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Lead researcher of History Colorado report reveals new numbers of missing children from federal Indian boarding schools

A new report from History Colorado reveals a detailed history of atrocities at Fort Lewis boarding school.
History Colorado
A new report from History Colorado reveals a detailed history of atrocities at Fort Lewis boarding school.

The team that produced the study spent months reviewing the details of a disturbing history, and they did much of the research at national archives in Washington D.C. and Denver. As her team gathered information, they weren’t attempting to process it initially.

Dr. Holly Norton, Colorado’s State Archaeologist, led the boarding school study.

“In the archives, we would sit in this room, a bunch of us at a table. They would bring the documents, and open until close, we were scanning. We weren't even really reading except to identify what we were looking for.”

Ultimately, Dr. Norton and her team of 13 researchers read and reported extensively about the history of systemic abuse, negligence, and criminal behavior at federal Indian boarding schools in Colorado.

The entire subject matter is really emotional and really intense,” said Norton.

After a year of research, including a geophysical analysis of the Old Fort Lewis cemetery in Hesperus, Colorado, the team published a 120-page report. In addition to the broad histories of each school, the report shares stories of some of the individual students from these schools.

We would actually get some of the individual anecdotes from superintendents or from Indian agents who were writing back and forth to each other, or to Washington, DC,” said Norton.

One of those anecdotes is the story of Frank Taylor, a student who, at one point, was the only Ute child at the Fort Lewis boarding school.

“When Fort Lewis Indian boarding school first opened,” Norton said, “there was a lot of disease that hit the school really quickly, and it kind of devastated the student population. And so the Ute pulled all of their students out of Fort Lewis. One student, Frank, was identified as Ute, and he spent his life at that school.”

The Fort Lewis boarding school was located in Hesperus, CO.
History Colorado
The Fort Lewis boarding school was located in Hesperus, CO.

Dr. Norton’s team couldn’t determine from her research whether Frank Taylor had parents or not.

“They called him an orphan. But a lot of these orphans actually weren't. They had parents and family, but the government could designate them as orphans and make it easier for them to make decisions without having to consult with the parents or the tribe,” said Norton.

The team found some details of Frank’s story through a newspaper the school published. In the newspaper, they also learned that Frank’s story intersected with the story of another Native American child.

“A young girl, she must have only been three or four, she had wandered away from her family. Frank found her, and they brought her back to the school. They didn't try to find her parents; they didn't try to contact any adults. They cut her hair; they changed her clothes. They immediately enrolled her and adopted her into the school system. The father found her, collected her, and took her home. But I'm just imagining this very casual kidnapping and this idea that it was okay for people at the school to essentially abduct these children,” recounted Norton.

Frank Taylor and the young girl’s story is one of hundreds of stories of children who had contact with Colorado’s Indian boarding school system. While the report has a wide breadth and lots of detail, there are plenty of unanswered questions.

I don't think the research is over. We definitely need to continue those conversations with tribal nations, with community members, and with others impacted by this research and or by this history,” said Norton.

One question that remains unanswered is the location of the cemetery at the boarding school in Grand Junction. Dr. Norton says the team’s research found that 36 children had died while attending the Grand Junction boarding school. So far, the team has not determined whether those children were buried at the school site or returned to their families.

Clark Adomaitis is a shared radio reporter for KSUT in Ignacio, CO, and KSJD in Cortez, CO for the Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau project.