Never To Be Forgotten
Beginning in the late 19th century, kidnapping Indigenous children and placing them in boarding schools was part of the U.S. government’s plan to assimilate Native children into “American” culture while simultaneously breaking up the remaining tribes.
I love learning from history, but there was no mention of the Stewart Indian School or the more than 400 other Indigenous boarding schools in the United States in the high school or college history classes I took (which is a disgrace).
So I was glad when Francine Burge, the Public Relations Manager for Nevada Tourism & Cultural Affairs, arranged a private tour of the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in Carson City.
Stewart Indian School Living Legacy
As shared on StewartIndianSchool.com: The mission of the Stewart Indian School Living Legacy is to educate visitors about the experiences of American Indian children removed from their homelands, families and culture and celebrate their resilience through interpretation and revitalization of the Stewart campus.
The Stewart Indian School landscape preservation plan was developed in 2009, and in 2015, the Nevada State Legislature passed a bill designating the State of Nevada Indian Commission as the coordinating agency for activities and uses of the School.
The current 110-acre National Historic District contains 65 historic buildings memorializing this tragic chapter in our country’s history.
A History of Abuse
When Stewart opened in 1890, the intent was to assimilate children from the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes from Nevada’s Great Basin, which stretches from the Rocky Mountains to the Sierra Nevadas and covers parts of Oregon, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, most of Nevada and all of Utah. Eventually, children from more than 200 western tribes attended the school.
The federal government’s assimilation policy responsible for constructing Stewart and the other 407 Native boarding schools in the U.S. created an environment that meets the United Nations’ definition of genocide.
Learning about children as young as four being taken from their families was mortifying. They lived in large dormitories with other children, most of whom they didn’t know as they were from different tribes. All told, 20,320 children attended Stewart until it closed in 1980.
Stacey Montooth, the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, shared stories with me about her family members who were at the school over various decades. She didn’t realize one of her ancestors was in a prominent photo in the museum until another relative told her during a visit.
Stacey also explained how generational trauma has impacted the Indigenous tribes in North America and how attending boarding schools amplified the children’s trauma. Imagine the negative impact on your family of your young child being kidnapped and forced into a boarding school based on a military school philosophy – uniforms, marching, short hair (more on that later), no Native languages allowed, English only.
Destroying a Culture
Indigenous cultures consider hair to be a sixth sense, and many only cut their hair to honor the death of an elder. From sistersky.com: “In many tribes, it is believed that a person’s long hair represents a strong cultural identity. This strong cultural identity promotes self-esteem, self-respect, a sense of belonging, and a healthy sense of pride.” Children often cried during their haircuts, furthering their traumatic experiences.
Mass baptisms were a regular part of life at Stewart, with the Baptist and Catholic churches using a large pool on the school grounds to baptize children into their faiths. Both churches still stand today, along with the pool’s outline nearby. The baptisms were considered part of the assimilation process and were often done against a child’s will or understanding.
Children were abused, beaten and jailed for not following the strict rules of their captors. Frequently, the children never saw their parents or family members again because they were too young to recall where their tribe lived.
In the early operating years of Stewart, parents camped at Clear Creek, near the school grounds, hoping to catch a glimpse of their children as they walked (or marched) by.
Disease and death were also a “normal” part of school life, as illustrated by the 96 unmarked graves in the cemetery across the road from the school’s main campus. As Stacey pointed out: “A cemetery isn’t what you expect to find at your child’s school.” Today, the cemetery rests on land owned by the Washoe (Wa-She-Shu) tribe. Discussions are ongoing between the tribe and Stewart’s leadership about the best way to identify the remains.
I also learned about the numerous children who ran away from Stewart. One of them, Frank Quinn, escaped when he was eight years old and ran from Stewart back to his reservation in Yerington, a distance of 50 miles. Frank’s great-grandson is runner Ku Stevens, the 3,200-meter Nevada high school record holder and first Indigenous runner to compete for the University of Oregon. To honor his ancestors, Ku started a Remembrance Run, which followed the reverse trail his great-grandfather took when he ran away from Stewart.
Stacey shared that not all experiences at Stewart were negative, with some alumni and attendees fondly remembering their time at the school (though just as many would like to see it disappear). She said that many students learned in-demand trade skills, formed life-long friendships, and proudly recalled their time at Stewart. Stewart’s 1966 boy’s basketball team won the Class A state championship, and much of the memorabilia is on display.
Planning Your Visit
The Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum is located at 1 Jacobsen Way in Carson City, Nevada. It’s open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and closed on state and federal holidays. Admission is free, though donations are welcome. Visitors can also walk the .6 mile self-guided trail with a recorded audio tour that describes the history and the individual buildings.
To help fund Museum operations, the Museum Gift Shop sells Stewart Indian School merchandise as well as work from local Indigenous artists and beaders, including Dale Bennett, Raelyne Thomas, Dayl Roach, Carol Glazier, Ramona Darrough, and Katherine Walker. They also sell Joey Allen tule ducks. Please note that they can accept cash and checks, but not credit or debit cards.
If you’re in Northern Nevada, visiting the Stewart Indian School Museum & Cultural Center is a must, as the site is the most well-preserved boarding school remaining in the U.S. It’s also a powerful, sad reminder of how we built our country and how we can do better going forward. Bring an open mind and a pocket full of tissues.
For more information, visit www.StewartIndianSchool.com.