The following statement was written by Lee Bitsóí (Diné), associate vice president for Diversity Affairs and special advisor to the president for Indigenous Affairs.
June 8, 2021
Dear FLC Community,
The recent discovery of the mass grave of Indigenous children on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia has taken an emotional toll on all Indigenous communities and I share that pain. My parents, along with my aunts and uncles attended federal boarding schools in the U.S. and it affected their lives and, in turn, has affected mine. When I ask my mother what her experience was like, she pauses and describes it thoughtfully and deliberately. She talks about some of the values that she learned but she does not talk about any abuse that she may have experienced. Over the years, I have learned not to pry since I do not want my questions to trigger some hidden memory. This is also true for many American Indians and Alaska Natives who attended federal boarding schools. This is part of the intergenerational trauma that we carry with us as Indigenous people, and the names of some of these schools are reminders of settler colonialism – Fort Sill, Fort Wingate, Fort Defiance, Fort Lewis – so we are forced to deal with such trauma on a daily basis.
This topic was discussed at the recent meeting of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of the Board of Trustees, which I attended. At this meeting, Trustees Ernest House, Jr. (Ute Mountain Ute) and Adam Red (Southern Ute) shared their viewpoints and at the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that I should send this statement to our community. Accordingly, it is apropos for me, as an Indigenous member of our FLC Leadership Team, to issue this statement.
While the recent discovery was made in Canada, it still affects our current students, faculty, and staff since their grandparents, parents and they themselves may have attended federal and parochial boarding schools. In sorrow with First Nations Peoples, our FLC community expresses mourning regarding the news of the mass grave of Indigenous children. We grieve for their families and the lives that were stolen from these children. At this time, the deaths are believed to be undocumented—a dark reminder of the boarding school premise and intent of Indigenous erasure. We acknowledge how heavy this tragic news weighs on Indigenous families who experienced the atrocities of boarding schools in Canada and the U.S. We also acknowledge how important it is for FLC to continue to examine our own Native American boarding school history with honest institutional reflection and transparency. We are committed to the reconciliation of our complicated past and pledge to provide an opportunity to acknowledge the trauma invoked through this work.
Our work is centered around truth and reconciliation so last year our FLC History Committee was tasked with providing recommendations and the paramount recommendation is the removal of the 12 panels that portray the inaccurate depiction of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School experience. The ceremonial removal of these panels will take place this fall to end a sad and tragic chapter in the history of Fort Lewis College. We will also have a renewal ceremony that will begin the next chapter of our institution for all students, faculty, and staff, especially for our Indigenous community members. Through our reconciliation process and in other historical and archaeological research, FLC has not been presented with direct evidence of any unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the Old Fort—but the tragedy of Kamloops makes us want a more definitive answer. Given this, as part of our ongoing reconciliation process, we will work with experts to continue to build our understanding of the Old Fort property.
Acknowledging our complicated and complex history is difficult and challenging; however, now is the time to acknowledge such pain and suffering in order to begin the process of healing and moving forward. We can do so collectively, as students, faculty, staff, administrative leaders, and Board of Trustees, for the continuous enhancement of our College to ensure that our students graduate to become global citizens and leaders.
Dr. Lee Bitsóí (Diné)
Associate Vice President for Diversity Affairs
Special Advisor to the President for Indigenous Affairs