When the Nevada Indian Commission was planning the new museum at the Stewart Indian School, alumni of the institution were asked for their opinions about how the story of the school’s dynamic history should be told.
The answer was unanimous: “tell the truth.”
The school in Carson City, which was in operation between 1890 and 1980, was among more than 350 Indian boarding schools across the nation. Their purpose was to strip generations of children of their Indian identities and “civilize” them so they would better fit into the dominant, white, Christian culture. During the first half-century of its existence, the Native American students were subjected to harsh discipline, unhealthy conditions and isolated from their tribes and their families.
“The federal policy was called assimilation,” said Bobbi Rahder, director of the Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center, which opened this year. “The school officials had the authority to go down the road and just pick kids up off the road, some as young as 4, and take them away in wagons and (later) trucks, like cattle trucks.
“Parents couldn’t speak English. They didn’t know where their kids were. It was a horrible, cruel policy.”
The students were given haircuts, new names, had to wear school uniforms and were drilled like soldiers. Their lives were regulated by bells and alarms. Boys took classes in carpentry, blacksmithing and other trades. Girls were taught to sew and perform domestic tasks. Some were loaned out as servants to white families. The initial curriculum was limited to basic arithmetic, reading and writing. They learned English and were forbidden to speak tribal languages.
Isolation and education
The students’ families weren’t allowed to visit, but relatives of the pupils sometimes camped near the school hoping to catch a glimpse of their family members. “It was all deliberate,” Rahder said. “It was meant to destroy that tie with their families and the tribal culture. They wanted to turn the children into white citizens with job skills.”
The policy to “Kill the Indian; Save the Man” was the brainchild of Richard Henry Pratt, who in 1879 founded the United States Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Penn. Carlisle became the template for the first 26 off-reservation boarding schools in 15 states and territories, including Stewart.
Over the decades, conditions at the school slowly improved and a 1934 federal law did away with the policy of assimilation. Stewart Indian School’s curriculum expanded, restrictions relaxed, Indian culture was accepted and the institution’s sports teams were celebrated throughout the state. When federal authorities closed the school in 1980, some students and parents protested the decision.
Today, some alumni of the school praise their experiences there, but others remember bullying and corporal punishment. The effects of the often-misguided school policies still echo across the generations of alumni and their descendants.
The early years
During the first decade of its existence, enrollment was limited to children from the Great Basin tribes: Washoe, Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone. Enrollment grew to more than 85 students in the first year, and as more buildings were constructed, more children were sent to the school. By the 1930s, the annual student population was between 400 and 500 pupils.
“These schools strip from the unwashed person of the Indian boy the unwashed blanket, and, after instructing him in what to him are the mysteries of personal cleanliness, clothe him with the clean garment of civilized men and teach him how to wear them.”— Federal Superintendent of Indian Schools, 1885.
Policies and conditions at the school were inconsistent during the first 30 years of the school’s history. From1890 to the 1920s, Stewart was led by eleven short-term superintendents, five of whom held the post in succession in 1912 alone. Children often ran away and a truant officer would be sent to track them down. When the fugitives returned, they faced harsh punishments.
The crowded conditions and lack of health care resulted in epidemics, illnesses and deaths. An infirmary was built on campus in 1904 and electric lights were installed in 1913. Religious instruction was mandatory and a Baptist mission opened in 1914. Students came – or were sent – to Stewart from nations all over the Southwest, including from Hopi, Apache and Navajo reservations in Arizona.
The 1920s saw other improvements at the school. Dances and socials were allowed and movies were shown in the campus auditorium. But the assimilation theory remained rooted in school policy.
Reforms in the 1930s
In 1934, the Indian Reorganization Act, also called the Indian New Deal, ended the policy of assimilation. The law also gave tribes and colonies the ability to form tribal governments and encouraged the creation of tribal institutions.
Alida Bowler in 1934 became the first female superintendent at Stewart (or at any Indian boarding school). Indian culture, banned for decades, was embraced, but much of it had little to do with Great Basin native traditions. Among the displays at the Stewart museum are photos and costumes of girls dressed as “Corn Maidens,” wearing beaded buckskin dresses.
“After parents weren’t forced to send their children here, it was a very different experience,” said Stacey Montooth, the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “It was grounded in culture. Alida Bowler helped change that environment; it was OK to be native. But the culture was a mixture, a kind of pan-Indianism.”
In time, students could go home in the summer if they chose and were allowed to leave the campus on Saturdays. In 1954, parents were finally permitted to visit their children at the school, but only between 4 and 5 p.m. on weekdays and from 1 to 5 p.m. on Sundays.
By the 1940s, children from more than 60 tribes had been enrolled at the school. They hailed from dozens of reservations and hundreds of hometowns across the West. In 1947, the Navajo Program began at the school, and a large percentage of students were from that Indian nation. Over the 90-year life of the school, about 30,000 students were enrolled, according to an estimate by the Nevada State Museum.
Sports teams ascendant
Of the thousands of Nevada news stories that mention the Stewart Indian School found in online newspaper archives, the vast majority focus on the school’s teams. Between 1935 and 1948, pugilists from the school won 10 Nevada Golden Gloves boxing team titles. The school’s football and baseball teams played games against high schools across the state. In 1966, the Stewart Indian School Braves were Nevada’s state basketball champions.
The newspaper archives also contain stories about curriculum changes. A nursing program, typing classes, business education and other academic and trades’ classes became available. The school held its first science fair in 1959, where 20 students exhibited projects in astronomy, mineralogy, chemistry and biology.
In a documentary available on YouTube entitled “Home of the Braves,” many of the alumni interviewed had positive memories of the school. The same is true for many of the oral histories available online at the University of Nevada, Reno, Special Collections Library site.
But even after reform, many students rebelled against the regimentation of boarding school life, the conflicts among student cliques and suffered the loneliness of being away from their families. Even when alumni have good memories of the school, the effect of the boarding school experience can have a negative effect on later generations.
Montooth, who previously was an educator in Churchill County, recalled telling the grandmother of a student how she could tutor her son in math at home. The elder, who had been a Stewart student, didn’t understand why families should be involved in a child’s education. “That’s your job,” she told Montooth.
In boarding school, there was no homework. Students lived at the school; it was a self-contained learning environment.
“Now, in 2021, the best practices of learning include instilling an attitude for life-long education,” Montooth said. “Parents and grandparents are a child’s first teachers. That’s a concept that our traditional families had, too. But that opportunity was destroyed by the federal government.
“I firmly believe the reason that only one out of three high school students who identify as Native American fail to graduate from high school is a direct result of the boarding school system,”– Stacey Montooth, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission.
Some students preferred to attend Stewart rather than public schools. “I have heard from alumni who attended in the late 1960s through the 1970s that for a lot of folks Stewart was the better choice,” said Montooth, whose grandmother and aunt attended the school. “There was a lot of racism in the public schools. It was a lot more comforting to be around everyone who looked like them.”
Although historians and grad students have written several histories of the school, records of the institution are incomplete and others were lost when federal authorities abruptly shut down Stewart in 1980. Sexual abuse has been documented at other Indian boarding schools, particularly in Canada, but authors of some research papers made a point of noting that Stewart apparently escaped that horror. Perhaps not.
Justin Zuniga, a member of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who wrote a thesis paper about the history of the school when he was a student at the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2010, unearthed a document in the Nevada State Library and Archives that indicates a least one of the schools’ superintendants may have been guilty of such crimes.
A heavily-redacted report from a federal Indian agent, dated Oct. 3, 1898, focused on allegations against Superintendent Eugene Mead, who ran the school from 1894 to 1899. In one brief section of the document, the agent states: “Superintendent Mead has admitted to being criminally intimate with pupils.”
The agent wrote that after he confronted Mead, the administrator “became violently enraged and abusive. Five minutes after this outburst, he broke down, and wept like a child. This exhibition of temper as well as other matters which are brought to my attention fully convinces me that Superintendent Mead is wholly unqualified mentally, morally, and physically to conduct a school of this kind.”
A complex legacy
Zuniga said he was unable to discover what, if any, official action was taken against Mead or if his departure in 1899 was related to the agent’s allegations.
A federal review of U.S. Indian boarding schools, prompted by the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at Canadian native schools, is ongoing. Stewart, where the old school cemetery contains an estimated 200 unmarked graves, is part of that review, which may discover more school records.
In the end, the policy of eradicating tribal culture failed. Over the years, Stewart students rejoined their tribes and used their skills to both earn a living and enrich and Nevada’s Indian communities. Some, including Stewart graduate John Dressler, who co-founded the Inter-tribal Council of Nevada in 1964, became tribal leaders and innovators. Hillman Tobey, a Northern Paiute who was enrolled at the school in 1925, became an artful carpenter and a nationally-known maker of traditional pipes for ceremonies. Tobey, who was the subject of media interviews for decades, died in 2015 at the age of 100.
Zuniga, who is among the on-camera sources in the “Home of the Braves” documentary, said any examination of the history of Stewart must include the full picture, “the good and the bad; the genuine horrors and the positive outcomes.
“We wouldn’t have had Hillman Tobey in our community, and the gifts he gave his people, if not for the school,” he said. “…But the school failed in its original goal. (Early graduates) weren’t able to fully assimilate because they weren’t given those skills; they were trained to be a subservient worker class. They didn’t really fit in to white American society after attending the boarding schools, and when they went back home to the reservations, they didn’t really fit there, either.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center is among the lesser-known area museums included in the RN&R's tour of those institutions.