CARSON CITY, Nev. — A strong wind bullied through the Carson Valley in Nevada last weekend. It whistled and pushed itself through the trees, which isn’t too difficult since you can see a lone tree from 10 miles away.
Sand, dirt and knee-deep brushy stuff is the norm in this high desert 30 minutes east of Lake Tahoe.
However, that terrain changes as you turn into the parking lot of the historic Stewart Indian School, situated on 240 acres on the Stewart Indian Colony (reservation) three miles southeast of Carson City on Snyder Avenue. The central part of the large campus – operational from 1890 to 1980 – is a treed oasis, punctuated by the unique stone masonry that makes up most of the buildings. About 60 stone buildings, according to Nevada Indian Commission information, were built over a 16-year period starting in 1919 by students learning stone masonry from their teachers, who included Hopi stone masons.
The government-mandated school’s original goal was to train and education Native American children and assimilate them into white society. School curriculum offered some reading, writing and math, but focused on vocational training in the trades such as agriculture and the service industry. It opened with 37 students from the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes and by 1919, 400 students called the school home during the school year. As the student population rose, more buildings were built.
Sherry Rupert, the executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission, created the Stewart Indian School Trail in September 2008 with several purposes, she said.
“First is to preserve those precious memories and oral histories of the school,” she said. “Second is to bring awareness to this widely unknown history of the Native American boarding schools.”
Rupert rethought her sentence and added, “unknown to the public.”
The history of the boarding school is well-known among the American Indian population. First as a negative institution and then one that turned into more of a family tradition.
“The original intent was to remove (children) from families and tribes,” she said.
There were no familiar or tribal influences at the school, and it immersed children in a new culture, she said.
The focus of the school began to change in the 1930s with the change in federal American Indian laws. It became more of a high school focused on academics, not so much vocations, in its later years, Rupert said.
“It was no longer mandatory, but many still sent their children. It became somewhat of a tradition,” she said. “It really kind of came full circle.”
The irony of trying to preserve something that was originally federally mandated to eradicate Native American culture is not lost on Rupert. But, she said, the hope is to preserve the history, promote the language and the culture. Plans are in place for an Indian Cultural Center to be located in the school’s administration building that will promote Native American culture
“It’s going to be everything now that it originally was not intended to do,” she said.
The tour starts near the administrative building and offers a self-guided audio tour by using a cell phone and dialing 775-546-1460. Individual trail maps are located at the kiosk and numbers indicate the buildings included in the estimated 45-minute tour. The building tour numbers are punched into a cellphone to hear podcasts from former students and teachers reliving some memories of their time at the school.
Podcasters include Aletha Tom, who came to the school in 1959 as a 12-year-old from the Moapa Indian Reservation. She tells about life in the “Small Girls Dorm” – and fondly remembers, via the podcast, sneaking food into the dormitory. Tom’s tenure at the school was not forced, she said.
“I was asked by my mother,” she said. “I thank her because it showed me responsibility, respect and who I really am, an Indian.”
Daisy Smith was 6 when she arrived at Stewart in 1939 after her siblings. Via podcast she shares her memories of “pageants, plays, shows and motion pictures on the weekends” in the auditorium.
Dozens of other stone and wooden buildings, not included on the tour, hide copious amounts of history, allowing an active imagination to take guesses as to what the boarded-up buildings were used for way back when.
The Stewart Indian School website – www.stewartindianschool.com – offers the same trail map and podcasts, along with a variety of photos and history. But Rupert recommends a visit in person.
“I want to encourage everyone to come out and get a feel for the campus,” she said. “You can get online and listen to the podcast, but you’re not going to get the full experience until you come out here.”
The campus is located at 5500 Snyder Ave., which is easily found off of Highway 395 in Carson City.
Reach Susan Winlow at 427-6955 or [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/swinlowdr.