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Number of Indian boarding schools in Colorado grows as researchers continue investigation

Teller School, Grand Junction. History Colorado. Scan #10037147_300ppi.tif
History Colorado
The Teller Institute, formally known as the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School, operated from 1886 to 1911. It is among hundreds of schools across the nation that the U.S. government established to strip Native children of their culture and language and isolate them from their tribes.

Colorado was home to roughly 10 schools that assimilated Native students during the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to a new report by History Colorado.

The U.S. government established the schools to forcibly dismantle the cultural identities of young Native Americans. A Department of Interior investigation released earlier this year identified five schools in Colorado. Nationwide, there were more than 400 across 37 states.

Manual labor was central to school curricula and rules were often enforced “through punishment, including corporal punishment such as solitary confinement; flogging; withholding food; whipping; slapping; and cuffing,” the investigation reads. “The Federal Indian boarding school system at times made older Indian children punish younger Indian children.”

The devastating impacts these schools wrought on Native people are finally capturing more public attention.

In Colorado, uncovering the history of the schools and the abuses and deaths that occurred provides a window into the trauma Native people continue to face decades later, said state archeologist Holly Norton during a discussion hosted by Crow Canyon Archeological Center in October.

“It’s really heartbreaking to hear the stories from some of these folks, especially elders,” Norton said.

The Colorado legislature passed a law this year mandating researchers to study the schools here. HB22-1327 aims to raise awareness about the “physical and emotional abuse and deaths that occurred at federal Indian boarding schools in Colorado, including the victimization of families of youth forced to attend the boarding schools and the intergenerational impacts of the abuse.”

The law requires the state to work with and provide updates to the Southern Ute and the Ute Mountain Ute tribes, as well as others potentially affected.

Researchers must also consult with the tribes about how to move forward.

Norton said stakeholders are already engaging in conversations “about where we go as a community, as a society, and as overlapping communities in efforts at reconciliation and harm reduction — and trying to give space to people to heal.”

Her team is investigating schools across the state, from Denver and Golden to Colorado Springs. They plan to release additional reports next year as they work to confirm the number of schools in Colorado.

I am an investigative reporter on KUNC's investigative desk. I'm interested in our region's appetite for — and aversion to — equity, whether that's in housing, healthcare, education, politics or policy.