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History Colorado report details past sexual abuse, burial sites at Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School

Yearlong investigation attempted to identify number of deaths that took place at the institution
A view of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in an undated photo. History Colorado’s report conducted in accordance with HB22-1327 revealed experience students faced at the boarding school. (Courtesy of History Colorado-Denver, Colorado)

History Colorado on Tuesday revealed shocking details about the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, previously located in Hesperus, in its final report for HB22-1327.

The intention of the report was to understand how many children died at boarding schools, and to identify the burial places of those children.

The report revealed that about 1,100 Native American students ages 5-22 from 20 tribes attended the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School when it operated from 1892 to 1909.

Among the most alarming aspects of the report was the sexual and physical abuse female students and staff were subjected to by the school’s superintendent Thomas Breen, which the unincorporated community of Breen is named after. Breen held the position from 1894 to 1903.

According to the report, Breen was forced to end his academic career after being investigated for his misconduct. It was widely publicized by The Denver Post in 1903.

Breen was never prosecuted for his crimes, and his supporters claimed he was innocent, according to the History Colorado Report.

The report was written by History Colorado’s State Archaeologist Holly Norton, who spent a year consulting with both the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe as well as sifting through national archival documents.

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe released a statement Tuesday saying that report shed light on the egregious history of Federal Indian Boarding Schools across the United States.

“This era, unfortunately, saw education being used as a tool to eliminate traditional Indigenous language, culture, knowledge, and identity, primarily targeting children for assimilation,” the release said.

“This report is a vital step toward acknowledging and understanding the painful legacy of Federal Indian Boarding Schools,” said Southern Ute Tribal Chairman Melvin J. Baker in the news release Tuesday.

This research effort was mandated by HB 22-1327, which instructed History Colorado to look into the actual experiences of students at the former Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, a Native American boarding school that was operated by the federal government and was located in Hesperus, Colorado.

“(Norton) approaches this with a level of scientific inquiry like the scholar that she is. There's a lot of data within the report but I think one of the things that she does well is take a lot of care and adds a nuance around the specific numbers,” said History Colorado Chief Executive Officer Dawn DiPrince.

The report says a large portion of Breen’s copy books were water damaged, making them indecipherable. This impacted documentation that could have contained more detail regarding individual children.

“It is impossible to quantify the abuses that occurred at schools where students, and even staff, did not have avenues of recourse or adult advocates responsible for their well-being,” the report said.

Disturbing allegations

Polly Pry, a Denver Post reporter in 1903, acted on a news tip she received via mail by a former teacher accusing Breen of sexual abuse and violence against women and girls who attended or worked for the school.

Her reporting included talking to several female staff members. Upon interviewing these employees, the staff members accused Breen of impregnating students who were then sent away. In one instance, a young woman gave birth to a child at Fort Lewis and the infant was immediately taken away, according to the report.

The report went on to say the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School experienced high turnover because of poor working conditions, poor pay and conditions where female staff in particular were also subject to abuse by predominantly male superintendents.

In addition, the school matron, which the report only refers to as “Mrs. Miller” was implicated in the abuse based on the reporting done by Pry. Miller was accused of granting Breen access to female students, punishing students who reported the abuses to her and helping to cover up pregnancies.

This misconduct was made worse at the time by National Superintendent of Indian Schools Estelle Reel, who often forbade staff from reporting issues and demanded that teachers adamantly stand by superintendents, the report said.

Data from the report’s archival analysis that there were 31 deaths of students over an 18-year time span at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School.

The report indicated that it was difficult to decipher which tribes the students were from because boarding school officials were not concerned with the students’ tribal affiliation, often referring to them as generic terms like “Indian.”

However, 15 students of either Ute or Southern Ute tribal affiliation died while attending the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, according to the report.

The Fort Lewis Boarding School opened in 1892 with the expectation of serving the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. At the time, many Southern Ute were opposed to allowing their children to attend.

There were 48 students when the school first opened its doors in 1892 and about 25% of them were Southern Ute. A tuberculosis epidemic broke out among the students in 1892 and parents were prevented from picking up their children during the epidemic which created a further mistrust between the Southern Ute and federal government, the report says.

There were also complaints from Ute families that their children were not being fed enough under the first superintendent Louis Morgan.

The report says that the U.S. attempted to strong arm Ute families into attending the boarding school by utilizing tactics such as denying them access to horses. However, Ute families decided to remove their students from the school and refused to send more regardless.

The burial site at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School appeared to be established in 1880 and was used for military personnel and their families, as well as other members of the surrounding community. Because the boarding school utilized a military base that was previously there, it used a cemetery already located across the highway from what would eventually become the boarding school.

‘Tribes have to heal from them’

Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Chairman Manuel Heart said the report is just the tip of the iceberg in the investigation of the Indian boarding schools.

“I'm looking for a more detailed report or a second report coming out that I hope that they can do down the road,” Heart said.

Heart said that he would like for History Colorado to look deeper into not only Fort Lewis, but also other Indian Boarding Schools in the area such as schools in Towaoc, Ignacio and in Denver because each had different experiences with the way students were treated.

“Ultimately, tribes have to heal from them. Some of these grandparents and parents never came back as students,” he said, adding he would also like to see in the report more detail of the students and their families.

Heart also felt as though students were not paid for their services in Indian boarding school “outing programs,” based on how they were treated while attending the boarding schools. Outing programs were considered educational opportunities where boys and girls were placed with white American families to work as agricultural or domestic laborers.

“I think they were not paid and it was forced labor,” Heart said.

He said there is still much to uncover about the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. He believes that there could be more bodies than what was counted just because Breen was not always forthcoming when it came to reporting incidents at the school.

Investigating churches was another point of emphasis made by the tribal chairman. He said that Catholic, Mormon and Presbyterian churches have played a large role in assimilation throughout history.

Steps being taken

Fort Lewis College has been vocal about its commitment to reconciliation because of its past affiliation with the Indian Boarding School.

This included removing panels from the school’s famous clock tower, which did not represent a complete history of Fort Lewis as an Indian boarding school.

“At FLC, the contradiction between our past and present is stark – today, we are one of the most prominent educators of Native American students – with specific goals around Native American student success and relationships with Tribal Nations. We are the only higher education institution in Colorado to have two Board of Trustees members who are citizens of Tribal Nations, and we have made concerted efforts to increase the representation of Native American faculty and staff in our ranks,” FLC President Tom Stritikus said in a community message to the college on Tuesday.

The campuses care team has prepared a plan for students to help cope with the report’s release. Also, the college has been working with its Native American students throughout its reconciliation process by offering listening and dialogues sessions about HB-22-1327.

“I think everyone is processing in their own way,” FLC Vice President of Diversity Affairs Heather Shotton said on Wednesday.

The college’s Native American and Indigenous studies faculty held teaching sessions throughout the day and over 100 students attended in total.

Shotton previously told the The Durango Herald that Native American students make up roughly 40% of the college’s student-body.

“Our leadership has been really committed to making sure that this is something that is a collective commitment and a shared commitment across campus. It will look like a number of efforts. In in this immediate time, following the release of the report, what we're really focused on is making sure that we support and care for our students and campus community,” Shotton said.

Heart said the college just needs to keep working with the tribes.

“If there's other things that we need to address, we can talk about it more down the road. But right now, the report is what it is,” Heart said.

DiPrince said that the state, federal government and Fort Lewis College can’t commit to reconciliation work if they don’t know what really happened and that this report is a really important first step toward understanding what reconciliation could look like.

In an executive summary released on Sept. 1, History Colorado released a list of recommendations for reconciliation. These included a proposed a five-year timeline that includes informed consent, engagement with tribal communities, travel to reservations and other locales to collect the oral histories.


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