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Letter to our community on History Colorado's report on Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School
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Letter to our community on History Colorado's report on Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School

History Colorado released its report on Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School

October 3, 2023

Dear Fort Lewis College Community, 

Five years ago, under the guidance of the FLC History Committee, Fort Lewis College began a journey to examine our institutional history. Drawing upon the wisdom of our entire College community, we explored our origins as a federal Indian boarding school and the responsibility our history created for us as a Native American serving institution.

The Committee’s work led to the removal of historical descriptions on our clocktower that presented a white-washed and inaccurate depiction of the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, which operated in Hesperus, Colorado (30 miles west of the current site of FLC) from 1892 to 1909.  

To more completely understand the boarding school era, FLC’s leadership, working directly with leaders of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, advocated for Colorado House Bill 22-1327--state legislation that tasked History Colorado with investigating traumas inflicted upon Native American children at the Federal Indian Boarding Schools in the State of Colorado. The Bill also charged History Colorado to investigate the deaths and potential burial sites of the students who perished while attending the school.  

Today, History Colorado made the full report publicly available. A link will also be available on the FLC Reconciliation website.

Given what we know about the federal Indian boarding school system, we anticipated the report's findings to be painful. Still, the results are very difficult to digest, and our hearts are heavy. However, FLC leadership believes that healing requires fully understanding the truth. 

Warning: The information below references death and physical and sexual abuse. 

Approximately 1,100 Native American students ages 5-22 from 20 tribes attended the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School during its operation from 1892 to 1909. They were forcefully removed from their homes and stripped of their traditions. The report covers:

  • Superintendents - the tenure of the superintendents of Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. (1894-1903) – including Superintendent Breen, who was eventually forced to end his career after a public investigation into his physical and sexual abuse of students and staff, which was widely publicized by The Denver Post in 1903.

  • Living conditions - the description of living conditions and common health issues experienced by children at Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School due to underfunding and lack of proper facilities and care. Many students ran away from the boarding school and practiced other forms of resistance.

  • Student deaths - the archival record documented that 31 students from eight Tribal Nations died while attending the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School.

  • Cemetery boundaries - remote sensing methodologies determined the boundaries and extent of the cemetery. The cemetery was first established and used by the U.S. Military between 1878 and 1891. The cemetery is located on the east side of the Old Fort Property (opposite the current buildings).

  • Cemetery use- the cemetery was used for student internments and by the larger community for Christian-style burials during the boarding school period. Remote sensing data indicates that after the boarding school closed in 1911 and the property was deeded to the State of Colorado, the cemetery continued to be used by the community through the mid-twentieth century and was probably most active during events such as the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic.

  • Burials - based on remote sensing data, the report concludes that there are 350 to 400 burials from all eras of the cemetery and that 46 impressions could be consistent with child-sized graves. The report states the other graves are likely those of other communities living in the area. The report found no evidence of overlapping or mass graves. Based on the will of the Tribal Nations who helped write the Bill, no ground-disturbing techniques have been used. Thus, we will always have lingering questions about what occurred at the Boarding School.

  • Research limitations - The report notes that the technology used by the researchers does not x-ray the ground, nor does it indicate who may be buried there. Only excavation can determine actual burials. Researchers also noted that due to the condition of some of the archival data, the record of both student attendance and deaths at Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School is incomplete. The decisions about the next steps for the cemetery rest with the Tribal nations who had children attending the Boarding School. Our conversations with tribal leaders, thus far, have indicated they would like to leave the individuals who are buried there undisturbed.

Reconciling our past

Confronting our history requires an intentional focus on healing. The information in this report is upsetting for us as a community; it is particularly painful for our students and community members closely connected to this history.

Our campus Care Team has prepared a plan for our students and campus community. Resources and events can be found on our FLC Reconciliation page. 

In addition, our Native American & Indigenous Studies faculty have volunteered to offer their expertise. They will be available to meet with students, faculty, and staff to help interpret, discuss, and process the report today (October 3) from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. in Jones, Room 105.

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.  

But our work is not done. As our Board of Trustees recently codified in a resolution, Fort Lewis College remains committed to our reconciliation work focused on improving the well-being of Indigenous students, increasing students' sense of belonging, fostering Indigenous student success, and upholding our responsibilities to Tribal Nations and Indigenous communities.  

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.

Thank you for your support and participation in this vital work. Please let us know if you need any support personally as you process this news.

Best,

Tom Stritikus, President

Heather Shotton, Vice President for Diversity Affairs

Ernest House Jr., Trustee

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