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A Century of Indian Education

Fort Lewis College, a school where one-quarter of the students are Native American, is celebrating its centennial with a reunion.
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Fort Lewis College (FLC) in Durango, Colorado has evolved over the last 100 years, but today, as a century ago, Native American students occupy a unique place in the educational institution where they comprise nearly one-quarter of the student body.

Native alumni and others are being invited to the FLC Centennial Alumni Reunion August 5 to 6 on the college campus and surrounding areas in southwest Colorado.

The present-day college was initially an Indian boarding school, but when Native students today and in the recent past are asked why they chose FLC, “one of the first reasons is always the Native tuition waiver,” said Mitch Davis, FLC public affairs officer.

The tuition waiver dates back a century to a 1910 federal/state agreement that gave Colorado the Old Fort Lewis property in Hesperus, home to a military post and the boarding school, provided that the state maintain the location as an institution of learning free to Native students. The state operated an agricultural high school there and later moved to nearby Durango, where it established a junior college that later became four-year FLC.

The Native student population has grown through the decades, mainly because of the tuition waiver, Davis said. In fall 2010, 786 Indian students enrolled at FLC, including 383 Navajo students who made the Navajo Nation the largest of the more than 120 tribes with members attending the college.

In 2009, the college awarded science, technology, engineering and mathematics or STEM-related degrees to 95 American Indian students. That is equal to 10 percent of the total number of degrees awarded to Indian students in the nation that year, according to legislation that would continue the tuition waiver for out-of-state Native students while changing the formula for state-federal reimbursement to FLC.

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It is a far cry from the early days. In 1894, of 132 children who attended the Fort Lewis Indian School, most were White Mountain, Mescalero and Jicarilla Apache. Some of the students died in an epidemic and, as a result, others were removed by their parents. The following year, 183 students, mostly Navajo, were enrolled, some of them 5 years of age and a few only 3.

The college’s evolution has been mirrored by the evolution of its mascot. In 1929, when Fort Lewis evolved into a junior college, the Beavers was the name selected by students because of the animal’s “industrious habits,” Davis said. The Aggies were ushered in when, in the period 1935 to 1964, the new school became Fort Lewis A&M.

An artist's rendering of the current Fort Lewis College campus.

An artist's rendering of the current Fort Lewis College campus.

After the school became Fort Lewis College in 1964, the team name was changed to the Raiders. But in 1994, the college’s student senate questioned whether that was an appropriate choice. The depiction of the blue and gold Raiders, was a cavalryman on horseback, saber drawn, and Davis said that “our Native students made the effort to have that changed.” That change, Davis added, was “supported by the Southern Ute and Navajo Tribes.” And so FLC President Joel Jones switched the team name to its present incarnation—the Skyhawks.

Looking back over the century from the comfortable dorm rooms and activity areas of the modern campus, the boarding school days seem remote.

Celebrating present-day FLC and its century of history, reunion attendees can take canoe and kayak trips down the Animas River and participate in a program that includes tours of Durango and the campus, live music and dancing, and children’s activities.