Feature: Stewart Indian School on path to preservation

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Feature: Stewart Indian School on path to preservation

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A medicinal bottle found by UNR researchers during a recent archaeological dig at the historic site of the Stewart Indian School in Carson City.

The Stewart Indian School in Carson City is on the National Register of Historic Places, but most of the campus buildings, like the old auditorium and bakery, are deteriorating. The Nevada Indian Commission is working to preserve the former boarding school, so that alumni memories, nostalgic and traumatic alike, are not forgotten.

The Nevada Indian Commission is still in the early stages of turning the rundown campus, which closed more than thirty years ago, into a robust cultural center.

Executive Director Sherry Rupert says the group plans to create a museum, a school memorabilia archive, and an oral history project, but all that comes with a nearly $6 million price tag.

"Our long-term vision for the facility is for it to become a destination where people can come to have an experience out here, to be able to go into the auditorium and take in an old movie or go down to the dining hall and have a meal where students used to have meals."

One step toward fulfilling Rupert's vision was partnering with the University of Nevada, Reno earlier this month to perform an archaeological dig on the site.

UNR professor Sarah Cowie kneels in a grassy lot, scooping up dirt from the spot where historians believe the original schoolhouse once stood when students first arrived in 1890.

"Over the years as Stewart grew, they started building more of these beautiful stone masonry buildings around here. And that building was made of wood and I believe it started to deteriorate. Eventually somewhere along the way a decision was made to tear it down."

To determine the history of the land, Cowie and her team have dumped bucket after bucket of dirt onto a large metal screen, sifting for buried treasures.

Often they'll find little bits of wood and leather, but sometimes they'll stumble on an artifact they can date, like a medical vial from the infirmary, or one that brings history to life.

"The things that struck me most personally are the things that we know the children might have played with because we found marbles, we found a toy car that's probably from early to mid-20th Century, we found jax."

Unfortunately, not all student experiences were this idyllic.

Sherry Rupert says the federal government sent tens of thousands of American Indian children to boarding schools like Stewart to strip them of their native ways and assimilate them to Euro-American culture.

"They not only changed their outward appearance, cutting their hair and issuing government uniforms, but they also wanted to change what was inside, to change their value system."

Alumni JoAnn Nevers, who attended in the late 1940s, heard stories about children being taken from home against the wills of their families.

"Oh yeah, there were a lot of heartbreaking stories about the early days where they would take them away from their homes. My aunt, she said she was only like four and they picked her up. And they [her family] were trying to keep them from taking her, but they just took her."

Along with giving up their native languages and traditions, the children were not nurtured by loving family members, a loss that Sherry Rupert says has rippled across the generations.

"If somebody's not telling you they love you and giving you a hug and supporting you through bad times, or even lonely times at this school, how are they going to be able to teach that to their children and their grandchildren. That was lost in some of our people."

The effects of what took place within the halls of Stewart Indian School may still live on, but for Rupert and others, restoring the campus so that it can be used and explored today is a chance to save the memories of the Paiute, Shashone, and Washoe people and to avoid losing more than they already have.