Tribal Radio | By Sarah Flower

A new report from History Colorado details the atrocities that occurred at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. Tribal Radio’s Sarah Flower reports on the findings and how Fort Lewis College is reconciling in the wake of this news. This information might be difficult for some to hear.


The full archival report shows the grim truth that at least 31 students from eight tribal nations died while attending the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School from 1892 to 1909. The ages of those that passed range from five to 22 years old. The report also details that roughly 1100 Native American students from 20 tribes attended the boarding school as they were forcefully removed from their homes and stripped of their traditions.

History Colorado conducted this report as part of legislation from the state. Exact numbers and data that was found is a guesstimate at best, as details and record keeping was done from the perspective of former superintendents and from the federal government in Washington, D. C. Fort Lewis College officials have been working to prepare the campus community of these difficult truths that are part of the history of the college.

Tom Stritikus is the president of Fort Lewis College and says while these documents are checkered, the goal of the boarding school is obvious.

"The information that we have was written by people whose intent was to erase the culture of the Native American students that they were working with. So by definition, the nature of the information and the material is one sided and serving an interest of a particular group against the interest of another, that is going to leave a measure of dissatisfaction for people in our community. And history always is incomplete. And I think for us, daylighting what we can daylight and then moving forward is important. If there's other things to find out, we certainly will support those measures to continue to do that."

This comprehensive report also sheds light on the sexual abuse of women and children at the Indian Boarding School from longtime superintendent Thomas Breen.

Breen served from 1894 to 1903. He was forced to leave after a public investigation was done into these allegations. Heather Shotton is the vice president of Diversity affairs at the college and is a citizen of the Wichita and Affiliated tribes. An Akiwa and Cheyenne descendant, Shotton says while this history is certainly difficult to hear, she's focused on the future of Indigenous students.

"These are difficult truths to confront. We also recognize that there is tremendous hope in our Indigenous community on campus. I see it in our students every day. When we see the ways that they're engaging, the research that they conduct, when we hear them engaging in language revitalization, when they introduce themselves in their own languages. We're reminded that while we still feel the impacts of the federal Indian boarding school system, our students are so amazing. And so resilient. They offer us so much hope."

The attempts to assimilate Indigenous students were obvious from not letting children have their Moccasins, or even all the way down to the way in which they were buried.

According to the report, scientists use remote sensing data to explore the cemetery, which was first established and used by the US. Military. They also found that families and employees of the boarding school were buried there. The data shows that there are 350 to 400 burials from the cemetery and that 46 impressions could be consistent with child sized graves.

In a recent visit to the area, Colorado Governor Jared Polis acknowledges the importance of knowing the truths of our history in the state and working with tribal nations to heal.

"We look forward to working with the tribes and, of course, Fort Lewis, other sites in our state, to make sure that we honor the mistakes of the past and that we can provide the opportunity and hope and break that intergenerational cycle of drama for so many native families whom the Indian boarding schools tore apart.""

Fort Lewis College officials were preparing themselves for the grim details they knew might be in this report. But some of the findings even surprised Stritikus.

"I didn't realize that Mexican American communities were pulled into the boarding school, identified as Navajo, because the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School was having trouble with enrollment, because it was understaffed and not a great place. The documentation around the resistance of the Ute tribes to sending their children to the boarding school, I'd heard it, but I hadn't read it as extensively."

The college is hosting events the first week in October to provide an outlet for students that might be struggling with the news and acknowledging some of the intergenerational trauma the campus community and tribal nations throughout the area might be feeling with the release of this report.

But Shotton says the healing and the processing of this information will go well beyond this week.

"For us. Yes, there is a large focus on this week and making sure that we're providing support immediately. But we also know that we will continue to process the report in the weeks and months to come and that everyone will process in different ways and have different responses, and that we will continue this work beyond next week. We will continue to make sure that we are providing resources for our students and campus community, that we will continue to remain in dialogue about the report."

History Colorado, the organization that conducted this report, will be on campus in late October to answer any questions that students, faculty or staff might have with the findings in this report.

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