DENVER — Lee Bitsóí must reconcile daily with the fact he works for an institution born from the cultural genocide his own family experienced.
Bitsóí navigates this quandary as an Indigenous administrator at Durango’s Fort Lewis College.
Today, Fort Lewis’ student population is more than 40 percent Native American or Alaska Native. The institution prides itself on its diversity, inclusivity and a waiver covering the cost of tuition of any students from federally recognized Native American tribes or Alaska Native villages.
But the college originated more than a century ago as one of the country’s Native American boarding schools — institutions the federal government used to recruit Indigenous children from across the nation in an effort to strip them of their culture and force assimilation.
“There’s a tremendous tension between an institution like Fort Lewis dedicated to helping advance tribal sovereignty and serving diverse students and having a history connected to cultural genocide,” Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus said. “That needs to be talked about and not hid from.”
Bitsóí, fellow academics and tribal leaders are discussing how to move forward following a June announcement by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland calling for a comprehensive review of the Native American boarding school legacy. The action was prompted by the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves by Canada’s Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior’s announcement.
During a recent news conference in Denver, Haaland — the first Native American cabinet secretary in U.S. history — said the federal government will assist local communities in their goal of identifying every former federal boarding school in the country and investigating the potential for unmarked graves.
“Fundamentally, we just want to make sure families today get the information they’ve been wanting for decades and decades,” Haaland, Laguna Pueblo, said.
At least two former Indian boarding schools in Colorado — Fort Lewis College’s old campus in Hesperus and the defunct Teller Indian School in Grand Junction — will be investigated for remains of Native children who attended those institutions.
Tribal leaders are being consulted to determine the most culturally sensitive way to go about such investigations, which experts said deserve to be thoughtful processes driven by the desires of the people most impacted by the tragic history.
“When you think about these schools and how they were a wholesale replacement of Native ways of seeing the world, that was in life as well as in death,” said John Seebach, an assistant professor of archeology at Colorado Mesa University. “Even in death, they’re prevented from going back to their home communities, buried in a Christian fashion. From life to death — assimilation.”
Beginning with the Indian Civilization Act of 1819, the U.S. enacted laws and policies establishing and supporting Indian boarding schools across the nation, the Department of the Interior said in announcing the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.
“The purpose of Indian boarding schools was to culturally assimilate Indigenous children by forcibly relocating them from their families and communities to distant residential facilities where their American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian identities, languages and beliefs were to be forcibly suppressed,” the Interior Department said in its announcement. “For over 150 years, hundreds of thousands of Indigenous children were taken from their communities.”
The Old Fort
Bitsóí’s parents, aunts and uncles were among the Indigenous children placed in Indian boarding schools elsewhere in the nation.
When Bitsóí, who serves as Fort Lewis College’s diversity collaborative director and special adviser to the president for Native American affairs, first heard about the unmarked graves that were discovered in Canada, he felt the tightening grip of intergenerational trauma.
“It made me think of the potential or the possibility of any unmarked burials at any former Indian boarding school and then it made me begin to question what has taken place at the Old Fort site in Hesperus,” Bitsóí’ said. “It reminded me of what my parents and my aunts and uncles went through. It made me really think about what their experience was like and how they may not have had a voice to speak up for themselves and even if they did, they were probably beaten.”
Fort Lewis originally was a U.S. Army post constructed in Pagosa Springs before being relocated in 1880 to Hesperus, about a 20-minute drive west of Durango, said Lauren Savage, a Fort Lewis College spokeswoman. In 1891, Fort Lewis was decommissioned as an Army post and converted into the Fort Lewis Indian School, which operated until 1911.
From there, the property was transferred to the state and established as a high school that later morphed into a two-year college and eventually moved in 1956 to Durango, where it became the Fort Lewis College of today.
Bitsóí, of the Diné, described how boarding schools across the country attempted to erase Native culture and language.
“That’s what is dear to Native people,” Bitsóí said. “That’s what’s dear to me. If children did get sick and couldn’t go home, did they perish there and what happened to those bodies? We don’t know.”
For years, leaders at Fort Lewis College have discussed how to most appropriately face their school’s past while looking to the future. Bitsóí is among a group of Fort Lewis employees, students and community members meeting about reconciliation efforts impacting the college community.
The search for remains is now at the forefront of those discussions.
“We’ve reached out to tribal nations whose ancestors would have been the students at that time,” said Stritikus, the college’s president. “We’ve signaled to them that this is a concern for us, and we want to know what they think, and we will not do anything until we talk to them about what that would look like and what would be appropriate for them. That’s where we are in that process.
“The process of reconciliation is much bigger than this aspect of the potential for unmarked graves,” he said. “It is about being honest about the history, trauma of boarding schools and trying to do the diversity, equity and inclusion work in a way that helps our students succeed.”
Teller Indian School
Similar efforts to investigate a former Native American boarding school are underway in Grand Junction, where the Teller Indian School operated from 1886 to 1911, which was around the time most of the schools began shutting down, Colorado Mesa University’s Seebach said.
Seebach became integral in the search for remains at the Grand Junction site that is now partly owned by the state, serving as a facility for the intellectually disabled called the Grand Junction Regional Campus.
The state is mandated to vacate and sell the campus, said Madlynn Ruble, spokeswoman for the Colorado Department of Human Services. Before the sale that would enable the search for unmarked graves to begin, Ruble said the residents of the facility must all be found safe places to live.
Seebach has been searching for a cemetery at the former Grand Junction boarding school for years, relying on cadaver dogs, archival research and maps of the old school grounds while scouring news clippings to find information about student deaths.
“It being the 20th century, kids died of many, many different things,” Seebach said. “Medical science was not where we have it today. One of the kids died after sliding into second base and compound-fracturing his leg. He went into sepsis and died.”
Through Seebach’s research, he has found at least 21 recorded incidents in which students died at the school, but he suspects more — and believes they are buried somewhere on the grounds.
Seebach has a guess based on his research where a cemetery might be located and will be involved in the use of ground-penetrating radar to better investigate once the sale of the property occurs. He said tribal nations also will guide how the investigation proceeds to best pay respect to the Native culture.
“It’s great this is finally coming to light,” Seebach said. “In Native communities, the boarding schools represent this unfathomably profound loss of culture. It’s immeasurable how much was lost at the hands of the U.S. government at these schools. If the public at large recognizes this, then this has a whole cascading effect on understanding how Native communities function today as well as just straight up honoring that history and the legacy of what occurred in these places.”
Garrett Briggs, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s official representative to the Teller Indian School Task Force, said tribal nations including the Southern Ute have spearheaded these reconciliation efforts in Colorado.
“It is of the utmost importance that descendant communities are given every opportunity to be involved in these efforts and have the opportunity to discuss how the children will be cared for once they are relocated,” Briggs said. “Every effort must be exerted to engage descendant communities with respect to their traditional customs and protocol when addressing this heinous historic treatment of Native American children. The effort of Secretary Haaland is a commendable effort acknowledging the true history of this country with that of its original inhabitants, but also a great opportunity to correct historical inaccuracies.”