The cleansing scent of sweet grass filled the air on the morning of Monday, Sept. 6, at the Fort Lewis College clock tower. Community members of FLC gathered together, taking their seats to celebrate and reflect on the removal of the clock tower panels that contained an inaccurate depiction of FLC’s boarding school history.
The crowd arose with bowed heads in sync to pay respects for the lives lost as prayers were said by Linda K. Baker, tribal council member for the Southern Ute tribe.
Later, Skyhawk Nation, the FLC student drumming group, played a children's Osage song. The song is considered a mourning song, Noah Shadlow, Skyhawk Nation drum group leader and FLC senior, said.
Skyhawk Nation wanted to perform the song because of all the children’s mass graves discovered in areas previously occupied by boarding schools and to acknowledge their lives and seek justice, Shadlow said.
The crowd arose as the drummers kept a steady beat and sang loudly.
Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School
“The Fort Lewis College history committee concluded that what happened at the Fort Lewis College boarding school was nothing short of attempted, and sadly sometimes successful, cultural genocide,” FLC President Tom Stritikus said in his opening remarks at the ceremony.
Previous to the ceremony, the clock tower housed nine panels meant to depict the history of the college. During the ceremony, three of them were taken down.
Eventually, all nine panels will be removed from the clock tower and taken to the Center of Southwest studies building on campus, Lee Bitsoi, Associate Vice President for Diversity Affairs and Special Advisor to the President for Indigenous Affairs, said.
The removal of these panels is an acknowledgement from the college of the trauma and loss that was bestowed against the indigenous Ute tribe, as the history committee concluded that the panels had inaccurate information on FLC’s boarding school history, Bitsoi said.
According to the Center of Southwest Studies at FLC, in 1891, FLC transitioned from an army post to a Ute off-reservation boarding school. It remained a boarding school until 1911, when the fort's property and buildings in Hesperus were transferred to the state of Colorado to establish an "agricultural and mechanical arts high school."
According to the Fort Lewis College website, this transaction “came with two conditions: that the land would be used for an educational institution, and was ‘to be maintained as an institution of learning to which Indian students will be admitted free of tuition and on an equality with white students’ in perpetuity.”
Around the 1930s, FLC became a two year college and eventually transitioned to a four year college in 1964.
Throughout all of this, the 1911 treaty mandate has been upheld, with the college still providing a tuition-waiver for Native American students today.
Mourning as a community
The ceremony welcomed many esteemed guest speakers, including representatives from the Southern Ute tribal council and the Navajo Nation.
“We encourage the world that 2021 be the year of healing,” Adam Begay, representative of the Navajo Nation, said at the ceremony. “It is time for truth, for learning and sharing boarding school history and the way its legacy continues to shape the present.”
This ceremony at FLC comes after a burial site was uncovered in British Columbia, Canada at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in June of 2020. The Tk’emlups te Secwepemc FIrst Nation community found evidence of 215 bodies of children at the boarding school, which began a conversation on Indian boarding schools and the inaccurate history being told.
Rayna Tavena, FLC student, said the panel ceremony is a big thing for the college. FLC is a school with a boarding school past and she was excited to hear the speakers acknowledge this, she said.
Kiana Tom and Kalila Tom, FLC students and sisters, said the ceremony was emotional as they have grandparents that survived boarding school.
“For me, I cried half way through because of the prayers,” Teeth Nez, FLC student said. “I've only ever experienced prayers from my close family. So seeing it as a collective was really significant. My mother also went to a boarding school, she doesn't talk about it but she has given details here and there about how traumatic it was for her and knowing that there are other people out there who have experienced the same thing and how it affected other generations was very powerful.”
The ceremony was moving in hearing the stories and backgrounds of the speakers, Autumn Eddy, FLC student, said.
The process of the panel removal began in the fall of 2019 with the establishment of the FLC history committee, which held several listening sessions that took place on campus, Bitsoi said.
At the listening sessions, students, faculty and staff discussed their thoughts regarding the panels, which was key because some attendees had parents and relatives who attended the boarding schools, Bitsoi said.
The committee was in charge of coming up with recommendations around the FLC history reconciliation, and the committee concluded that the first step was the removal of the panels, he said.
“After you remove them will you destroy them?” Bitsoi said, referring to common questions about the removal ceremony. “No, because it is a part of the institute's history. It just needs to be depicted in a more accurately respectful way.”
With the conclusion of the history committee, the college is now looking forward to reconciliation, hoping to incorporate a more “pro-Indigenous approach” on their next steps, working with Indigenous groups at FLC , student leaders, faculty and staff, Bitsoi said.
This is just the starting point on the process of the reconciliation, he said.
“It is important for anyone who enters Fort Lewis College to understand the history of the institution,” Bitsoi said. “We provide a tuition waiver to eligible students. Because of the tuition waiver, there are misconceptions. As an institution we take pride in continuing the tuition waiver because it is a federal obligation. It is a type of treaty and just think about how many countless treaties have been broken.”
With the ceremony coming to an end, the air was greeted with a calming scent of sage while the crowd smudged themselves as a whole. Sky Hawk Nation played an upbeat song while Georgia Gray, FLC first-year student, jingle danced to the beat of the drum.
“I’m named after my great grandma Georgia Jane Holiday,” Gray said about her great grandmother. “She's the one who was in the long walk. She was three years old though, but you know, even just experiencing that at a young age, it can be so traumatizing. She probably lost so many people and I know my dad talks about it all the time and she didn't speak English. So, you know, she only spoke Navajo and my dad grew up around her and he saw it and how it affected her. Her actions, her emotions.”
The crowd sat with eyes on the performance while she continued jingling across the crowd's view, smiling.
“Hearing the drum, it really made me feel at home,” Gray said, referring to how jingle dancing at the ceremony helped her feel less homesick. “It was hard but it felt really good and I was grateful I got to dance.”
Afterwards, everyone was invited to feast in celebration of this historical event for FLC. A combination of different Indigenous foods was served at the feast, like a blue corn tortilla to dip into a spicy corn soup.
It was a sight to see everyone come together and join FLC on their celebration of the panel removal.
“The importance of the ceremony today was that Indigenous voices were heard and listened to, and Fort Lewis as a community was willing to admit its part in the past, and to make sure history is told in accurate, layered light, rather than just a white-centric one,” Natalie Quinn, FLC student, said.