WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren today expressed sadness at news of a report on Colorado Indian boarding schools. It is another dark chapter of the treatment of Native children that has been brought to light.
President Nygren responded to History Colorado’s examination titled, “Federal Indian Boarding Schools in Colorado: 1880-1920.” The report was written by State Anthropologist Holly Norton at the request of Colorado’s legislature.
“All the reports that have come out in the past couple of years, some of the brutality and inhumane treatment of our Native people throughout the decades, is highlighted once again,” President Nygren said to reporters. “The history between us and the federal government has never been pretty.”
The 139-page report released today identified and mapped graves of Native American students buried more than 100 years ago at the former federal Indian boarding school at Fort Lewis in Hesperus, Colo., and at off-campus cemeteries.
Dr. Norton’s archaeological investigation, conducted at the former Fort Lewis site, found an old cemetery where an estimated 350-to-400 adult and Native children are believed to be buried. Up to 50 of the graves are believed to be those of soldiers.
None of the graves were disturbed. The investigation used drone-deployed LiDAR, a ground-penetrating type of radar used to investigate underground sites.
Extensive research was conducted between July 1, 2022, and June 30 in consultation with the Southern Ute Tribe and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, the report states.
Dr. Norton reported that a team of 13 researchers spent hundreds of hours to review documents more than 100 years old in an attempt to locate the names and fates of children who attended the schools. No names were released.
“Through archival analysis, we identified 31 deaths of students over an 18-year time frame at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School,” the report states. “The number of deaths is a nearly threefold increase over what appears to have been the deaths officially reported to Washington, D.C., in annual reports. The total number of students who attended Fort Lewis is not as easy to approximate as the number of deaths that occurred at the school.”
Another 30-to-100 burials associated with Native students may still be interred at the Fort Lewis cemetery, according to the report.
President Nygren said it is unimaginable what Navajo, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and parents experienced when their children never returned home from Fort Lewis.
Their children were sent to these schools under the guise of improving their lives.
He cited recent similar reports of Indian boarding school tragedies that occurred in Canada, Utah, Arizona and now Colorado.
“When you’re a parent, you’re so tied to your child,” he said. “I cannot imagine having your kid taken from you. Not only taken but taken to an educational institution in hopes that your child will make something of themselves so that they can better themselves in the future. Instead, your kids are taken from you, and you never see them again, and you don’t know what happened.”
“Native Americans sacrificed their kids, their families, their communities, their culture, their way of life, and to be able to continue to exist today is tough,” he said.
President Nygren credited Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus for his full support of publication of the report and for bringing it to his attention.
“I’m very thankful and humbled that the school’s president, Dr. Tom Stritikus, is forthcoming about this history,” he said. “His leadership and being transparent, I commend him for that.”
In 2022, the Colorado legislature passed the Native American Boarding School Research Program Act. It directed History Colorado to study what happened at Colorado-based federal Indian boarding schools. The focus of this report was on the history of abuse that occurred at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School.
“It’s pretty tragic. Every day as president, I’m always fighting and advocating for equity in our government, treatment and funding within our own borders,” President Nygren said. “This puts it back in perspective of why we’re always trying to fight for equity, for fair treatment. We’ve lost a lot of our young ones over the years.”
The final version of “Federal Indian Schools in Colorado, 1880-1920” can be accessed here: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1bbrIXKLIbQlWxQ9sU-9o4ql_Dthq7-C3/view?usp=sharing