The Stewart Indian School in Carson City opened in 1890. Like similar schools across the country, the original goal was to assimilate Native American children and eliminate their culture and traditions. It closed its doors 90 years later in 1980. On Wednesday, alumni, tribal leaders and government officials gathered for a blessing ceremony for the future Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, which will open next year. Our reporter Holly Hutchings has the story.
Chelsea O’daye sings the Paiute Flag Song, taught to her by her aunt, to a crowd of about 250 people. The school’s history is complex, providing fond memories for many, as well as significant trauma for others. Many of the first kids who attended were kidnapped from their homes, no longer allowed contact with their families. They were stripped of their culture and required to only speak English. The school’s purpose slowly evolved and eventually became more focused on vocational training and academics in the 1960s.
Paiute, Western Shoshone and Washoe tribal leaders delivered blessings for the new cultural center and museum that will be housed in the school’s former administration building, one of 65 buildings still standing on the campus.
Aletha Tom came to the school when she was 12 years old and graduated in 1965.
“I enjoyed, learned to love it here. I tried out for various things, such as cheerleading, drill team and majorette. I felt I had a chance at options, at opportunities than I didn’t at public school.”
Stewart gave her opportunities that she says she couldn’t get in her small reservation in Moapa, Nevada.
“It was a big change for me because I was amongst many other Indian tribes.There were so many cultures. Students brought their cultures with them. It's good, and sometimes it's not good. But everyone that came here have their own stories. Their stories can be happiness, joyful and there's some that were sad and negative. So there's all different types. It's just not one straight story. ”
Museum Director Bobbi Rhader has been collecting histories through letters and government records. She says the cultural center and museum will offer a place for multiple generations to share and learn from those stories.
“We will definitely tell the truth about what happened here to those children because our vision for the museum is to honor the first students because they are the ones that suffered the most from this policy and their families are the ones that suffered the most. So, as much of that story as we can find and document, we will tell in our exhibit.”
Sherry Rupert is the Executive Director of the Nevada Indian Commission. She has been one of many working for a dozen years on this project. She says the separation of children from their families that occurred early in Stewart’s history was detrimental and has lasting effects.
“We've seen that in through the boarding schools, children being removed from their families, from their tribes, from their homelands, and coming to a place where they're unfamiliar with, with people they don't know that speak a different language. And that all rings true today in what's happening in current news and it breaks my heart to know that they are people that have to go through my people went through-in 2018.”
Rupert hopes this is the beginning of a master plan for the Stewart Indian School, which may include having event spaces, tribal leadership offices, and onsite artists creating and selling their work. For her, the blessings bestowed there this week mark the next chapter for the site.