Stewart Indian School roommates return after 60 years
Reynelda French James and Helena Jones Melendez remember whispering in Paiute to each other in their room at night to avoid punishment for speaking in their native tongue at Stewart Indian School.
“They taught us not to speak our own language,” Helena remembered. “That was the hardest part. We didn’t know anything about English.”
More than 60 years later, the two were roommates once again in their old dormitory, this time slipping effortlessly between English and Paiute, and not caring who heard.
Both women, who went on to teach Paiute in Washoe County schools, were guest speakers during a workshop hosted by the Nevada Department of Education to create a statewide curriculum for teaching American Indian culture.
As part of the workshop, they stayed at the old boarding school, which closed in 1980.
The hallways of the dormitory were longer than they remembered and were now carpeted.
“We used to have hardwood floors,” Reynelda said. “Beautiful hardwood floors that we had to keep clean.”
Despite all the time and energy they put in to maintaining those floors, Reynelda said she wasn’t disappointed they hadn’t been preserved.
“Everything changes,” she said. “We expect change.”
Helena, now 78, attended all 12 years at the school, arriving in 1940 and graduating in 1952.
Reynelda, also 78, only spent three years there, from 1947-1950.
While both remember sadness and feeling homesick, they also have fond memories of their time at Stewart.
“When the Navajos came, they taught us to dance,” Reynelda said. “We would go into the fun room. They dance was jumping up and down. We had a lot of fun doing that.”
By the time they were there, they said, the school had softened from the harsh military style of the past, which included beatings as punishment.
“We didn’t experience what the students did before us,” Reynelda said. “I think it got better and better over the years.”
Still, they wore government-issue dress and had to maintain a strict schedule, along with a daily schedule of chores.
“We had to make our beds with those square corners,” Reynelda said. “Nowadays, sometimes I just take the end and tuck it in.”
During summer breaks and over the weekends, Helena remembers working as a maid in Carson City and once worked as a housekeeper in Lake Tahoe.
“It was too cold in Lake Tahoe,” she said. “I didn’t like working there. There was no sun.”
When she could, she would ride the V&T Railroad into Reno to visit family in Wadsworth.
After graduation, the women went their separate ways. Helena worked and raised her five children in the Reno area.
Reynelda stayed at home to raise her four children in Carson City.
Because of their time in Stewart, they took extra care with their own children.
“When you’re with your children all the time, you get to know them,” Helena said. “When we were here, we were all alone.”
Now, both women are back in their hometown of Wadsworth. They take turns buying breakfast for one another after church on Sundays.
That’s just how it is, they said, among the former students of the school.
“We remain friends,” Reynelda said. “Even though there’s distance, we’re like family.”