Stewart Indian School is alive this weekend with the sounds, smells and sights of the annual Father’s Day Powwow, featuring competition dancing, Native American arts and crafts, Indian tacos and drum groups.
But before the air filled with the melodic chimes of the jingle dancers and the feathered bounce of the fancy dance, the school served as an off-reservation boarding facility from 1890 through 1980.
Two former students, Billy Domingues and Aletha Tom, were honored during an alumni reception Thursday and will be recognized today at the powwow.
“I just had a birthday last month,” said Domingues, 80. “This is the best birthday present I ever got.”
Domingues was one of five children orphaned in Santa Rosa, Calif., when both their parents died within a year of each other. Domingues, then 3, and his siblings all had tuberculosis, so families were reluctant to take them in.
A nurse, Eva Mary Williams, agreed to take the siblings and cared for them for five years. When she had to go back to work, the children became wards of the state and were sent to Stewart Indian School, where Domingues would live — never leaving during breaks or holidays — for the next nine years until he graduated in 1952.
Tom, 66, was 12 when her parents sent her to the school from the Moapa Paiute Indian Reservation, where she was raised.
“It was hard,” she said. “I didn’t know what to expect. When you grow up on a reservation, you don’t know about people off the reservation. I didn’t even know there were other tribes. I found out there were so many — Navajos, Apache, Hopi. I just couldn’t believe it.”
Although Tom said she cried every day out of homesickness her first few weeks, she later saw the opportunities the school presented.
“When I went to public school, I envied the white girls who were on the drill team and cheerleaders,” she said. “When I came to the Indian school, I tried out for every one of them.”
She was on the drill team her first year and a majorette after that, marching in the Nevada Day Parade every year until she graduated in 1965.
She returned in 2009 for a Stewart Indian School Alumni float and has been back every year since.
Domingues, who learned the trades of plumbing and electrician at the school, said the militaristic style there prepared him for his four-year tour of duty in the Navy.
After he was discharged, he decided to use his G.I. Bill to go to college. His sister wrote and invited him to come visit her where she was living, in Yosemite.
“I had two weeks to goof around before the first semester, so I did,” he said. “I never left until 1990.”
He got a job working for the National Parks Service, first temporarily and then as a permanent plumber. After 34 years, he retired.
He knows there are mixed feelings among the alumni about Stewart Indian School, which began as a place where Indian children were forced to go as a government-sponsored program to assimilate them into white culture. Although it became voluntary over the years, some former students remember it as a harsh and lonely environment.
Domingues, a Coast Miwok who now lives on the Paiute reservation in Yerington, is grateful for his time at Stewart and the skills he learned there.
“I’m retired, and I get a good pension,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Both Tom and Domingues regularly return for the annual Father’s Day Powwow to reconnect with classmates.
“All my life, since I was 10 years old ’til I’m 80 now, I still keep in touch,” Domingues said.
Sherry Rupert, director of the Nevada Indian Commission, said the powwow is one of the most popular in the state.
“Everybody loves to come out here because of the history of the school and all of the grass,” she said. “It’s just a nice setting. It’s unlike any Indian boarding school in the nation.”
Tom said it is a place that should not be forgotten.
“It still matters because to me it was home,” she said. “It taught me a great deal of who I am, who I represent and how I should live my life.”