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‘We need to hear these stories’: Colorado begins investigating a former Indian boarding school

The Fort Lewis Indian School photographed in 1895.
Fort Lewis College Center of Southwest Studies
The Fort Lewis Indian School photographed in 1895.

Deborah Parker heads the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, and she's a trusted confidant for Indigenous elders who attended federal Indian boarding schools in their youth.

“We’re talking about institutions, prison systems, that were buildings you put children in as young as 3 years old, and many children didn’t return home at all,” said Parker, who also goes by her traditional name tsicyaltsa. “Others they believe their sibling was murdered or they say could smell the incinerator. They could smell children.”

Parker says she hears such stories of abuse and neglect frequently. They're the stories the Interior Department is bearing witness to on its “The Road to Healing” tour. Colorado is also looking into what happened at some of these schools, as part of the Native American Boarding School Research Program Act that became law in May.

Over the next year, History Colorado, a nonprofit and an agency under the state’s department of higher education, will investigate the experiences, abuse and deaths of students at the former Fort Lewis Indian School near Durango. It will also identify potential burial sites.

During a recent webinar hosted by the International Center for MultiGenerational Legacies of Trauma, Parker shared the story of a tribal elder who attended a boarding school in California.

At age 16, the elder and a group of other girls were taken to the school’s clinic.

“All she knew was at the end of this visit from the doctor, she remembered asking her mom, ‘Why do I burn inside? Why did all the girls walk away hurting?’” Parker said. “She said that she understood later on that they sterilized her.” 

Parker explains to kids these days that the schools weren’t places of education, but more like prison camps.

“These stories are secretive. They carry the shame and this guilt, and often they wonder ‘Well, if I share it, nothing is going to happen,’” she said.

But the stories are important.

“We need to hear these stories, as painful as it is to share, we need to know these stories because...we don't need this to happen again," Parker said. “These are lessons."

Earlier this year the Interior Department released its first report from the agency's investigation into the boarding school era. It shows that the United States operated or supported 408 boarding schools in 37 states between 1819 and 1969, including 127 in the Mountain West. The schools' goals were to assimilate an untold number of Indigenous children into white society and eradicate their cultures.

As that investigation continues, Congress is considering a bill that would establish a "Truth and Healing Commission on Indian Boarding School Policies."

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Copyright 2022 KUNM. To see more, visit KUNM.

Emma Gibson
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