Many students are aware that Fort Lewis College started as a Native American boarding school. However, not many students are aware of what Native American boarding schools were, how they worked, or why this history is vital information for understanding FLC’s Native American tuition waiver.
Why We Have the Native American Tuition Waiver
In 1910, the land and buildings of FLC were deeded to the state of Colorado, Majel Boxer, Native American and indigenous studies professor, said.
“That is the reason why we have the Native American tuition waiver today,” Boxer said. “It was deemed that Native American pupils would be admitted to Fort Lewis free of charge, and on terms of equality with white students.”
Having all the information on the history of FLC available to students here at the college helps answer a lot of questions and helps with any racial tensions on campus, Boxer said.
“If people knew the history of the Native American tuition waiver, there would be an appreciation for the diversity that native students bring to this college,” Boxer said. “It’s not free education. It came at a price.”
It is important to understand why Native Americans receive free tuition, Smith said.
“A lot of people don’t understand and don’t recognize the significance of providing this free tuition,” Smith said. “Most students understand the dynamic of the tuition waiver, but some believe that it is an advantage that Native American students don’t deserve.”
History of Fort Lewis Boarding School
FLC started as a military post in Pagosa Springs in 1878. After a few years in operation, its purpose changed to policing people of the Ute communities, Boxer said.
Since Pagosa Springs was too far away from many Ute communities, it moved to Hesperus in 1880, Boxer said.
In 1892, the military post was deemed too expensive and transitioned into a boarding school. This boarding school accepted all native students, especially those of nearby reservations, to assimilate Native American children to Euro-American ways and ideals, Boxer said.
“Part of the day was devoted to academics and part was devoted to vocational training,” Boxer said. “Through their vocational training, students maintained the boarding school.”
A typical day would have been waking up early, going to church service, tending to chores, getting breakfast, studying, and then back to chores, Boxer said.
Students were forced to give up their language, tribal religion, practices and become an English speaking Judeo-Christian, Boxer said.
“The hope was that they would leave their communities, and they would never go back,” Boxer said.
Native American boarding schools were highly impersonal, Boxer said.
“You’re talking about taking children as young as four, five or six years old and taking them away from their families,” Boxer said. “For that, it wrecked families and tribal communities.”
There were also outing programs during the summer that moved children around to live and work with white families, Boxer said.
These programs forced children to live in unfamiliar Euro-American households and practice vocational training, which made it very difficult for Native American families to visit their children, Boxer said.
“There are stories and accounts of children who would stay at boarding schools for years,” Boxer said. “A decade could go by without parents ever seeing their children.”
FLC was modeled off of Carlisle Indian school in Pennsylvania, Frances Kay Holmes, Native American and indigenous studies professor, said.
In Carlisle, there was corporal punishment, Holmes said. People were beaten, their food was withheld from them and they were locked in rooms when they spoke their languages or observed native ceremonies, she said.
“As soon as pupils entered the boarding school, their hair was cut, they were scrubbed clean with lye and a steel brush and their clothes were sold or burned,” Holmes said.
There were too many children in one space, none of whom were fed well, Holmes said.
The Meriam Report came out in 1928 and determined that students needed to have 33 cents worth of food a day in order to be healthy, Holmes said. The children at Carlisle were receiving 11 cents a day, she said.
Being malnourished and heavily worked with vocational training, these children had little ability to fight illness and diseases such as smallpox, tuberculosis, influenza and more, so they started to die at incredible rates, Homes said.
“Many children got lost in this system, parents wouldn’t know what had happened to them,” Holmes said. “Some were buried in unmarked graves, some were buried in graves with the wrong tombstones.”
Not only were children taken from their homes, but some never returned, Holmes said.
“For some Native American students, this history is devastating,” Kate Smith, sociology professor, said. “But it helps them understand what their family endured to be able to live in this country, and how their culture was destroyed by assimilation.”
Students today have to be very vigilant if they are interested in learning about the Native American school past, Boxer said.
“It’s kind of a painful memory for some people, but by glossing it over you’re burying it, and you can’t heal from that,” Fabian Martinez, senior history major said.
The only markers the boarding school history gets are four panels underneath the clock tower and in the Delaney library downstairs in the Center of Southwest Studies, Boxer said.
“Unless you’re actively searching, you could go blissfully through college not knowing about that Fort Lewis wasn’t always a liberal arts school here on the mesa.” Boxer said.
Solutions: Get Educated
Holmes shares some ideas to alleviate this misunderstanding.
“Institutionally, it would be good for us to do a better job in explaining what the tuition waiver is all about,” Holmes said. “One way is to think about having some sort of native studies requirement.”
Boxer, Holmes and Smith hear about quite a bit of racial tension on campus, whether it is in classes, clubs, or any other social circumstances.
“And of course it has to do with that underlying foundational misunderstanding, lack of knowledge,” Homes said.