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History in clearer view for sharper focus on future

Dr. Tom Stritikus
Heather Shotton
Ernest House Jr.

This fall, Fort Lewis College opened our campus to 3,425 students, more than 39% of whom are members of federally recognized Tribal Nations.

During first-year orientation for students and families, a spiritual leader from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe offered a traditional blessing, and students heard from FLC’s Hozoni Ambassadors about our commitment to place. A sense of optimism about what is possible when students show up to a college campus as their full selves was palpable.

But at FLC, our prospects of a bright future are intertwined with a painful past – the reality that our history is steeped in violence against Indigenous people.

As students also learned during their first week, from 1891-1909, FLC operated as a federal Indian boarding school. We were part of a federal system set up to dispossess Tribal Nations of land and eradicate the language, culture and spirituality of Indigenous peoples through the forced assimilation of their children. The purposeful dismantling of Indigenous ways of life had devastating consequences that persist today.

The contradiction between our past and present is stark – today, we are one of the largest educators of Native American students – with specific goals around Native American student success and relationships with Tribal Nations. We’re 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.

Five years ago, FLC started taking steps to better understand our origins and the responsibility of that reality by establishing the FLC History Committee. Since then, FLC has undertaken a comprehensive approach to reconciliation that is focused on healing, maintaining respectful and reciprocal relationships with Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities, and providing comprehensive support for Indigenous students at FLC.

As we began the process of facing our past, the FLC History Committee’s work led to the removal of historical depictions on campus that presented a white-washed and inaccurate story about the federal Indian boarding school on our campus. At a ceremony to remove these depictions, Chairman Manuel Heart of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe reminded us that the story of what happened at the boarding school had to be told. That call became more urgent after the discovery of mass graves in a boarding school in Canada nine months later. Upon this news, Adam Red, of SUIT and an FLC Board of Trustees member, said that FLC must “ask every question about our history and be ready for every answer.”

In that spirit, FLC brought together leaders from the SUIT and UMUT tribes to discuss a state-level initiative to examine the boarding school and explore premature deaths and abuse of Indigenous children at the hands of the federal government and the superintendents of Fort Lewis Indian School. With the support of the state legislators, the Native American Boarding School Research Program Act (HB22-1327) was signed into law on May 24, 2022.

This legislation tasked History Colorado to research the impact of the state’s boarding schools and to provide an objective account of the events, abuse and deaths that occurred at Fort Lewis Indian School. On Tuesday, History Colorado will release its findings to the public.

Given what we know about the history of boarding schools – the forcible removal of Indigenous children from families and tribal communities, the attempt to eradicate religious, cultural and linguistic practices, and the physical and sexual abuse of children – we can anticipate that what we learn from this research will be difficult to comprehend and process. It will be particularly painful for our students and community members who are closely connected to this history, those who have ancestral ties to the children at these boarding schools or who are the descendants of boarding school survivors. As we focus on our own reconciliation process, we recognize that confronting our history also requires an intentional focus on healing.As our Board of Trustees recently codified in a resolution, FLC remains committed to Native American student success and well-being. We expect the unveiling of these painful truths to sharpen our focus on the future, including our support for Indigenous language revitalization, Indigenous health and wellness, and fostering students’ skills to help further tribal self-determination and sovereignty.

Our actions will not change the past, but they do signal that we understand our responsibility and that we are willing to take accountability for how we can help shape a better future.

Tom Stritikus is president of Fort Lewis College; Heather Shotton is vice president for diversity affairs at FLC; and Ernest House Jr. is an FLC trustee.