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History Colorado reports Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School used ‘outing system’

Students were used for agricultural labor at below-market pay
A view of the Fort Lewis Indian boarding school in an undated photo. (Courtesy of History Colorado-Denver, Colorado)

The latest executive summary from History Colorado revealed that many students at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Hesperus were placed in an agricultural labor school, meaning large portions of their day were spent doing labor to keep the school fed and operational.

The report was released on Sept. 1 as part of Colorado’s Federal Indian Boarding School Research Program Act.

Labor included domestic chores such as laundry, according to the report. It also said that the school participated in an “outing system,” which is an informal program where students were placed with families during summer vacations or for an entire school year, working for under-market wages as an agricultural or domestic laborer.

In addition, students were placed in Colorado homes, farms and ranches where they lived with white families. While many of these places were closed to Durango, the report shows that in 1909, there was an emphasis on sending students to places like Rocky Ford because industries like sugar beets were starting escalate in production.

As part of the Native American Boarding School Research Program Act, geophysical work has been undertaken to identify cemeteries and burial sites for children who died while attending Fort Lewis Indian School. Investigations were completed in November 2022, and boundaries of the cemetery at the boarding school were determined, according to the report.

Results of these investigations have been released to the tribal nations who had students in attendance, but the full report will not be available to the public until Oct. 3.

Fort Lewis College has been committed to reconciliation efforts with its Native American students.

“We partnered with the Southern Utes and the Ute Mountain Utes to advocate for this bill, because it was important to us as an institution to start to confront our history as a former federal Indian boarding school,” said FLC Vice President of Diversity Affairs Heather Shotton.

Shotton said it’s important to understand that the Fort Lewis Boarding School was part of a larger federal Indian boarding school system, and that the outing system used at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School was common practice for other Indian boarding schools at the time.

The college has been working with its Native American students throughout its reconciliation process by offering listening and dialogues sessions about HB-22-1327.

Over 40% of the college’s student population is Native American, Shotton said.

“Many of them are likely descendants of boarding school survivors, and folks who were impacted by communities that were impacted by the Federal Indian boarding school system largely. So we want to make sure that we are prepared to support them and meet their needs,” she said.

An email from FLC President Tom Stritikus to students on Aug. 31 provided students with options to seek counseling about the release of the reports.

“We recognize that the information provided in the summary of the report may be painful for many members of our Skyhawk family, and it is normal to have a wide range of feelings and responses. Students, please know your Counseling Center is ready and willing to support you,” the email said.

Reconciliation recommendations made by History Colorado included traveling to reservations of affected tribal nations, listening and learning sessions, and oral histories centering survivors and Indigenous narratives.

History Colorado obtained Indigenous-centered research from Living Heritage Anthropology in order to conduct trauma-informed oral histories of survivors of the federal boarding school system.

It proposes 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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