DURANGO, Colo. — On Tuesday morning, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis signed House Bill 1327, creating a Federal Indian Boarding School Research Program led by History Colorado.
The bill signing took place at Fort Lewis College in Durango, which is the site of a former boarding school.
“The purpose of this bill is to provide a structure for History Colorado to create this research program so that we can get into both archival documents, as well as hopefully address some fieldwork so that we can help to kind of illuminate the truth about the daily experiences of the students who attended the schools, as well as help identify final resting places of students who passed away at these boarding schools,” said Holly Norton, Colorado state archaeologist.
She will lead the program.
Norton said documentation on these schools is scarce, even though there were 350 schools across the country, including five in Colorado.
“They were really created to teach Native youth agriculture, industrial skills — what today we would call home economics — and different skills that the federal government thought they would need in order to move them off of reservations and kind of assimilate them into American cities and American life,” Norton said.
But Norton said in reality, Native children were ripped from their parents and many faced years of abuse.
“The schools were not happy places," she said. "A lot of these children had to work and labor really hard. Agricultural labor is very difficult. Some of the industrial labor that we see in places, more so back east than here, was really hard and it was physically demanding. It was emotionally demanding."
Metropolitan State University of Denver Department of History Chair Matthew Makley has studied the impact of federal Indian boarding schools for many years.
“Assimilation was so intense at many of the schools that it would be better characterized as cultural genocide,” Makley said. “Students would have their hair cut if they were young men and young women. And the schools really did go after the younger population — children — because they understood that children are still very impressionable.”
Makley said boys were taught how to be blue collar workers and girls were taught how to be domestic servants.
Makely has collected letters from children and parents with connections to the schools, especially those in the western part of the United States.
One letter from a parent to the superintendent of a school in Carson City, Nevada reads: "Dear sir, some time ago, I sent a letter to my son, Pedro, Cordova, an inmate in your institution, the letter was returned to me through the dead letter office marked deceased. Does that mean that my son is dead?"
Makely found the response, which read, "In reply to your letter, I regret to state Pedro died at the school, October 8th, 1918. And so, this is a full two and a half months after the child has died.”
Makley said that particular set of letters had a sad ending, but many parents who never heard from their children again would never learn what happened to them while attending boarding school.
He said he hopes this research project will help bring many families closure.
The state research program is scheduled to run through June 30, 2023 and will require researchers to provide regular updates to the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Tribes.