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Cassandra Atencio walks through the boarding school exhibit in the Southern Ute Museum and Cultural Center in Ignacio, Colo. Photo by Corey Robinson / Special to The Colorado Trust

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How Ute Tribes in Colorado Resisted U.S. Boarding Schools

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In August 1883, 27 Ute children and young people arrived at the Albuquerque Indian Boarding School, hundreds of miles from their families in Colorado.

Their journey there was a result of U.S. policy, with the explicit goal of eradicating Native cultures and assimilating Indigenous children into the U.S. economy. It was important enough at the highest levels of government that in Washington, Secretary of the Interior Henry Teller—who served as U.S. senator from Colorado before and after this appointment—had been overseeing the placement of some of the Ute children before they arrived in Albuquerque, according to a recent state report.

Some Ute families had reluctantly agreed to send their children to the school, goaded by the promise of an education in farming and other trades and enticed by the offer of paid positions in the federal government. The initial group of Ute tribal members to enroll in the boarding school included children as young as 10 and married men as old as 29.

It quickly became clear to the students arriving in Albuquerque that their new school was not what they had been promised. Some ran away. They complained to their parents. They set fire to a dormitory. In a rare surviving letter sent the following year, four young Ute men who had managed to escape wrote that they “are almost starved” and that some of those they had left behind were very sick. A wave of tuberculosis soon overcame the dormitories.

Of the young people sent from Ute lands to the school in Albuquerque, only half survived.

When two off-reservation boarding schools opened in Colorado—in Grand Junction in 1886 and at the decommissioned Fort Lewis military base in Hesperus in 1892—Ute children did not attend, with few exceptions.

Tribal leaders had learned an unforgettable lesson about what U.S. officials meant when they said “education.”

A reckoning with the past

In 2022, the Colorado legislature directed History Colorado to produce a report documenting the impacts of the federally run boarding schools within the state’s boundaries. The saga of the Ute students who traveled to Albuquerque in 1883, long known among tribal members, was a starting point.

A primary objective of the historians was to map the unmarked graves at the site of Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and other institutions within the state and to determine how many children were buried there. The initiative is among several overlapping efforts nationwide to document and understand the impacts of a policy that advanced the genocide of Native people. It follows similar investigations in Canada that revealed the existence of mass graves at residential schools there. The Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, along with Fort Lewis College, had advocated for the State of Colorado to do its part.

The resulting report, Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Colorado: 1880-1920, was achieved by combing through official documents and written records preserved at the National Archives and elsewhere. It was made public in October 2023. The historians made the decision not to conduct oral histories as part of the report because of time constraints, because no survivors of the period they were studying remain to give first-person accounts, and because of the risk of retraumatizing people by asking them to retell stories that don’t belong to the state.

Records of mistreatment, or even the names of students enrolled in the school, didn’t come via the reports of U.S. government bureaucrats, the report notes—“But if you want to know the exact number of potatoes that were eaten or the shoes that were worn, that information is there.”

Still, the punishing conditions, the bouts of deadly and disabling illness that passed quickly from one child to another through tightly packed dormitories, and the abuse are apparent. Thomas Breen, superintendent of Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School for 10 years, was ousted after a Denver Post investigative series in 1903 exposed reports of his serial violence and sexual assault of women and girls who were enrolled at or employed by the school. Staff at the boarding schools cut the hair of the children, renamed them, and punished them for speaking Indigenous languages.

The researchers identified 31 students who died at Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, the youngest one just 5 years old. They found 35 student deaths at Grand Junction Indian Boarding School. Most died of disease, exacerbated by poor conditions, inadequate food and heavy labor.

Equally clear from the report, however, is the power of Ute resistance during this era, ultimately dooming the schools to failure. Were it not for this resistance, more Native children would almost certainly have died far from home.

“An assumption in the legislation was that it was Ute children who experienced these schools,” the report explains. After all, the off-reservation schools in Colorado were built with the stated purpose of enrolling Ute children, who were by then the only remaining tribe in the state after others had been forcibly removed.

“It became clear that this was not the case.”

A 1916 photograph of the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, also known as the Teller Institute. Photo courtesy of History Colorado

U.S. officials in Colorado tried to force Ute families to give up their children to Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School and the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, according to the report. They offered gifts and payments. They denied families horses. They withheld rations. They removed tribal leaders from their positions.

According to the report, Ute Chief Mariano was particularly opposed to the schools. He took families into the mountains to be out of reach of the Indian agents seeking students to fill the rolls at Fort Lewis. He was dismissed from his position as tribal policeman in 1896 because of his resistance.

The U.S. Indian agent for the Southern Ute—the government official assigned to oversee the tribe—even requested the use of federal troops to force Ute children out of their homes, as they had on other reservations. “Washington, DC, denied the request,” the report notes.

When Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School opened its doors in 1892, only about a quarter of its 48 students were Ute, mostly from the Capote Band and Mouache Band and a few from the Weeminuche Band. Almost immediately, epidemics of tuberculosis and trachoma sickened students, leaving four children blind and killing two. Ute families retrieved their children and brought them home.

“These events essentially ended the participation of the Southern Ute in the off-reservation school system at the turn of the twentieth century,” according to the report.

The Utes weren’t alone in their refusal.

“The Jicarilla Apaches, the Southern Utes, and most of the Paiutes have had no schools, and the Northern Utes have fought the schools they have, so much so that with the exception of the Mescalero Apaches it may be said that there has not been much education yet for the wild Indians of Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico,” wrote A.O. Wright, the supervisor of Indian schools, in 1901, according to the report. “In Colorado the Southern Utes are the only Indians left, and they have scarcely a child in school anywhere.”

In 1904, Fort Lewis Superintendent William Peterson griped that “the Utes did not care if they got paid at all.”

Holly Norton, PhD, state archaeologist and lead author of Colorado’s report on the Indian boarding schools, says that students’ resistance to the schools wasn’t surprising, given their conditions.

“But how deeply the Ute parents, the tribal elders, the leadership were able to resist and… keep their children out of these schools was surprising,” says Norton, “especially given the history of other tribes who were less successful.”

For example, Sioux tribes had their children taken at gunpoint, says Norton. Navajo children were a particular target of brutal government recruitment efforts, the report notes. Norton says she’s not sure why the Ute people were able to resist so powerfully. She suspects it was a combination of things, including the fact that they were rural and geographically dispersed, small in numbers, and easily overlooked by the federal government: “It was easier for Washington to ignore them.”

Cassandra Atencio is tribal historic preservation officer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. She is also a direct descendant of Buckskin Charlie, a Ute tribal leader who, in 1880, was taken on a trip to Washington, D.C. and a tour of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, meant to convince him and others of the benefits of boarding school education. Atencio offers an explanation not explored in the report.

“We are matriarchal,” says Atencio. “And the Ute women basically said, ‘No, we’re not sending our kids. We’re not going to die.’”

Atencio is tribal historic preservation officer for the Southern Ute Tribe. Photo by Corey Robinson / Special to The Colorado Trust

“An overabundance of affection” 

Indian agent Charles Bartholomew, one of the founders of Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, was frustrated by his failure to recruit locally. In 1890, he complained to his bosses in Washington that the Utes had “an overabundance of affection” for their children.

This quote in the state’s report keeps rolling through Ernest House, Jr.’s head: An overabundance of affection.

“The way I interpreted that,” says House, “was that there was this assumption that as Native people, as Utes, we would not have an abundance of love and affection for our children.”

House is senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center and a member of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. His great-grandfather, Chief Jack House, was the last hereditary chief of the Ute Mountain Ute, and his father, Ernest House, Sr., was a tribal chairman.

House says Ute resistance to the boarding schools in the late 1800s was especially impressive because of when it happened.

Ute territory once stretched over nearly all of what is now Colorado and Utah and deep into bordering states. Waves of European colonizers changed everything, and the mining rush of the 1800s was especially devastating. Ute families were pushed to farm on individually owned plots of land, though they had traditionally moved seasonally to hunt elk and bison and gather food in the mountains and plains.

Throughout the late 19th century, a series of fraudulent and coercive treaties engineered by the U.S. government whittled their territory. Utes fought back by attacking and killing the Indian agent assigned to their reservation in 1879 along with his staff, resulting in the removal of the White River and Uncompaghre Utes to Utah and a further dismemberment of their land.

By the 1880s, three bands of Utes—the Weeminuche, Capote and Muache—remained confined to an increasingly narrow strip of land in the state’s southwest corner. In the coming years, they would be cleaved by U.S. policies into two separate tribes: the Ute Mountain Utes and the Southern Utes.

“I’ve often looked at that time as a time of chaos,” says House. “To still have the ability to keep the families together, when other tribes were forced to send children… it was amazing. What I’ve read in the report and have seen is the strong messaging from the tribal leaders around keeping their families together.”

The Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School enrolled around 1,100 students until it closed in 1911. The Grand Junction Indian Boarding School struggled to enroll students, with about 600 total during its 25 years of operation. According to the state’s report, many students ran away, returning home to warn their tribal communities of their experiences.

Meanwhile, Ute leaders pushed for the construction of an on-reservation school in accordance with treaty obligations. An earlier government school in Ignacio, which operated from 1884 to 1890, had housed only 13 or so students a year in a decrepit building widely shunned by the community before it was abandoned. It wasn’t replaced for more than 20 years.

The graves in Hesperus

Majel Boxer, PhD is chair and professor of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango. Her research and teaching focus partly on the boarding schools at Fort Lewis and elsewhere.

The four-year liberal arts college where she teaches traces its lineage to the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. In 1911, ownership of the fort and the school buildings in Hesperus were transferred to the State of Colorado, which established a high school, and later a college, with a continued objective of enrolling Native students. It moved to Durango in 1956.

Today, Fort Lewis provides a tuition-free education to students of any federally recognized tribe. Roughly a quarter of its degrees are awarded to Native students. Many of its faculty and staff are Native, including Boxer. House is among the trustees. Native students and staff have pushed the school’s leadership to acknowledge the institution’s legacy and grapple with it honestly.

Boxer sometimes takes her students to Hesperus. There are few visible signs of the school, the dormitories, or the unmarked graves of children. Fort Lewis College manages a piece of the old campus, owned by the state, and uses it for farmer training and other educational programs.

Students at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School. Photo courtesy of the Center of Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College

“I always tell my students it’s important to be in the space and see how remote it is,” says Boxer. Even now, it’s a 45-minute drive through the mountains from there to Ignacio, on the Southern Ute reservation. The road to Towaoc on the Ute Mountain Ute reservation is even further.

It makes sense, says Boxer, that Ute families insisted on keeping their children close, where they could see them. “If you were a student, you had to board a train or take a horse and buggy to the school,” she said. “It’s good to get a sense of how isolated it was.”

And cold. Gilbert Coon, a parent of three students at Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School, told The Denver Post that his children were forced to sleep in the coal shed as punishment, unprotected from wild animals, according to the state report.

Researchers used ground-penetrating radar and infrared photography to find evidence of graves in Hesperus. The forgotten cemetery, likely marked at some point with wooden posts, held the remains of soldiers stationed at Fort Lewis and maybe also community members, as well as 30 to 100 boarding school students.

The team of archaeologists found evidence of 46 graves likely to hold children.

Against forgetting

The goal of the boarding schools “was to eradicate tribal lands and cultures,” says Beth Wright, staff attorney for the Native American Rights Fund.

“We have rich, vital tribal nations everywhere, and in that regard, they weren’t successful,” says Wright of the schools. “There were passive forms of resistance and active forms of resistance, and all of that preserved a piece of tribal values and religions, and all those pieces were passed on.”

Despite their resistance, Ute people didn’t escape the impacts of U.S. expansion onto their lands. In a single terrible year, 1898, more than one in 10 Ute people in Colorado died, mostly of tuberculosis and pneumonia.

They didn’t even fully escape the impacts of the government schools. Children whose parents had died or were undergoing particular hardship—too poor, too ill or otherwise burdened—continued to wind up in boarding schools in neighboring states.

At the same time, on-reservation day and boarding schools carried on the U.S. government’s mission of assimilation, including the Southern Ute Indian Boarding School, which opened in Ignacio in 1903. The schools closer to home were seen by many tribal families as an acceptable alternative to the off-reservation schools, and their educational objectives shifted through the last century as tribes gained more control of them. Still, their legacy is complicated.

Today, the Southern Ute Cultural Center and Museum in Ignacio sits in the footprint of the old campus of the Southern Ute Indian Boarding School. The museum was rebuilt in 2011, and the impressive structure showcases elements of Núuchi, or Ute, culture: its lattice facade is draped like a shawl, explains Crystal Rizzo, the tribe’s cultural preservation director.

The grounds are laid out like a corral, in a nod to the importance of horses in Ute culture after tribes acquired them in the 16th or 17th century. Native plants and herbs historically important to the tribe are planted throughout.

The exhibit on boarding schools is prominent and permanent.

Southern Ute tribal elder Eddie Box, Sr. died in 2012 at 92. But his voice lives on in the videos displayed at the museum, including his memory of the cruelty that attended his father’s death.

“When my father passed away, here comes the police. ‘You better send your children to the boarding school. It’s good for them. They’ll give ‘em clothes, and this and that.’ My mother refused,” says Box in the video. “So, the government said if we don’t do that, ‘we’re going to come after you and put you in jail.’”

According to the exhibit, Box and his brothers were sent to the Ute Mountain School in Towaoc. Box’s obituary tells a slightly different story: that he went to a day school in Bayfield, where he was born, and later to the same boarding school in Albuquerque where a generation of Ute children had suffered and died years earlier. What is clear is the tragedy that followed.

“I lost my little brother who was in the hospital then. I went to see him. Clyde,” says Box. “While he was cryin’ he kept saying, ‘Mama, Mama.’ … Nobody brought Mama. He died.”

The elders never forgot what the children saw.

The survivors’ stories

Fabian Martinez is the archivist at the Southern Ute museum. He’s 28, and like most of his peers who grew up on the reservation, he attended public school in Ignacio. Martinez became interested in studying the boarding schools when he was in college at Fort Lewis. Like many in the community, his relatives had attended various iterations of the boarding school in Ignacio. He’s now the museum’s resident expert on the schools; his expertise picks up where the state report leaves off.

The Southern Ute Indian Boarding School operated as a federally run on-reservation school until 1920. By 1917, there were 68 children enrolled there, according to Martinez. All but one of them were Ute.

After that, the federal government reopened it as the Ute Vocational School, which operated from 1926 until 1955, according to Martinez. From 1955 until 1980, it was the Southern Ute Dormitories, operated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in part as a kind of group home for children in the child welfare system, along with a dorm for students from other towns who stayed there while they attended local schools.

When Martinez began studying the schools, he expected to hear the tragic stories. His father had a bad time in the dormitories, where he lived from age 6 until adulthood, though he didn’t talk much about it. His grandmother had attended the Ute Vocational School, and he found his great-grandmother’s name on the rolls of the Southern Ute Indian Boarding School.

What Martinez found surprising were the accounts of people who said they appreciated some aspects of the schools.

“It was more of this gray area,” says Martinez. “For some kids it was kind of a safe haven, because maybe they came from abusive families. Or maybe they had some other outside influence that it just wasn’t safe for them. So they were able to make a solid, very positive connection.”

He found that to be true especially of the vocational school that operated in Ignacio from early to mid-20th century: “A lot of the elders reflect back very fondly onto the vocational school.”

One of the cruelties of the government project from the beginning was how it tied up benefits that young people genuinely wanted and needed—learning new trades, learning to read, and meeting other Native students—with punishing conditions and a goal of assimilation.

Students’ ability to glean skills, community and pride from their experiences was sometimes a form of quiet resistance. Atencio’s grandmother attended the boarding school in Albuquerque and only ever talked about the domestic and housekeeping skills she learned there. She kept speaking Ute.

In a video displayed at the museum, Annie Bettini, a former student at the Ute Vocational School who died in 2009, laughed as she remembered: “We were not to talk Ute at all. But we did it anyway. … They couldn’t follow us around all the time.”

According to her obituary, Bettini later taught Ute language classes at Ignacio High School.

Annabelle Eagle remembered learning to read. She had been curious about it, and took pride in her book reports. It was always complicated, though.

“I guess what they did was brainwash us, get us away from our language,” Eagle says in the same video. “Some of us completely forgot our language and our Indian ways.”

Eagle worked as a teacher in Southern Ute and Navajo schools and as a tribal court judge before her death in 2015, according to her obituary.

Even with the state report, it’s too late to fully account for the schools’ impact—even from the past hundred years, a time period the recent state report doesn’t investigate. Too many of the survivors have died. Their family members are left stitching together bits and pieces.

House’s father, Ernest House, Sr., attended and resided at the school in Ignacio, though he was from the Ute Mountain Ute reservation. His son only knows that he didn’t like it. He ran away, and later said that the boarding school made boot camp look easy.

House says he’s glad that the state’s report is inviting new conversations about the boarding schools.

“I do wish that this report would have been in the time frame where he was still alive,” says House. Maybe it would have lent his father the support he needed to speak openly about his experiences. “I always felt that he had to put that aside.”

Taking children

The practice of taking Native children from their families never ended, says Wright, the attorney from the Native American Rights Fund. Before the boarding school era wound down, the federally run Indian Adoption Project promoted the placement of Native children with white families in the 1950s and 1960s in the name of child welfare.

By the 1970s, a congressional report found that about a third of Native children had been taken from their families. Most of them ended up outside of their communities. In response to pressure from Native leaders, Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978. It was intended to keep Native children with Native families, giving a preference to tribal members and making adoption to non-Native families a last resort.

Conservative critics of the Indian Child Welfare Act have challenged its constitutionality, saying it prioritizes racial categories over the child’s best interest. In 2022, the issue came before the Supreme Court. Once again, Native groups, including tribal leaders and the Native American Rights Fund, coalesced in defense of their rights to self-determination.

“In tribal communities, children are held as the most sacred members,” says Wright. “In children lie the greatest hope for the future. In children lie the best hope for tribes to pass on language, culture and traditions that ensure tribal sovereignty.”

Waiting for the court’s decision, says House, “I don’t know anybody who was not holding their breath a little.”

In June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the tribes, keeping the Indian Child Welfare Act intact.

“The Indian Child Welfare Act did not emerge from a vacuum,” wrote Justice Neil Gorsuch in his concurrence, citing the mass removal of Native children by official and private parties that began, but didn’t end, in the 19th century. “In all its many forms, the dissolution of the Indian family has had devastating effects on children and parents alike. It has also presented an existential threat to the continued vitality of Tribes—something many federal and state officials over the years saw as a feature, not as a flaw.”

There are still too many Native children who are removed from their families, says Wright. More than one in 10 American Indian/Alaska Native children spends time in foster care, according to a 2020 study. Most children are removed from their homes for reasons of neglect—a broad term that can include everything from housing that is deemed inadequate to children being left in the care of relatives.

“That word”—neglect—”doesn’t necessarily have any meaning. It’s not abuse,” says Wright. “It’s based on state child welfare workers’ ideas of how children should be raised.”

The structures that remain

Resistance continues today in the small parcels of land that remain in Ute hands in Colorado.

Rizzo was adopted by a white family as a child and grew up in southern Alabama. Today, as director of cultural preservation for the Southern Ute Tribe, her duties include working with the tribe’s social services department as well as the court. The tribe recruits local families to serve as foster parents or give new parents a break when things get difficult. Classes are offered to parents who want to learn more about traditional methods of conflict resolution and child-rearing.

“We work hard to keep our children here,” says Rizzo. “How we can keep our culture, our language, our tradition is by keeping Ute children with Ute families.”

The tribe also operates a Montessori school where kids—from infancy through elementary school—learn the Ute language and cultural practices.

Crystal Rizzo, in front of the main school building of what was once the Southern Ute Indian Boarding School, points out landmarks on the other side of the former campus. Photo by Corey Robinson / Special to The Colorado Trust

The boarding school still stands, a short walk from the museum. Some of its outer buildings were razed years ago or have been converted into offices. Its main building is abandoned, and the tribal council voted last year to demolish it.

Atencio disagreed with their decision. “Our kids are having a really hard time right now, struggling to know their own history,” she said, “and we don’t have places to show them.”

There are just around 50 people left who speak Ute, says Atencio. Rizzo believes it’s even fewer—maybe just 20 people who grew up speaking it as a first language. Atencio grew up learning about the herbs and the plants that could be gathered and used, but not many others share her knowledge.

“In reality, it seems like we are already on the edge, ready to fall off, you know? And we’re doing our best to maintain, staying on the edge, and moving back, so we have more room here,” she says.

The boarding school was a complicated place, but its history is Ute history now, says Atencio.

“It happened,” she says. “We can’t take it back.”

Love of home

U.S. officials suspected long ago that parents’ love for their children, and vice versa, was the greatest risk to the project of assimilation.

“The love of home and the warm reciprocal affection existing between parents and children are among the strongest characteristics of the Indian nature,” Commissioner of Indian Affairs William A. Jones wrote in his 1904 annual report, adding that students often yearned for their old lives when they returned home. “Greater efforts are being made to guard against this.”

When House thinks about Ute resistance, he thinks about Kwiyagat Community Academy, an elementary school that opened in Towaoc in the fall of 2021. At a time when illness once again threatened the tribe, the community opened this public charter school as a way to nourish Ute language and culture, and to keep the children close.

“The focus”—the language, the culture, and the children—“is exactly what was taken away,” says House.

In the town square in tiny Towaoc, a stone’s throw from family homes, the recreation center, the community center and the tribal offices of the Ute Mountain Ute, kids played outside in the school’s playground on a recent sunny day. They couldn’t be closer to the heart of the tribe.

Related Story: On the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, A New School Aims to Preserve Language, Culture and a Sense of Community

Kristin Jones

Freelance writer and editor
Denver, Colo.

See all stories by this author

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