history were offensive.
"They weren't entirely truthful," said Boulanger. "They were whitewashed; they said things about the Native students but didn't fully confront why the boarding school was operating and what they did to bring the Native students there."
In September 2021, Fort Lewis College held a ceremony to remove the controversial panels from the clock tower. According to the Durango Herald, the ceremony was attended by students, tribal leaders, and university officials. A drum group played grieving and victory songs while the panels were removed.
"Every institution needs to take a look at its own racialized history and how that history impacts where it's going," said college president Tom Stritikus. "In Fort Lewis's case, that clock tower panel presented a disingenuous, in some ways disrespectful, inaccurate view of the boarding schools that didn't acknowledge the trauma that was created by the boarding school movement."
The Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School operated from 1891 to 1910. Dr. Majel Boxer, Chair of Native American & Indigenous Studies at Fort Lewis, has researched primary documents from the early 1900s to document conditions at the boarding school.
"Fort Lewis Indian School had a school day that was highly regimented, and a curriculum that was meant to instill patriotism into the students, and so that children would start to see themselves as Americans. The school curriculum then included speaking, reading, and writing in English," said Boxer in an online presentation she recorded for the Center of Southwest Studies.
From her research, Boxer learned about the living conditions of the Fort Lewis Boarding School.
“There were many moments where illnesses spread amongst the students, illnesses that even led to student deaths – which is why later on in the school history, Chief Ignacio prohibited or forbade their children from attending Fort Lewis,” said Boxer.
Ignacio was the Chief of the Weeminuche band of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe in the late-1800s.
At the closing ceremony for As Seeds, We Grow, more than 75 community members gathered in respectful appreciation of the art. From around a drum, four Native American singers, all students, shared prayer songs. These same singers commemorated the opening of the exhibit in April 2022.
One of the drummers, Qoots Denipah-Cook, was there to help raise awareness about Indian boarding schools, which separated Native children from their families in a deliberate effort to erase the cultural identity of young people.
"We are oppressed people," he said during an interview. "Native Americans did go through oppression, and we went through assimilation. Many families had their children stripped away from them. And when that happened, they were assimilated into Western culture. They lost language. They lost culture. They lost their practices. They lost the connection to the land."
Following a short presentation on the exhibit from curator Elise Boulanger, one of the artists presented her work. Shenay Atene is currently a psychology major at Fort Lewis College, and though she is young, she attended an Indian boarding school. While Atene acknowledged that her experience may not have been as traumatic as it had been for Native Americans decades ago, she is still working through painful memories.
"I went to boarding school when I was six," Atene said, gesturing to the purple jingle dress she'd contributed to the exhibit. "I brought [my jingle dress] here because I used to dance. As indigenous peoples, we are taught that our instruments of healing are alive. I needed to bring these out because they were with me during that time."
As Atene spoke, the people in attendance were quiet, somber, listening closely. It was a fitting moment for an exhibit meant to educate those who don't know about the traumatic history of Indian boarding schools. For those who know that history, and those living with its pain, the exhibit was a step along a path of recognition and healing.
"If you guys don't know what (a) jingle dress is, it's a healing dance," she said. "I need this part of me to heal as well."