Generations of Nevada’s Native Americans passed through the doors of the Stewart Indian School, some enduring painfully harsh treatment as their culture was stripped away while others left in later years with fond memories of time spent with members of other tribes.
For nearly a century, thousands of Indian students from around the western United States were enrolled in the boarding school on the outskirts of Carson City to get an education and learn vocational skills like masonry and farming.
Three decades after the school closed, the expansive college campus-like facility remains both a cultural touchstone for Nevada’s Native American population and a neglected chapter of its history,
Now state lawmakers and Gov. Brian Sandoval are taking steps to preserve the historic campus and its role in the state’s development. Two bills under consideration by the Legislature would pay for repairs for some of the school’s decaying buildings and create a cultural museum as well as carve out a bigger role for the state’s Indian Commission.
“What we’re trying to do here is not just tell the positive stories, or the happy stories,” Indian Commission Director Sherry Rupert said. “But we have an opportunity to tell the whole story of what this school is, was and means.”
For many Native Americans in northern Nevada, the Stewart Indian School is a story of forced assimilation and barbaric practices that nearly destroyed an entire way of life. Founded in 1890, the school initially served as a strict military-style boarding school. Federal authorities would forcibly round up children from nearby reservations and dump them off at the school, Rupert said.
Under a policy of forced assimilation, students would have their hair cut short and their names changed. They were forced to only use English, rather than native languages.
The federal policy was designed to weaken their cultural ties and make it easier for the government to take Indian land, Rupert said.
“What these boarding schools were all about were not to bring these savages to these schools to prepare them to go on to college and to better themselves,” she said. “It was more to force them into these schools, force them to learn a different language, force them to retain a different value system, with the idea that when they grew up, the federal government could more easily get their land.”
But as federal policy toward Native Americans shifted in the 1930s, the school became less military based and more of a normal high school that voluntarily took in Indian students from around the West.
Mary Lou Shorthorn attended the school from 1968 to 1972 and said she enjoyed her time despite the school’s slightly rough-and-tumble reputation.
“It kind of got this image of a dump-off school, where you take someone who doesn’t fit in, or can’t fit in public schools,” she said. “Now, I look at it as a prideful thing, because I learned a lot about the other cultures of people, and I got my education.”
The commission is requesting a one-year $122,000 budget to help pay for a permanent cultural center at the school, with the eventual goal of turning the site in to a more tourist-friendly destination, Rupert said. Sandoval has taken a number of steps to support the school, including placing her on his Cabinet and mentioning the site during his State of the State address, she said.
AB 15 establishes funds for repairing school buildings by selling an unused 100-acre parcel of land between Carson City and Lake Tahoe. Although some Assembly Democrats expressed concern with selling state-owned land to pay for another project, the bill passed out the Assembly in February on a 41-1 vote.
Another bill, SB 63, gives the Indian Commission coordinating authority to manage other agencies with offices on the campus. The bill passed unanimously out of the Senate in March.
Though the school was closed in 1980, the school grounds are far from abandoned. The Indian Commission and state agencies use several well-preserved buildings on the campus for office space.
But for the occasional tourists visiting the expansive campus, decades of harsh Nevada weather is apparent in the faded stonework, numerous potholes and collapsing roofs in several of the older buildings.
Former state Historic Preservation director Ron James said the school grounds are on a short list for inclusion in the federal government’s National Register of Historic Places, but continual decay and accumulating damage lowers the school’s chances of being listed. “Once they start slipping away, they start slipping away really fast,” he said.
Funding the school’s restoration brings a benefit for all Nevadans, Rupert said.
“This isn’t just about the Native people. This is about the community,” she said. “This is about the state of Nevada.”
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