The symbolic heart of Fort Lewis College, the Clock Tower, presents a series of panels highlighting the school’s history – panels that have drawn scrutiny in recent years for seemingly glossing over or inaccurately portraying a painful period when the school served as a boarding school for Native American students.
Majel Boxer, associate professor of Native American and indigenous studies, said the period of boarding schools for Native American students across the country – including from 1891 to 1910 at FLC – is important to present more realistically.
“Any history of FLC needs to include the Indian boarding school history accurately with the complexity it deserves – including the seriously damaging aspects it had for many families as a form of forced assimilation into the dominant European culture,” Boxer said.
She joined about a dozen other faculty, students and staff members Thursday at the Clock Tower, one of the first gatherings of the FLC History Committee.
In the upcoming academic year, the committee will hear from people on campus and among the wider communities in Southwest Colorado and the Four Corners as it takes suggestions about updating the panels to present a more realistic synopsis of the institution’s history.
The History Committee will hold its first public meeting, an open session, this week.
During the spring semester, the group plans to reach out for input from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Jicarilla Apache tribe in New Mexico, the Navajo Nation, the pueblos in New Mexico and other tribes in Arizona.
The group will work during the next academic year to recommend updated wording and presentations on a dozen or so panels that highlight the institution’s history since its inception as a military fort in Pagosa Springs in 1878 – paying particular attention to the period when the school served as a boarding school.
At the end of the academic year, the committee will provide suggestions for how to move forward to address the public displays to FLC President Tom Stritikus.
Jesse Peters, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, who will head the committee, said acknowledging the detrimental effects of the boarding school system is a step “toward healing and reconciling a past that has too often been ignored or altered.”
“At a college that once was a boarding school and that enrolls 41% Native American students, we should be a leader in addressing that particular past,” he said.
In recent years, Peters said, several faculty, students and staff members have brought up concerns about the written and visual rhetoric used to describe the school’s history.
The increased awareness, along with a renewed focus on students, led Stritikus to the decision to examine the public displays of FLC’s history.
“He wants an inclusive process that welcomes many voices and perspectives, particularly those of Native American students, staff, faculty, alumni and community members,” Peters said.
At Stritikus’ direction, a plaque has gone up at the Clock Tower saying the school understands the panels present an incomplete and not fully inclusive account of its history and that work has begun to update them.
How the panels are updated and refined is yet to be determined, Peters said. There is no predetermined outcome of the committee’s work examining the panels and other public displays of FLC history.
Peters said: “We may replace the panels, clarify the panels or we may acknowledge the history in other ways. The paramount concern is making sure that indigenous peoples, communities and nations have voice and provide guidance in how the boarding school history is represented. There may be other facets of FLC’s history we examine, but addressing the boarding school history is the first step.”
Boxer said it is also important to note FLC’s role as a Native American-serving institution built on the foundation of an agreement between the federal government and the state. The federal government turned over property and buildings at the Old Fort with an agreement that the school would provide educational services to Native Americans without charging them tuition.
“It’s a positive thing that was done for students, and it is one of the few treaties or agreements that has not been violated,” she said.
Stritikus said telling the institution’s history in all its complexity is important.
“We haven’t told the full story of Fort Lewis in a way that considers the students and community members affected by boarding schools, and we think it’s important we do that now,” he said. “Telling the full historical story of Fort Lewis allows us to begin to reconcile the contradiction of our genesis with our current role as a Native-serving non-tribal college.”