With Stewart Indian School’s complicated and traumatic history, finding justice is a long road
Editor’s Note: For listeners who might be sensitive, this story contains subject material that relates to the erasure of communities through systematic means – and while not explicitly featuring children, does include how they navigated traumas that might still be very real for some.
Last month, Brennan Rogers could be found singing Judy Trejo’s “Memorial Song” at the cemetery across the street from Stewart Indian School, which opened in 1890 with the goal to erase Indigenous culture and take the land from tribes that were forced onto reservations.
He was there to join others who ran an ultramarathon to honor Indigenous people who were victims and survivors of this school.
Kutoven Stevens, who goes by Ku, started this run last year with his folks. His great-grandfather, Frank “Togo” Quinn, was taken to this school about a hundred years ago. Ku said 8-year-old Quinn managed to run away from the school three times.
“If you have kids or if you have nephews or baby brothers or sisters, think about what they’re doing right now,” said Ku. “They’re not running 50 miles, you know, to save their own lives, to get back to their families that they were stripped away from.”
Delmar Stevens is Ku’s dad, and he said the third and final time Quinn ran away, school staff had made attempts to make it harder for that to happen. But that didn’t stop his grandfather.
“They decided, ‘Well, we’re going to chain him to this kid that he doesn’t like because they don’t like each other; they’re not going to try and run away.’ ” said Delmar. “But they did, all chained up together, not liking each other, they still worked together. ... That’s that free spirit.”
The Stevens family started this run after the discovery of mass graves at a similar school in Canada. That discovery also prompted Deb Haaland, secretary of the Department of Interior, to follow up with their own investigation in the U.S.
Three schools were identified in Nevada, including Stewart, which closed in the ‘80s.
At that point, it had become a place many Indigenous students wanted to go. The school was run by Indigenous people, who understood the lived experiences of the youth – but its roots began in something much more sinister.
“The policy to forcefully assimilate my relatives, to establish Indian boarding schools was, in fact, genocide,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, which is housed on the campus.
In the beginning, she said, the schools had a goal to kill the Indians and replace them with someone that would participate in settler society. This was only one part of a centuries-long effort to erase Indigenous people through genocide from the land.
In Montooth’s office today, there’s a sticky note placed on her computer with a set of numbers. One of those is 233, which is the number of graves at the boarding school. Ninety-six of those, she said, are unmarked and only have an age and a gender assigned to the child buried there.
Historians are unclear on how many Indigenous people died during the European colonization of this continent that began in 1492. The National Congress of American Indians said around 9 million people died during the roughly 400 years between when European colonization started to the 20th century. Others put those estimates much higher.
When Stewart was first founded, it was funded in part by Nevada bonds being sold to bankroll the program.
U.S. Senator Catherine Cortez Masto sits on the Senate Committee for Indian Affairs, which plays a role in the investigation.
“Most, if not all, of the federally funded boarding schools were put into a system of cultural assimilation with the ultimate outcome of taking their lands,” said Cortez Masto.
It began with kidnapping children from tribes in the surrounding area like the Shoshone, Washoes and Paiutes, but over the years, up to 200 tribes around the West had their children taken here.
The initial report issued by the Department of Interior expects more bodies will be found – an expectation echoed by Cortez Masto.
“Many kids perished while they were at the boarding schools,” she said. “There are some gravesites we don’t even know about, and that’s true for so many across the country.”
Montooth said for Indigenous people, all this information is nothing new – but now a federal document is acknowledging it. In the next few months, Cortez Masto said the rest of the investigation will reveal more of the impact of these schools.
“There are about 200,000 boxes of data that need to go through.” said Cortes Masto, “I think it’s data that we need to uncover and tell the full story of what was happening ... at least at the federal boarding Indian schools.”
For the federal government to find a way to amend this wrong, she said, they first have to understand what’s in those boxes – and move forward together with state, federal and First Nation partners, like Irvin Jim.
Jim is the chairman of the Hung-A-Lel-Ti Community, which is the southern band of the Washoe Tribe. Their ancestral lands include part of where Stewart Indian School is now, and many of his elders came to this school.
For him, justice is ongoing.
“The justice is that we’re still here. The justice is that we are moving forward in a good way with our heads held high, and we still have that pride in our hearts, and we’re still keeping our language and our culture,” he said.
He commends the state of Nevada and the governor for the work they’re doing so far.
Other Indigenous people want their land back. These schools are one example of how the federal government worked to strip identity, and therefore ancestral land, from Indigenous people. The idea of returning land is aimed at reversing that legacy.
For Ku, a step toward justice would be people learning what it really means to be patriotic for a country that he said has done so much wrong to Indigenous people.
“If you really learn more about Native American history, you could see why historical trauma affects us so much,” said Ku.
Ultimately, he said the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the story of his great-grandfather, and what’s happening now needs to be acknowledged by everyone.