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Nevada museum tells of forced Native American assimilation

March 06, 2020 - 4:21 PM

Native American children were kidnapped from their families and packed into wagons, trucks and trains to be taken off their reservation to the the Stewart Indian School in northern Nevada.

An account from an anonymous Western Shoshone tribe member, one of hundreds now told at the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, speaks of losing communication with families that didn’t expect students to come home anyway.

Founded in 1890, the 240-acre boarding school southeast of Carson City was operated for 90 years by the federal government as part of an effort to erase indigenous culture.

The campus was large and unfamiliar; the dorms cold and sterile. Students' hair was cut and they were forced to wear military-style uniforms and relinquish their cultural heritage. They were punished for speaking their native languages.

By 1919, enrolment was 400 students. The school's “Americanization” policies stemmed from the belief that Native American people who adopted Western customs and values would have an easier time assimilating, or fitting in with the rest of society.

It closed in 1980, and Nevada took over 110 acres to house state agencies.

The campus was listed in 1985 in the National Register of Historic Places. It opened as a museum in December, with plans for a reunion and celebration May 9.

“We really worked hard to make it an educational exhibit,” museum director Bobbi Rahder told the Las Vegas Sun . “We want people to know that what happened at these boarding schools was a cruel federal policy that still affects families. We also wanted to show that everyone had a different experience. Some good, some bad.”

Transforming the school to a museum managed by the state of Nevada took at least a decade, said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission.

During the 2019 Legislature, state lawmakers allocated $4.5 million to restore buildings and create the museum and welcome centre.

Montooth took the helm of the commission in early September. She credits her predecessor, Sherry Rupert, with preserving the site and obtaining state funding.

“This really was a huge undertaking for her,” Montooth said. “She did everything from working with engineers to the people who did the art installations.”

Museum visitors encounter a storytelling exhibit featuring the four main Native language groups spoken by 27 federally recognized tribes, bands and colonies in Nevada: Wa She Shu (Washoe); Numu (Northern Paiute); Nuwu or Nuwuvi (Southern Paiute); and Newe (Western Shoshones).

The display includes a class photo and art by students from the time. Museum organizers collected hundreds of oral history interviews about life at the school.

A research room shows the work of Superintendent Frederick Snyder, who tried to beautify the school campus in the 1920s with landscaping by students and stone structures by Hopi stonemasons.

The Wa-Pai-Shone Gallery — named after the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes — features artwork from Great Basin native artists.

“We have all kinds of art done by former students and even family members of alumni that represent the experience at Stewart,” Montooth said.

The museum also offers an “Our Home, Our Relations” exhibit, documenting the school’s evolution from federal assimilation to off-reservation boarding school.

Montooth said negative effects of Indian boarding schools are still felt by descendants of traumatized parents and grandparents.

Former students describe being bathed in kerosene, having their heads shaved or enduring beatings for speaking native languages.

In one story retold by Washoe tribe member Herman Fillmore, an elder at his mother’s deathbed asked her in tears of anger, “Why didn’t you teach me the language and culture? She simply replied, ‘Because if you didn’t know it, they couldn’t beat it out of you.’”

Montooth said such experiences have contributed to distrust by Native families of the American education system.

“Even today, the expectation and value they put on public education is not what it would be had it not been for the boarding school era,” she said. “It’s completely disheartening.”

Montooth hopes confronting trauma in the exhibit will help heal generations to come.

“I wish I had money for every time my grandmother told me, ‘They can cut your hair, they can take our land, they can take our language, but they can’t take our mind,’” she said.

While Stewart Indian School represented a prison for some, it was a refuge and “second home” for others.

Ron Lewis, a member of the Gila Indian Reservation in Arizona who graduated in 1978, remembers begging his mother to let him attend Stewart when he reached high school age.

“I just wanted to get away from home,” he said. “When I arrived there, I didn’t realize there were other tribes than the one I knew. It was interesting to me. I enjoyed being there and never got homesick.”

At the time, Stewart had undergone changes following the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, which permitted Native self-determination and self-government.

By the 1960s, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged schools like Stewart to allow students speak native languages and emphasize liberal arts courses over vocational training.

Lewis, 60, spoke fondly of bonds he formed and friends he made on school football, baseball and boxing teams.

He still talks with his roommate, whom he met on his first day of school, and another school friend is now his boss at a commercial gravel and sand supply company in Pinal County, Arizona.

“When I left, I was pretty sad,” Lewis said of his Stewart Indian School experience. “To this day, there are times when I start talking to someone about my school days, and it starts choking me up. I’m really proud of the school.”

News from © The Associated Press, 2020
The Associated Press

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