Bringing Life, Legacy Back To Indian School

by Teri Vance

 

When children arrived at Stewart Indian School during its initial years, they were no longer allowed to speak their own languages, sing their own songs or dance their own dances. Traditional arts were forbidden. Students were forced to wear uniforms. “There was no one to tell you they loved you, to care about you, to ask how your day went,” said Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “That bonding piece with your families was missing. There was a real loss of nurture.”

That sense of loss has echoed throughout the decades as old school grounds fell into disrepair, with several of the old stone buildings being boarded up. Work is beginning on a project to restore the campus and to create a Welcome and Cultural Center, including a museum and art display. “It’s important we don’t just stop at the hurting,” Rupert said. “In preserving the school, we want to talk about the perseverance of our people and about our future.” The Nevada Legislature approved Gov. Brian Sandoval’s request for $4.6 million to begin renovations of several of the school’s historic stone structures. A blessing ceremony will kick off construction in May 2018 with completion anticipated by early 2019.

 

“I don’t know any other project in the nation for a native cultural heritage project that is funded at that level by a state,” Rupert said. “We so appreciate the governor’s dedication to this project.” Stewart Indian School opened in 1890 on the southern outskirts of Carson City as one of the first of hundreds of boarding schools set up around the nation. Visitors were not allowed. “The students’ parents would camp on the opposite side of Clear Creek,” explained Rupert. “They couldn’t cross the creek. They couldn’t see their children. They couldn’t talk to their children, but they wanted to be near them.”

That separation was by design, as the government-run schools targeted children of chiefs, medicine men and other tribal leaders. “If you could remove Indian children from their people and immerse them in a different language and culture, they would grow up to be leaders of the tribe,” Rupert explained. “When they did so, the government could more easily get the land from the tribes.” Initially, the school served kindergarten through eighth grades, with some children as young as 4 attending.

 

The first students were Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone. It later became a high school and, through its evolution through 1980, a school students chose to attend rather than being compelled. “Students continued to attend because they saw it as an opportunity for Native Americans,” Rupert said. “They were allowed more experiences than at traditional schools. They could be cheerleaders or football players.” Through its 90 years of operation, thousands of American Indian students were educated in the stone buildings on the 110-acre campus. Rupert said when alumni return, they often have mixed reactions.

“Each one has their own experience and their own memories,” Rupert said. “Some are positive, some are not. When students come back to the school after decades, some remember the loneliness and hard times. Others have this feeling of coming home.” Rupert said she would like to see performances return to the theater, and the gymnasium restored. Eventually, the campus could be a center for Native American traditions and language classes. “We want to bring back to this campus everything that was taken from us,” Rupert said.

For more information on Stewart Indian School