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Fort Lewis College Still Controversial After 100 Years

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Fort Lewis College (FLC) officials, celebrating the school’s centennial as a public educational institution, recall a time when the college’s move to Durango, Colorado caused a bit of a stir among the locals who feared a student crime wave.

And the college is still involved in a bit of controversy—currently over financial issues.

Formerly an Indian boarding school on a nearby Old Fort tract of land, the college today reimburses the tuition of both in- and out-of-state Native students under a mandate stemming from treaty obligations to area tribes.

Frontier Blues: The Legacy of Fort Lewis College, a commemorative exhibit, revisits a time even before the college’s relocation to Durango when boarding schools were first in, then out of fashion. “Blues” refers to the blue Army uniforms of old Fort Lewis, on the school’s original site, and to the mood of boarding school residents, according to the college’s Center of Southwest Studies.

Today, Native issues remain somewhat controversial in this southwestern Colorado area, as state revenues shrink and colleges’ budgets are tightened.

To help offset the cost of Indian tuition reimbursement to Colorado, a bill has been reintroduced by Democratic Colorado Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall that would provide about $10 million annually toward the state’s cost for the reimbursement. The bill, which would cap federal, but not state, reimbursement assistance at the 2010 level, was not acted upon last year.

For the last school year, of 786 Native students, $3,000 was assessed and then reimbursed as in-state tuition for 118 students at a cost of $354,000, while the state paid just over $16,000 each in out-of-state tuition for the other 668 American Indian students, for a total of just over $11 million in reimbursements, college officials said.

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“This does not mean that the number of Native American students who can take advantage of the waiver is capped,” noted Mitchel Davis, the college’s public information officer. “If the cost of the waiver for non-resident Native American students rises above the amount set forth in the bill in future years, the state of Colorado would be responsible for that funding.”

Karen Wilde, Muscogee Creek/Pawnee, a member of the college’s Board of Trustees, said the National Congress of American Indians, National Indian Gaming Association, and other Indian organizations support the tuition program at FLC.

“I do think it’s a good thing that the federal government would like to help out in this way and that our senators have brought this idea forward,” said Wilde, who is the first Native person appointed to a college-level administrative board in Colorado.

Budget issues are in the background as the college revisits its story, fostering a reconnection to local and regional history as visitors walk through different time periods representing chapters in the institution’s past.

“Native peoples of the region used the land near what is now Hesperus, Colorado long before the Army established Fort Lewis on the banks of the La Plata River in 1880,” says material prepared for the centennial.

After the military left the area in 1891, the property became Fort Lewis Indian School, closed a decade later when the boarding school style of Native education fell out of favor, and was essentially reborn as Fort Lewis School, which was an institution of learning to which Native students would be admitted free of charge “and on the same terms of equality as white pupils,” the materials state.

Fort Lewis A&M moved to Durango in 1956, creating concern in the citizenry over possible increases in crime from the young students and worries over its possibly being a “wasteful endeavor” or moving away from its agricultural focus. The college survived and later flourished, Davis noted, despite the bleakness denoted in the centennial’s title, “Frontier Blues.”

The largest numbers of nonresident Native students at Fort Lewis today include Navajo, 383, Cherokee, 60, Oklahoma Choctaw, 22, and Tlingit Haida, Alaska, 18. Resident students are from the state’s two Ute tribes, and other tribal nations. The college has awarded more bachelor’s degrees to Native students than any other four-year institution in the U.S., he said.