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Colorado boarding school, where government sought to assimilate tribal students, listed as a “most endangered” place

Colorado Preservation, Inc. is working with Southern Ute leaders as they consider preserving the site near Ignacio, which recalls a painful chapter of U.S. history

This undated photo shows part of the Southern Ute Boarding School campus just outside of Ignacio in southwest Colorado. The site has been designated among the state's "most endangered" as tribal authorities consider how best to preserve its painful history. (Southern Ute Drum Archives)
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Just outside the southwest Colorado town of Ignacio, on Southern Ute tribal land, remnants of a campus where the federal government carried out its campaign to assimilate American Indian youth and eradicate their culture juts from the landscape. 

Only a few buildings, a former parade ground and a flagpole still stand, relics of the military-style education that became standard during the late 19th- and early 20th-century effort to “Americanize” the continent’s earliest inhabitants. 

Though the Southern Ute Boarding School closed in 1920, the campus still served various other purposes — including intermittent use as a school — before closing for good in 1981. It marks both an often-ignored segment of U.S. history and a monument to tribal perseverance.

Now the tribe will explore the possibilities for saving what remains — both the structures and the troubling history that surrounds them.

Colorado Preservation Inc., a 23-year-old organization that works with communities across the state to preserve sites of historical and cultural significance, designated the campus one of the state’s most endangered places — one of four sites given that designation Thursday at the annual Saving Places Conference in Denver.

“Preservation of the buildings is important because it reflects a difficult and multi-faceted story of the Indian boarding school era within American Indian, Colorado, and United States history,” said Lindsay Box, spokeswoman for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe. “Fighting against all odds of cultural genocide via forced assimilation, it also represents the resilience of Southern Ute ancestors, descendants from the Mouache, Capota, and Weeminuche Bands of Ute, and others from various Indigenous Nations.”

Fighting against all odds of cultural genocide via forced assimilation, it also represents the resilience of Southern Ute ancestors, descendants from the Mouache, Capota, and Weeminuche Bands of Ute, and others from various Indigenous Nations.

Lindsay Box, Southern Ute tribal spokeswoman

She also noted that the buildings are one of only two salvageable examples of architecture from this era within Colorado. The Teller Indian School in Grand Junction, later known as the Teller Institute, predated the Ignacio campus by about 15 years. Four buildings remain there.

“The Tribe is honored that a piece of our history, a piece of greater Native American history -– the boarding school era — is recognized and will be added to Colorado’s Most Endangered Places list,” Box said.

The others named this year, selected after nominations by local communities, research and site visits, span the state and reflect diverse slices of Colorado history:

  • The Antelope Springs Methodist Episcopal Church in Morgan County, on the Eastern Plains, nearly was lost to arsonists — except that the driver of a passing car in the wee hours of a Sunday morning saw the flames and a vehicle speeding away. A volunteer firefighter on the adjacent property responded quickly, and locals determined that despite damage to ceiling beams and the roof, the structure remained sound and a good candidate for restoration. Colorado Preservation director Kim Grant calls the circumstances that saved the landmark a “miracle” and the building itself “an example of the role religion played in the settlement of eastern Colorado.”
  • The Isis Theatre in tiny Victor, a historic mining town with a colorful past, conjures architectural heritage and a cultural history that spans live theater, vaudeville and movies since its construction in 1899. That iteration of the building didn’t last the year, as the entire town burned. The Isis rose again in 1904 and the current structure still contains many artifacts from the era, including costumes, curtains, the original piano and two vintage projectors that may still work. “It’s like a time capsule of theater and movie entertainment over time,” Grant said.
  • The East Portal Camp Cabins, built in Gilpin County in 1922-23, provided construction camps for workers on the Moffat Tunnel, which allowed rail passage beneath the Continental Divide and took 150 miles off the transcontinental route. The structures, visible to hikers along the James Peak trail near the tunnel’s east portal, represent a connection to the workers on the historic project, including 28 who died.
The Antelope Springs Methodist Episcopal Church survived an arson fire and now locals are trying to preserve the historic structure. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation Inc.)

The Ignacio boarding school mirrors the preservation of the Amache detention center outside Granada in southeast Colorado. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack that launched the Pacific theater of World War II, Japanese-Americans were kept in several such camps around the U.S. in what now is regarded as a regrettable chapter of American history.

The Amache site also draws attention to the resolve of those interned — including many who enlisted and became highly decorated soldiers in the war. Similarly, Native Americans also retained a strong affinity for their warriors, a cultural distinction reflected in high per capita enlistment in the U.S. armed services and a keen sense of respect for those who’ve served. 

Many of the boarding schools drew from the approach of Army Col. Richard Henry Pratt, who founded the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania — the first such school derived from Pratt’s experience educating prisoners from American Indian conflicts. Carlisle became the template for other government schools across the country that sought to assimilate tribal children through military discipline and sometimes brutal cultural immersion.

The main school building is one of a handful that remain on the campus of the Southern Ute Boarding School. The tribe will decide if and how the site will be preserved. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation Inc.)

Reports of Native American children being beaten for speaking their native language were common, and reflected the motto attributed to Pratt: “Kill the Indian, save the man.”

Tribal spokeswoman Box notes that the Ignacio campus was modeled on the same military-style layout that Pratt developed to “Americanize” native youth.

“The structures reflect an era when the United States government took children away from their parents and forced them to adopt American ideals through the abandonment of their heritage,” Box said. “Similar to a military base, the campus is organized in a grid formation with a flagpole in the middle where they were forced to pledge allegiance to the United States flag and renounce their own tribal sovereignty and cultural identity.”

There were some smaller outbuildings and farm-related buildings — students were schooled in agricultural tasks — that are no longer there. The boys’ dormitory was torn down, but about 70% of the campus remains, by Grant’s estimate, on the site just north of town.

Colorado Preservation, Inc. expressed interest in the Ignacio site from the very beginning, Grant said. The Teller Institute in Grand Junction also was nominated as an endangered place, but “didn’t have the same historic integrity and we didn’t think we could take both on in the same year,” he added.

The organization will assist the tribe in gathering the resources to make a final decision on how to approach the campus. Now that the list of endangered places has been made public, Colorado Preservation will set up a site orientation meeting with all stakeholders at the former school to determine next steps. 

Those could include pursuing grants or other options that might complement what the tribe ultimately decides to do in terms of physical preservation — or helping with documentation of the site through interviews, oral history and images of the buildings.

“We’ll approach it from a position of respect and listen carefully to what their goals are, put them into touch with resources and technical assistance and that sort of thing,” said Grant. “We’re very much letting them lead the way in determining what about the story is important to them and why it matters, and transferring that to future generations, so they can understand what their ancestors went through.

“Physical sites are representative of the era they were built, but the stories behind them are important to preserve and learn from. And particularly with sites like that. It’s the same approach as with Amache, working with a local group.”

A recent photo shows the girls’ dormitory at the Southern Ute Boarding School, one of the remaining buildings at a site that has been designated among the state’s “most endangered.” (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation Inc.)

Box noted that recognition on the Colorado Most Endangered Places list marks the initial step in an ongoing discussion of what to do with the site. The Southern Ute Tribal Council will determine whether the campus structures will be demolished or protected and repurposed after environmental and structural cost analysis as well as a structural and preservation assessment.

Grant said a tribal survey produced three options for the campus: Preservation and reuse; a mix of preservation and selected demolition; and total demolition of the site.

“A majority of people were in favor of preservation and at least continuing the conversation about it,” he said. “Part of our charge is to help document what’s there and help them determine what some of those options might be.”

Ernest House Jr., a member of the the Ute Mountain Ute tribe that inhabits southwest Colorado and also a former head of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, sees the preservation at Ignacio as another step in an ongoing reconciliation process that has several facets. His father, Ernest Sr., attended the Ignacio boarding school in the 1950s, but didn’t pass on his experience to his children, except to note that it prepared him for the military.

“He didn’t talk about it often,” House said. “But what he did say, I remember he often referred back to it as a precursor about what he’d later experience in boot camp.”

House, now senior policy director at the Keystone Policy Center, said he wishes that his father, who died in 2011, could have lived long enough to take part in the conversation now emerging about the schools nationwide, and perhaps unburden himself of his own experience. That’s one reason preservation is so important, House added — to provide a tangible starting point for dialogue about government attempts to erase Native American culture not just here, but across the country.

Murals that adorn the walls of some buildings at the campus of the Southern Ute Boarding School add to the site’s historical value. Such schools across the country sought to assimilate Native American students and erase their culture. (Courtesy of Colorado Preservation Inc.)

“Now we know these government-sanctioned schools created physical, emotional and mental abuse, and due to these a lot of students never returned home, they were buried on campus,” he said. “It’s a difficult conversation that represents a dark chapter not just in U.S. policy and history, but also states where boarding schools were created.” 

At the Carlisle school site in Pennsylvania, he noted, tribes are working to identify burial sites and return students who died there to their tribal homes.  

“That’s just one example of what conversations are going on nationally with tribes as we talk about this difficult chapter,” House said. “At the same time, as we talk about what’s going on (in Colorado) around the awareness and preservation of that history, the reconciliation efforts can and should strengthen the respect we have not only for Colorado, but for all our communities. This is part of our shared history, and I’m glad this effort is being done with the Ignacio boarding school.”

The Saving Places Conference, which began Wednesday, features dozens of roundtable discussions about historic preservation, and Colorado Preservation’s Most Endangered Places program counts 50 sites that have earned “saved” status, against only seven that have been lost. 

A view of the Southern Ute Boarding School campus outside of Ignacio around 1910 hints at its agricultural emphasis. The tribe is mulling if and how it will preserve a painful chapter in Colorado, and U.S., history. (Courtesy of the Southern Ute tribe)

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