Indian school may reopen as cultural center
For about 100 years, the Stewart Indian School trained American Indian children to live in the white man’s world.
Today, it is both hated and loved by its alumni. Some want to turn it into a museum to remember the good and the bad.
Patterned after the U.S. Army’s Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, the Stewart Indian School south of Carson City opened in 1890.
Non-reservation American Indian boarding schools originated with Capt. Richard Henry Pratt, who believed in “assimilation through total immersion.”
Pratt contended that slavery had assimilated blacks, and figured that non-reservation boarding schools could accomplish the same result for American Indians. In 1879, he got his chance to test his experiment when he founded the Carlisle school.
Pratt’s curriculum emphasized vocational training for boys and domestic science for girls in addition to reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Students were not allowed to speak their native language or practice their culture. In their early days, the schools were run like military camps.
Herman Toby, a Pyramid Lake Paiute, was sent to the school in 1926 when he was 9 years old.
“One of the things we had to do was wake up to bugle calls and we had roll calls for every occasion,” Toby said. “We had our own uniforms and we would drill just like soldiers.”
Toby had trouble with the English-only policy and ran away, but was caught and returned to the school where he was beaten. He later learned carpentry and never returned to the reservation.
There never seemed to be enough food to fuel the growing bodies of Indian students who also toiled in shops or fields as part of their training in the industrial and domestic arts. But there was less food on the reservation.
The children were taken forcibly to the school when they were young, and many never saw home again.
Butch Sampson is a Pyramid Lake Paiute whose grandfather, Dewey Sampson, was forced to attend the school in the early 1900s.
“This lady picked his brother up in a buckboard and took him over to Stewart,” Sampson said. “A few days later, my grandfather went looking for his brother at Stewart and asked them why he was carted of like that and they ended up taking him, too.”
Dewey Sampson later became a top athlete at the school. The Stewart Braves basketball team won several state championships over the years.
Today, the Stewart Indian School is largely vacant. The 50-acre campus closed it doors in 1980 after its funding was cut by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Now a group headed by the Nevada Indian Commission wants to reopen the school as an American Indian cultural center and museum.
Commission director Sherrada James, who attended Stewart Indian School, is heading a 28-member advisory committee drawn from each tribe and band in the state. She said the museum would fill an important void in the understanding of the school’s history.
“When people think about the Indian boarding schools, a lot of them aren’t aware of what happened there both good and bad,” James said. “A lot of the Indian people want to remember Stewart for what they learned there. Families grew up there.”
In some ways, James said the Stewart Indian School has been criticized unfairly. Students from tribes throughout the West attended the school. Imposing an English-only policy was the only way to get the students to communicate with each other, she said.
The school broke down prejudices between tribes and fostered intermarriage between tribal groups, she said.
James said her parents also attended the school. She said her experiences were radically different from her mother’s.
During the last decades of the school’s existence, a dramatic shift in philosophy took place and students were allowed to speak their own language and celebrate their cultural heritage.
Although a hated memory to many, others look back on their years at Stewart Indian School with a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude. Alumni from throughout the West regularly attend school reunions, James said.
It will take about $250,000 to refurbish the main building and more money to keep it staffed, she said. If the money can be found, James hopes to have the museum open in two years.
On the Net:
Nevada Dept. of Cultural Affairs: http://www.nevadaculture.org
Nevada State Museum: http://dmla.clan.lib.nv.us/docs/museums/cc/carson.htm
Nevada Indian Commission: http://indiancommissino.state.nv.us/