Carson City’s Stewart Indian School inches toward becoming cultural center
Since the 1980s, many have dreamed of one day turning some portion of the former Stewart Indian School site in Carson City into some kind of native American cultural center.
Despite a couple of previous attempts and false starts, it appears those plans will finally become a reality later this year or early next year when work is completed on restoration of the school’s former administration building into a museum and cultural center.
The project, more than 20 years in the making, is the result of a $5.7 million state appropriation and, along with some other restoration of buildings on the school site, represents the first phase of the Stewart Indian School Living Legacy.
Walking the green, shaded grounds of the former school, it’s difficult not to think about the irony that such a beautiful setting was once associated with a particularly ugly American public policy.
Stewart was founded in 1890 to educate native American children in the customs and culture of the majority white America. As the National Park Service noted in a website description of the school, “children from Nevada and throughout the West were forced to attend the Stewart Institute up to secondary school age.
“The school was intended to teach basic trades and to assimilate young American Indians into mainstream American culture. Assimilation policies such as prohibition of speaking native languages and practicing native customs anguished both students and their parents.”
As a result, the early history of Stewart is one involving forcing native American children to give up their culture and heritage.
The creation of the Stewart Indian School can be traced to the 1880s when Nevada’s superintendent of public instruction, C.S. Young, recommended to the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Nevada State Legislature that an Indian industrial school be established because most of the state’s native Americans were not being formally educated.
The Nevada State Legislature passed legislation in 1887 that established an Indian school and authorized the issuing of bonds for the facility, provided the federal government agreed to operate the school.
Nevada’s U.S. Sen. William Stewart guided the appropriate federal legislation to approval, including congressional funding, and the Clear Creek Indian Training School, as it was originally known, was built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs on 240 acres on Snyder Avenue south of Carson City.
Later, the school was named for Sen. Stewart (it was called a number of names over the years, including the Carson Indian School, the Stewart Institute and, finally, the Stewart Indian School) and officially opened on December 17, 1890.
Records indicate that on opening day, the school had a superintendent (W. D. C. Gibson), three teachers and 37 students from the Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone tribes. Within a month, additional students were added, bringing the co-educational enrollment to 91 by Jan. 1, 1891.
The school was operated much like a strict military school in its first decades. Historic photos show that students wore military-style uniforms. Academic classes consumed about half of each day, followed by vocational training in such skills as sewing, shoe and harness making, blacksmithing, carpentry, printing and other work.
In 1934, the federal government changed its policy regarding the school from forced assimilation to one more tolerant of tribal languages and customs. In later decades, the Bureau of Indian Affairs encouraged the speaking of native tongues and the celebration of native cultures.
Almost from the school’s beginning, athletics were a popular aspect of the campus. While relatively small in size, the school managed to win several state championships, including a 1916 state football title, seven consecutive state “AA” cross country championships in the 1970s and the 1966 state “A” basketball championship.
Over the years, the school’s band, organized in 1896, performed at parades and events throughout the state and in competitions, including a National Music Festival in Long Beach, Calif., in 1940.
The school was also responsible for producing Nevada’s first native American newspaper, “The Indian Advance,” which was published in 1899.
In addition to educating Nevada’s native Americans (who were actually a minority of those who attended the school), the Stewart facility housed native Americans from throughout the country including children of the Hopi, Apache, Pima, Mohave, Ute and Tewa tribes.
In fact, in the late 1940s, the school became part of a special program for Navajos and by the mid-’50s, most of the students were of Navajo descent.
The school was finally closed in 1980, when the federal government decided to phase out Indian boarding schools. The land was sold to the state of Nevada, which restored several of the buildings for various state offices.
Visiting the campus, the first thing you notice about the dozens of buildings scattered about the campus is their unique architecture. Built with walls of rough-cut, multi-colored native stones quarried from the Carson River, which are imbedded in dark mortar, the buildings have a kind of “homemade” feel.
According to historical reports, the so-called “Stewart Indian School” architecture was a style borrowed in the early 1920s by then-superintendent Frederick Snyder, who had admired a church of similar design in Arizona.
The first building of this design was the former Administrative Building, which was completed in 1923. Eventually more than 100 buildings utilizing the stone architecture were constructed on the school grounds, most built by stonemasons trained at the school.
Today, visitors can explore or picnic on the school grounds, which are open to the public.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.