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History Colorado issues second report on Indian boarding schools

Investigation of Fort Lewis site in Hesperus is ongoing
History Colorado’s second report on the Fort Lewis Indian School site in Hesperus and Teller Institute site in Grand Junction have inconclusive results. (Courtesy of La Plata County Historical Society)

A second report from History Colorado on research into federal Indian boarding schools and potential grave sites was presented in December to the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs with inconclusive results.

The report is part of the Federal Indian Boarding School Research Program Act, which was signed into law by Gov. Jared Polis on May 24. The purpose of the bill is to research the former Indian boarding schools in Colorado, including the Fort Lewis site in Hesperus, which includes collecting and analyzing all archived documents about the schools, as well as examining the properties for burial sites. The bill was a direct response to the uncovering of mass graves of Indigenous children at similar residential schools in Canada in 2021.

“What they did in these schools was horrible,” said state Rep. Barbara McLachlan in a previous interview with The Durango Herald. “They took away culture, they cut hair, they wouldn’t let them speak their language, they wouldn’t let them dress like tribal members. They were removed from families. These parents were lied to. They were lied to many years ago, and many, many times over. And we need to make amends for that lying.”

One of the sites of the investigation is the Fort Lewis Indian School, which was located in Hesperus and operated from 1892 to 1911. From its inception, the school was plagued with rumors of physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous students. Only when investigative journalist Leonel Ross, under the alias of Polly Pry, went undercover at the school in 1903 and wrote an expose for The Denver Post did people learn the horrors of what was occurring at the school, according to History Colorado’s website.

One of the focuses for the Fort Lewis site is to uncover any unmarked burial sites on the property by using remote sensing, which detects and monitors the physical characteristics of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation at a distance, leaving the soil and sediments undisturbed, according to the United States Geological Survey. The latest report by History Colorado says that the current phase of remote sensing work at the old site of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School was completed in November and will be shared with Tribal Nations in February 2023.

Along with the Fort Lewis site, the Teller Indian School in Grand Junction, which ran from 1886 to 1911 and is now known as the Teller Institute and owned by the Colorado Department of Human Resources, has also been an area where noninvasive ground surveying has been used to locate possible burial sites of Indigenous children. According to the latest report, remote sensing done by the Colorado School of Mines was inconclusive because of soil composition as well as decades of ground disturbance.

Another important part of the research program is uncovering all documentation and data about schools like Fort Lewis and Teller in order to find out exactly which students attended and in what year and the operations of the schools during the time they were open.

According to the report, a team led by History Colorado’s state archaeologist Dr. Holly Norton “scanned roughly 5,000 pages of data from the National Archives in Washington, D.C., over the course of five days. These documents join several hundred pages of documents retrieved from the National Archives location in Denver.”

One of the hopes of uncovering the documents is to find additional sites of interest in Colorado, including more areas where remote sensing is needed.

“Research-to-date and ongoing consultation with tribal representatives have identified additional institutions that could be relevant to boarding schools’ impact on Native American tribes-people in Colorado,” according to the current report. “The number of locations currently being investigated at this time has grown to 10, but this is subject to change as some of these could be the same schools operating under different names.”

Among the 10 locations being investigated are sites around the Front Range. The report also indicates that additional tribes have been discovered as having connections to the Colorado Indian boarding schools in documents uncovered by the research team and through consultations with tribal representatives.

Representatives for History Colorado could not be reached for comment.

A third quarterly report will be provided to the Colorado Commission on Indian Affairs on March 16.


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