Old Stewart Indian School to renew museum, cultural center

CARSON CITY, Nev. - Effectively rising above and beyond its bittersweet history, the former Stewart Indian School is about to enter a new era, now on the threshold of its resurrection as the Stewart Indian Cultural Center. Envisioned as a full-blown museum that will highlight not only the students, athletes and artists that were educated at the school, but the cultures of the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone as well, Stewart has come a long way since its 1890 inception as the first BIA institution to be funded by a state legislature.

As one of the last government-run boarding schools to close in 1980, Stewart saw thousands of Indian boys and girls from around America. Far from home and family, there were more tears than smiles at Stewart.

''We just recently had some alumni interviews,'' said Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, the entity now serving as caretaker. ''The oldest one here was 92, and he talked about how a lot of kids would cry, because they came only speaking their Native languages and everybody here spoke English. They weren't allowed to speak Paiute; they didn't know what anybody was saying and were very confused, and looked to their older companions and students to assist them. They had to wake up to reveille. They had to line up. They had to march into the cafeteria. It was very structured.''

Initially a military-style school, Stewart began to experience a more harmonious balance in the 1950s and '60s, with the blending and blessing of American Indian staff, which encouraged and incorporated a cultural resurgence through Native religion, language and customs. Today, the sound of the cafeteria gong is long gone, buildings are being restored and the Native presence is undeniably returning.

''It just has a rich history,'' Rupert said. ''Since [it closed], the museum started trying to hold the memories and the history of the school, and it went through several different hands. Now, it rests with the State of Nevada Indian Commission. We house Building 3 here on campus, and we also have set aside Building 1. There's a restriction in the deed that says Buildings 1 and 3 will house the memorabilia of the Stewart boarding school, so now it's our responsibility to find the funding to re-establish the cultural center.''

And, as is historical custom in Indian country, the Natives are upholding that responsibility by ensuring that the non-Natives honor the words in the deed. One of Stewart's long-running traditions is the Father's Day Pow-Wow, a popular annual event. And a powerful trump card in safeguarding Stewart is its status as an official site on the National Register of Historic Places, ensuring the restoration of the facility and its presence as a tourism destination and, more importantly, Native land on which Natives will always have a place to dance.

''The pow wow will continue,'' Rupert promised. ''The commission has partnered with the Stewart Alumni Pow Wow Committee, and we've been coordinating this pow wow for the last four years. It's a great event, growing every year. That pow wow is also a fund-raiser for the cultural center, and to bring awareness that we are working on this and we're not going to stop. We had a fund-raiser in November and were able to raise some funds for the cultural center, and most importantly, [increase] awareness. That's the thing about this boarding school. It's this hundred-acre place, and half of Carson City doesn't even know it exists, and the history behind it. That's what we don't want to lose. We want people to know what happened.''

Local Natives, though, are moving forward. Historically, the Father's Day Pow-Wow has always been free, with no cost for either admission or parking. Rupert says that won't change this summer.

''We are not charging a fee, because it always has been free. People enjoy coming out here. It's a beautiful venue to have a pow wow. [The dancers] come from all over. They come because they want to. It is a competition pow wow, but we don't have a lot of fund[s] to give out to our dancers, and they understand that. They come to dance, and because they love it out here.''

Rupert says this year's Stewart Father's Day Pow-Wow, slated for June 15 - 17, will feature long-time local arena director Sam Johnson of Carson City; master of ceremonies Gridley Hilpert of Sun Valley; head man dancer Elmer Atlookan of Fort Hope, Ontario; head woman dancer Michelle McCauley of Wadsworth; and host drum Northern Eagle of Klamath Falls, Ore. Dry camping is available, as are Indian tacos, arts and crafts vendors and a 50/50 drawing, plus the Stewart Pow-Wow Princess competition, and respectful recognition of Stewart Indian School alumni - the heart of this historic place.

''This year we are working with the Nevada State Museum and the Bureau of Indian Affairs to bring a small exhibit into Building 1, where we're going to set up the alumni table,'' Rupert explained. ''A lot of alumni come from out of state just for this pow wow every year. It's a place for them to see their buddies from school - their families, really, because they grew up with them. They reminisce, look at old photos.

''This year the commission has quite a few photos we've taken in from private parties, so what we're going to do, through the pow wow committee, is fund copies of the photos, to be available to the alumni. They can pick which ones they want, and we'll charge a small fee. We'll also have information on pow wow protocol, and what things mean. So, in that way, we're trying to engage the public and try to bring some money back for the cultural center. This year we're also adding [opportunities] for tribes that might have an event of their own they want to advertise.''

Walking around Building 1 now - with its finished walls, beautiful wood beams and windows that allow views of both the blue Nevada sky and Stewart's resident hawk - it's hard to believe that just a few short years ago, the structure had been overtaken by the elements, pigeon and rodent droppings, and ruthless vandals. Rupert said the state of Nevada's Buildings and Grounds is responsible for this amazing transformation, on a wing, a prayer and a ''meager'' budget of $400.

''Since we've been out here, we've tried to maintain [Native] presence,'' Rupert asserted. ''I'd like to do more, but the commission has a small budget, so that's what we try to do with the pow wow, to create awareness and get the word out there. The Washoe Tribe has come to us and extended their [hand of fellowship] in getting Building 1 ready, bring it up to occupancy and fit it for our exhibits.''

Throughout its history, the Stewart Indian School has endured the reign of non-Native indoctrination, earthquakes and the ever-present possibility that the doors may close. There is perhaps no greater testament to its staying power, though, than the tenacious Indian spirit inherent in the endemic stones of the buildings that dominate this place, constructed by former boarding school students - the same force that will surely ensure its preservation and survival for the next century. For more information, call the Nevada Indian Commission at (775) 687-8333 or visit www.indiancommission.state.nv.us.