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Priorities differ on old boarding school site

DURANGO, Colo. – Some contemporary Native college students have plans for the site of a former Indian boarding school near this southwestern Colorado community, but the state may have other uses in mind.

Sustainable food and housing, bison and churro sheep herds, vegetable gardens using permaculture techniques, an emphasis on traditional and indigenous plants, as well as further research into various past uses of the 6,300-acre site are among the topics Native students at Fort Lewis College are exploring.

At the same time, the Colorado State Land Board is looking at the potential for diversified, revenue-generating activity on the site, popularly known as the “Old Fort” property, administered as the Hesperus Trust by the land board since 1910, when it was conveyed to the state under a federal statute dealing in part with the fulfillment of treaty obligations.

The tract’s future will be under formal discussion soon, with proposals for its use to be solicited by the land board after mid-March, Brownell Bailey, land board director, said March 2.

The old boarding school site’s fate is tied to another recent controversy at Fort Lewis College, where Native students were alarmed in January when the state legislature announced a cutback in the reimbursement rates to the college for the free tuition offered to Colorado Natives and those from outside the state.

This building is believed to have served as a stockade at Fort Lewis, a former Territorial Army outpost in southwestern Colorado. The “Old Fort” land, a 6,300-acre tract, is being eyed by the Colorado State Land Board as a source of revenue, and by Native students at Fort Lewis College as a location for sustainable food and housing, and for indigenous plants and animals.

When the Old Fort became an Indian boarding school, the enabling legislation specified it was to be “maintained by the state as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students.”

Of 753 total Native students at the liberal arts college in 2009, $3,000 was assessed and then reimbursed for in-state tuition for 120 students at a total of $360,000, but the state paid just over $16,000 each in out-of-state tuition for the other 633 American Indian students for a total of $10 million. Total student enrollment was 3,685 in 2009.

The largest number of Native students at Fort Lewis are Navajo, followed by Native Alaskans and then students from tribes in Oklahoma, including Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Muscogee, and many others, according to college officials.

The cash-strapped state proposed a cut of $3,000 in its reimbursement rate to the college for 2011 tuition for out-of-state Native students, constituting a $1.8 million reduction. It would be coupled with a proposed overall cut to the college of about $4 million which the state calculated at a 31 percent rate, higher than the 21 percent average reduction rate for other colleges in the state, officials said.

Coincidentally, the Old Fort site is held in trust for the benefit of Fort Lewis College and the Indian students there, Bailey said. “If Fort Lewis should be in a place where they can’t provide free tuition to those students, the Hesperus Trust revenues would support free tuition for Native Americans.

“Free tuition (for Native students) is an obligation of Fort Lewis College. If the college should come up short the revenue of Hesperus Trust goes first to pay the tuition.”

The Native students involved with the site’s fate see other issues, as well.

Tehonna James, Tlingit/Athabascan, a member of the student senate, said of the Old Fort site, “There’s a lot of things that haven’t been learned about that land – some of the history, the ecology, whether there’s been coal extraction.”

She is concerned it may be leased for mining, while the Native students would “hope to try to set up another campus for the college, in a way that would cater to sustainability” including agriculture and housing, “raising food for students that might be housed there and on campus.”

Currently, the Pejuta Tipi Society, a student organization, has ceremonies on the land, including those held each year to help the students complete the semesters successfully.

“We hope to use the land in a good way and benefit the students and the community,” James said.

Ken Francis, head of the college’s Office of Community Services, said the controlling statute calls for the site to be used for instructional purposes, but the state is ignoring it and “they’re wanting to lease it out to whoever.” Future use should be educational and “a wonderful opportunity for all students to get hands-on field experience in a variety of fields.”

The site was a former Territorial Army fort that became a boarding school for Navajo, Ute, Arapaho and Sioux children from kindergarten through sixth grade from 1891 – 1910, and later became Fort Lewis College under the Colorado State University system, moving to Durango in 1956 when the Old Fort tract became the San Juan Basin Research Center.

Use of the site for Native purposes “certainly would be among the allowable uses,” Bailey said, but stewardship would be one requirement – “that the care of the land is properly attained so that the land is in better shape in 10 years than it is today” – and reasonable and consistent revenue, whether in stewardship or cash.

If a school of whatever kind were located on the Old Fort tract, Native students would have free tuition and non-Natives would pay, he said, noting his preference is for a diverse pool of Native and non-Native users with diverse purposes.

There are written subleases with both an Elk Research Institute and helicopter fire-suppression operation that covers Mesa Verde National Park and the land board’s goal is to honor written leases with CSU “so there is continuity; if there is a lawsuit, no one can occupy the Hesperus Trust,” he said.

Over the long-term lease of the site with CSU there were a “series of frictions” and little rent in recent years, said Bailey, and “Hopefully, we will see a broader representation than has happened by having CSU as the sole tenant.”