For Native American students at Fort Lewis College, it’s not just about the panels on the campus’s Clock Tower that have recently drawn scrutiny for glossing over the dark part of the school’s history when it served as a boarding school.
It’s about the systemic and consistent misportrayal of Native American history that frequently leaves out how Western settlers took over ancestral lands, the attempts at genocide and, when all else failed, efforts to erase culture.
“When you look at those pictures ... you don’t see them having soap shoved into their mouths because their language wasn’t welcome,” said Shasta Dazen, an FLC student. “You don’t see them beaten with rulers.”
In the upcoming academic year, FLC announced it would replace the panels in an effort to present a more realistic history of the school, which served as a boarding school for Native Americans from 1891 to 1910.
But the panels have spurred a larger conversation on campus, reflected at a meeting Friday giving students the opportunity to provide campus faculty feedback on how Native American history is addressed at the school and taught to both students and staff.
Fort Lewis started as a military post in Pagosa Springs in 1878 to combat Native American tribes and protect Western settlers, and then moved to Hesperus two years later.
After Native American people were forced onto reservations and armed conflicts abated, Fort Lewis became a boarding school in 1891.
According to FLC’s Center for Southwest Studies, boarding schools at the time practiced the accepted thought of the era: “Kill the Indian and save the man.” Schools were located far from their tribes, separating them from their culture, while lessons focused on instilling Western values.
“All aspects of Native culture, including traditional dress, hairstyles and Native languages – spoken, written, even gestured – were forbidden as part of the acculturation philosophy,” according to Center for Southwest Studies.
The boarding school closed in 1910. By the mid-1950s, Fort Lewis had grown to a four-year college and moved to Durango. Today, the college offers free tuition to Native Americans, who make up about 40% of the student body.
Jackson Suazo, a junior at FLC, said for too long, the narrative of Native American history has been written by non-Native American people. While it may be an unflattering image for the school, its dark history needs to be told.
“It is to highlight the historical truth rather than sugarcoat,” he said. “We really need to get past, in my opinion, white fragility, because they don’t have grandparents that are emotionally detached ... because of what boarding schools did.”
Allyssa Williams, an FLC student who is Diné, said many people, both students and staff, come to the college without knowing its history. Aside from the panel issue, this information needs to be more heavily publicized and accessible, she said.
“A lot of the time we are the unacknowledged educators of peers and professors, and that’s so exhausting,” she said. “You’re the one brown kid in a whole classroom, and it’s up to you to defend – unemotionally and educated – things people want to dismiss. And you’re fighting by yourself a lot of the time.”
Williams said generations of abuse on her ancestors have resulted in issues with health, addiction and violence that are very much alive today among tribes. Younger people, too, are not immune to the trauma.
“I don’t know if anyone knows how that manifests itself today,” she said. “But I know I can’t talk to my grandparents, and that’s no fault of theirs.”
Shirena Trujillo Long, an FLC graduate who is now coordinator for the school’s El Centro de Muchos Colores Hispano Resource Center, said student activism on these issues have been occurring at the campus for decades.
In the 1990s, for example, she said students prompted the change of the school’s mascot from the Raiders to the Skyhawks.
“These conversations have been held on campus for a very long time,” she said. “This just feels like the right thing to do.”
Dazen said for many Native Americans, whitewashing history only exacerbates the pain and suffering felt in families.
“Trauma just doesn’t end, it’s still ongoing, that’s why it’s called generational trauma,” she said. “We need to recognize the trauma that our ancestors went through, because in reality, that’s why Native Americans still live in broken homes.”
Jesse Peters, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences who is leading the committee to address the panels, said the plan is to come up with a recommendation by the end of the school year.
But what the recommendation will be, Peters said, is an open slate.
“The Clock Tower, in some ways, is just the beginning, and symbolic of many things that affect students at FLC,” he said. “And we think it’s important to acknowledge this because for too long those histories have been ignored or erase.”
Carma Claw, an assistant professor who is also serving on the committee, said the panels are “just the tip of the iceberg.”
“This is the beginning of the work,” she said.
Williams said whatever the end product is, it needs to take FLC’s dark past head-on.
“Healing begins with acknowledgment,” she said. “To begin in a place and say, ‘look what we survived and how we still stand today.’”