Nearly 70 years after leaving the Stewart Indian School, where they met, Don and Sally Melendez returned to the campus for the first time Friday.
“We’re just looking around and getting homesick,” said Sally Melendez, 86. “This was my home. I’m glad to see they’ve preserved all this.”
The two were among dozens of visitors this week who observed the work of archaeologists at the former government-mandated boarding school for Native American children.
The University of Nevada, Reno’s Department of Anthropology collaborated with the Nevada Indian Commission and the Washoe Tribal Historic Preservation Office on the dig. Tribal officials and school alumni spoke with members of the crew, giving a history of the school, which was in operation from 1890 to 1980.
“People have very strong feelings about this place,” said Sarah Cowie, UNR assistant professor of anthropology who is directing the excavation. “We’re combining scientific methods with indigenous perspectives. The Native American students and staff with the project have so many insights I wouldn’t have thought of.”
Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, worked with the archaeologists and other tribal officials to determine where to excavate.
They concluded the best projects would be to find the location of the original school building, which was torn down around 1915, and the site of the swimming pool that was in front of the administration building from the 1920s to the 1940s.
“We do a lot of education to the public about the history of the school and its legacy,” said Rupert, whose office, among other state offices, is housed on the school’s 110 acres. “It’s important for us to know that information to share with the public. It just gives that much more authenticity to the experience.”
Using oral histories, old photographs and sensory equipment, archaeologists mapped out where the original school likely sat.
After nearly a month of digging, they have uncovered artifacts to support that conclusion.
Toy cars, marbles, jacks and pieces of pencils speak of the children who were the school’s earliest students. Remnants of bone reveal the kind of food they ate. Pieces of concrete and old nails show the material the school was made of and may help determine the exact years it was in operation.
“Nails are some of the best artifacts,” said Ashley Long, a field supervisor. “When you have these square-cut nails, they’re hand-cut and they’re much older. We can tell when people were constructing the buildings.”
Sally Melendez confirmed that the area archaeologists were digging to find the pool is where it was when she came to the school from Pyramid Lake in the early 1940s.
Rupert said the commission is considering erecting some monuments to recognize the old landmarks.
“We might possible install a memorial pool for all of the students who want to come and have an area to reflect and think about their time here,” she said.
Don Melendez, 85, who traveled from the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony to the Carson City school with his wife, said it’s easy to get lost in memories.
“This place still looks beautiful,” he said. “It’s exactly the way we left it.”
Rupert said not everyone has such happy memories of a school that, in its early years, children from across the country were compelled to attend. Students learned vocational skills in a military-like atmosphere and were forced to forsake their language, culture and religion in an attempt to assimilate them into mainstream society.
Later, the school shifted its focus to academics with a more progressive approach, and it became voluntary.
“In the early years, it wasn’t a great experience,” Rupert said. “They were mandated to come here by the federal government. Now, we have UNR bringing their students out here to study. It’s come full-circle.”
Cowie said that was part of the appeal of the project.
“We wanted to do a project that would be in service to native communities,” Cowie said. “We really want to let the public know what an important place this is not just in Nevada history, but national history.”
JoAnn Nevers, who attended the school in 1948, has come to the school from her home on the Carson Indian Colony several times to watch the dig.
“It means a lot to the people,” she said. “It’s a source of pride. A lot of people achieved many things, and they’re proud of going to school out here.”
As she watched antique toys and remnants of old school supplies being raised from the dirt, she said she felt a connection to her schoolmates who came before.
“It’s real,” she said. “It really happened. They were real people.”