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For some in Nevada, Stewart Indian School is a monument to Indigenous resilience

Stewart
Credit Nevada State Museum / allaroundnevada.com
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The first graduating class of the Stewart Indian School in 1901. The school opened in 1890 with 37 students from local Washoe, Shoshone, and Paiute tribes.

For most people outside of the Native community, the story of Indian boarding schools is hazy, if they know anything about it at all. But just outside of Carson City, the memory of what happened there is living and real. 

The Indian boarding school system in the United States had a single purpose: to take Native children from their homes, strip them of their cultures, and replace those traditions with a Eurocentric worldview and way of being. This government-sponsored endeavor financed schools that were run by various Catholic and Protestant religious institutions, with the explicit goal of forced assimilation. That mission gave rise to the slogan “Kill the Indian, save the man.” 

In the schools, students were required to stop speaking their language, to stop praying in their traditions, and were even disallowed from speaking to members of their own family. The consequences of disobedience were beatings and sexual violence. In many instances, children died from the abuse. 

There were two other Indian schools in Nevada. Both were closed then turned over to tribes –Stewart Indian School was different. 

In 2019, Governor Steve Sisolak and the Nevada Indian Commission converted the boarding school into the Stewart Cultural Center, a place where the history of the boarding school system, and the culture of the children who were taken there are acknowledged and, at times, even celebrated. 

And to many members of the Indigenous community, Stewart Indian School is a monument to Indigenous resilience.  

Stacey Montooth is one of those people. Her grandmother was 4 years old when she was taken to the school. Montooth is now the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. For her, Stewart is a testament to the strength of the people from every tribe who were forced to attend it. 

"This campus operated for 90 years. It opened in 1890. And initially, the young people that were forced to this school were Washoe, Shoshone and Paiute. Those are the tribal nations that are Indigenous to the Great Basin. Eventually, we know that there were over 200 tribal nations that were forced to send their young people here. The intent was to remove these young people from their families from any influences of their culture. In the mornings, the students were taught reading, writing and arithmetic. They were educated with a European WASP-type model. And then in the afternoon, they were divided by genders, and they were taught trade schools. Again, the intent of the federal government was to make them mainstream Americans. It was the federal government's intent and their assumption that if they would teach our relatives how to do constructions or trades that involved fixing cars, what we call blue collar-type jobs. Then after they left this campus, they could go get a job and be contributing members of American society. The females were taught to become domestic help, they learned to cook, they learned to clean and make beds, and all those things that are very stereotypically careers for women."

That last point, at times, has been the foundation of a counter-argument in favor of the boarding school system, propagating an idea that the U.S. government came to Indian land, freed an Indigenous people from a primitive way of life, and gifted them with civilization. Montooth, however, said that narrative doesn’t hold up in the eyes of history. 

"They're wrong. They're absolutely wrong. And it is so hypocritical."

The religious aspect Montooth mentions represents yet another dimension to the story of Indian boarding schools. The involvement of a variety of church structures, predominantly Catholic, meant that many residential schools were run by church authorities. That reality was recognized this year, more than 20 years after the closing of the last boarding school in 1998, when Pope Francis journeyed to Canada to make a formal apology for the schools.

"I am sorry. I asked forgiveness, in particular modal ways in which many members of the church and religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference in projects of cultural destruction. Yes, forced assimilation emoted I think governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools."

Rulon Pete of the Las Vegas Indian Center, and the son of a boarding school survivor, spoke about truth and reconciliation during the Pope’s apology tour back in April.

"It did happen and the more and more information we get out there, and more and more exposure, the better it is for us to start to be able to heal a little bit more and to be able to see and know that we need to make things better. We need to make it happen. We need healing. We need to be able to move on our ancestors and grandmas, grandpas and aunts and uncles, they need to move on. But from the Christianity side, whether it's religious groups or whatnot, they need to take that accountability to show that they are sorry for … if there's any remorse and you know, there's the reconciliation of establishing things that would help out. To help us move forward would be greatly appreciated."

With an entire population whose cultural roots extend back some 15,000 years, boarding schools like Stewart needed an approach that would instill a fear of school authorities, and suppress resistance from the prisoner-student population. To do this, Stewart turned to models created by the military. 

"This boarding school, and all 300-plus boarding schools in this country, were based on military schools. Basically children, Native youth, as young as 4 years old, went through boot camp. They endured what young Americans volunteer for when they agree to join the military. So I can tell you that when young people were kidnapped and brought to this campus. All of their belongings were taken away and that included any traditional clothing, any belongings that reflected native culture. They were often given new names, biblical names. Often they were made to wear uniforms. They slept in dormitories. Their entire day was punctuated with sirens bells, they woke up to a bugle playing revelry. Their hair was cut. Again, that's something that the United States military does to anyone who enlists but in our culture, we consider our hair another sense. And typically, you only cut your hair if you're in mourning. And so these young babies that were brought here and their hair was forcibly cut, they were absolutely disillusioned because they didn't understand what was happening. They were ruled with corporal punishment, again, beaten if they spoke their language. If they didn't move fast enough, it was very abusive, extremely physically abusive, and based on their age, based on the isolation from their families, even on campus siblings were separated, they wouldn't let family members communicate. So it was incredibly cruel. It was violent. The young people were taught violence. And we know we have stories from our elders that there was sexual abuse as well."

That military legacy connects Indian boarding schools to the roots of colonization. And many people know today that conflict, and even death, has happened when colonizers come to take over.  

"Non-Natives came to this land. There was an immediate clash of cultures and a clash of values. And even in 2022, we still see this. So the first approach by the federal government was annihilation. That plan was the Indian wars and they just plan to kill all our relatives. That was not successful. The farther west that the United States expanded, the more indigenous people they found."

The damage caused by the residential school period is still reverberating today. Indigenous students, both in American public schools and schools on their reservation, still feel the effects of the U.S. government’s assimilation centers.

"We have this image in America, where the leader of the free world's genocide could never happen in this country. But, the United Nations has done research. They've passed a resolution that reflects that the policy of forced assimilation was genocide. But for some reason, in this country, we have this pristine image of our elected officials. Our families have known for generations that that's not the case."

But knowledge is one thing. Understanding is another. Montooth took me out to the grounds of Stewart Indian School in an effort to create an understanding of the legacy of the school. Our first stop is the cemetery, where hundreds of Indigenous children who did not survive Stewart are buried. 

"That is the cemetery that we were talking about. I don't know if you can see it, kind of right through these two trees. So we know there's, there's over 200 graves over there and again, some of them are family and they're known and their whole story is well-documented. They have loved ones that tend to that cemetery today. But there are several headstones that we don't know anything about."

Indian boarding schools were often run by church organizations. But Stewart was run mostly by the federal government. Stewart was not devoid of religious influence, with both a Catholic and a Baptist church on the campus.

As we walked past the heart of the Stewart Cultural Center, a museum containing items and the belongings of the students and teachers who passed through Stewart over the years, I began to understand why many Natives see the school as a symbol of resilience and almost a celebration of life. I asked Montooth about how this was possible, and why it is important to keep the now Stewart Cultural Center standing. 

"My predecessor, Sherry Rupert, is Washoe and Northern Paiute. And she has had this idea for years. She was with the state for 17 years. And her vision was to make this a place where not just our relatives could come and be safe. Just exactly what you said, to change the ugly into something powerful. But we have to be able to tell our stories. There are people that don't think the Holocaust happened, right? So by preserving this school, we have something you can touch.” 

Her work at Stewart doesn’t stop with the cultural center. In 2021, Secretary of State Deb Haaland announced an initiative to finally investigate the damage done to Indigenous communities by the residential school structure. 

Montooth was tapped to do a preliminary report, detailing the information that the Nevada Indian Commission has on the school, and what questions still remain.  

"When Secretary Haaland announced her initiative, our five-person staff here at the Nevada Indian Commission really was invigorated. We now have a task to identify every person that attended or was forced to attend this school. We are going to determine when that took place and what their tribal affiliation is. Rupert, who like every Paiute Shoshone and Washoe person in this state, we all have a direct tie to this campus. And Sherry had already begun doing that very dark, very arduous work. We know that there were at least 20,320 students that attended here. So now we have support from a cabinet member, not just a cabinet member, but a Native American woman, a Native American woman whose family also was impacted by boarding schools. We've had the pleasure of inviting all of our tribal chairs, elders, to come to campus. They met with Governor Sisolak. He listened to the elder stories. He made a formal public apology for Nevada's culpability in boarding schools. Now, when this campus was established, the state of Nevada sold bonds in order to make that purchase. The governor has committed all of his resources to move forward to answer questions that those relatives of the 20,320 people that we know went to. The darkness, the tragedies. I mean, the absolute hideousness of boarding schools have impacted every single life differently. I know that we have elders who are certain that they have relatives that didn't make it home from boarding school. But that's all they know, they do not know what ever became of their loved one."

While the investigation would stand to benefit the families of victims from tribes throughout the Southwest, the cemetery land belongs to the Washoe nation, which is working diligently with the Nevada Indian Commission on preparing for a full audit of Stewart’s gravesites. 

"That cemetery that has always been associated with the campus has returned to the Washoe people, so legally, that cemetery that has 69 unmarked graves belongs to the Washoe people. So in order for further investigation, and when I say investigation, in conjunction with Secretary Haaland’s initiative, DNA testing, carbon dating, excavation, that has to be a decision that is made by the Washoe nation. However, I can tell you that their elders, their leadership, their chair, they understand that the little ones that are at rest across the street from this campus. The likelihood is that they're not just washed out that they are from other Indigenous communities. And so they are very cognizant that they have this lofty lofty responsibility, and how we move forward"

For now, Montooth, the Nevada Indian Commission, the tribes, and the families of over 20,000 former Stewart students await answers. In the meantime, Montooth and her staff are focused on keeping the memory of what happened here alive, and on improving the lives of all Native American people who call Nevada their home. It is a responsibility that Stacey feels she was meant to have. 

"My grandma says there's no such thing as a coincidence. I think that being appointed the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, let me make sure that you and your listeners understand my charge. What Governor Sisolak wants me to do is to improve the quality of life for all of our tribal nations and all the urban Indians like you who choose to make Nevada their home. I love that. My job is exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. You know, when I come to my office, right here, at the Stewart Indian School, when I sit at my desk, I can see the dormitories where my grandma grew up. You know, this is where federal authorities made her live. Their intention was for her not to continue to be Indigenous. If in fact, that plan had worked to make all Native people mainstream Americans, I shouldn't be here. So every single day when I'm working to improve the quality of life for Native Americans, I am doing exactly the opposite of what the federal government tried to do to all of our people. And I've said this before, it's a bit raw. So I apologize in advance, but I'm sticking it to the man. Right? I am responsible. I'm getting paid to do … what the federal government failed to do when they thought that they could wipe out our people. I mean, it's so hard to put into words. I mean, they didn't. They didn't think about our relatives as humans. And I'm still here. I'm still here. 3% of Nevada is Indigenous, 1% of the United States is Indigenous. We're still here, and it's because of the sacrifices of our ancestors and I have an obligation to continue to do everything I can to improve the quality of life. For our relatives."


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Stacey Montooth, executive director, Nevada Indian Commission;  Rulon Pete, director, Las Vegas Indian Center 

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