Approaches to Diversity and Inclusion:       
           The Importance of Building Community

2014 Annual COPLAC Conference - June 19-21, 2014

Fort Lewis College welcomes COPLAC

Fort Lewis College welcomes COPLAC

Dr. Dene Kay Thomas - President, Fort Lewis CollegeWelcome to Fort Lewis College, the perfect place for a conference on diversity and inclusion!  As a college that is 25 percent Native American and nine percent Hispanic, we are proud of our heritage and of our commitment to diversity. Here in our community, you will find beautiful mountains, rushing rivers, hiking trails, cycling opportunities, horseback riding, lots of sunshine, and the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.

The history of Southwest Colorado is rich in traditions and influences unlike those of the rest of the United States. In this region for several millennia lived the Ancestral Pueblo peoples. Today the most striking evidence of these inhabitants are the amazing structures and archeological ruins found in Mesa Verde National Park, which is about 35 miles to the west of Durango. Even here in Durango, in the northwest part of town, is an archeological site that shows evidence of the Basketmaker people, who lived here in the time period that corresponds roughly with the Roman Empire.

Before and during the arrival of the Spanish, Mexican, and Americans, the area was home to the Ute people, as well as the Navajo people. Hesperus Mountain or Big Sheep Mountain, approximately 18 miles northwest of Durango, is the Navajo People’s Sacred Mountain of the North. It marks the northern boundary of their traditional homeland. When the Spanish and later the Mexican government controlled New Mexico, the Old Spanish Trail, which connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles, passed just south of Durango and then off to the northwest toward what is now Dove Creek, about 80 miles from here.

The town of Durango was established in 1881 as a railroad town meant to serve the San Juan mining district centered around the town of Silverton, 50 miles to the north of Durango. What later became the Durango-Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad was built at this time.  Silver ore was brought down to Durango, where the smelters were located. This railroad continues to operate today, with three trains daily to Silverton. It is one of the few places in the country where steam locomotives have operated continuously.

Fort Lewis College gets its name from the U.S. Army post established in 1878 at Pagosa Springs, 60 miles to the east; it was moved in 1880 to Hesperus, 12 miles west of Durango and more than 1,000 feet higher. After the army post was closed in 1890, the 6,200-acre site became an Indian boarding school for 20 years. In 1911, the school was closed and Congress deeded the land to the State of Colorado on the condition that Colorado maintain the facility as an institution of learning that admits Indian students free of charge “for tuition and on terms of equality with white people.” Begun as a high school of agriculture, by 1925 the institution began offering some college-level courses. By 1933, it had become a college offering higher education courses exclusively. In 1956, Fort Lewis College moved to the Durango campus; it granted its first baccalaureate degrees in 1964. Its first graduate-degree program, a Master of Arts in Education, Teacher Leadership Option, began in fall 2013.

Today Fort Lewis College has an enrollment of more than 4,000 students with students from 50 states and 17 foreign countries. Forty-one percent of the students are of minority ethnic origin. A third of the students are Pell eligible, and a quarter are first-generation college students. The college ranks fourth in the nation among non-tribal colleges and universities in the percent of full-time Native American undergraduates. It awards more degrees to Native American/Alaskan Native students than any other baccalaureate institution in the nation.

Durango is situated in one of the most diverse and fascinating areas from a geological perspective. The 50 miles between Durango and Silverton contain an amazing array of geological formations that are relatively accessible. The Needle Mountains between here and Silverton have three peaks over 14,000 feet; the San Juan Mountains around Silverton and Telluride have six fourteeners. The extreme pattern of glaciation, which has occurred relatively recently in geologic time, make the area one of the best outdoor laboratories for geology students not just from Fort Lewis College but also from institutions all over the U.S. who often visit this area for summer field courses.

In addition to Mesa Verde National Park, only 35 miles to the west, the area also has the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores, 46 miles to the west, and the Southern Ute Cultural Center Museum in Ignacio, 24 miles southeast of Durango. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the second Native American to serve as a U.S. senator, used to teach jewelry making at Fort Lewis College. He is a great supporter of the college and was instrumental in the establishment of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC. And right here on campus, we have our Center of Southwest Studies, which is currently running the exhibit Native Views, Native Visions, an exhibit of contemporary artwork by Native American artists. 

It will be our pleasure to make your visit to Fort Lewis College a memorable and enjoyable one.

Dene Kay Thomas
President, Fort Lewis College 

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