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Once a boarding school, a college now aims to reclaim education for Native people

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The federal government is investigating the more than 400 Native American boarding schools that once operated in the U.S. And as that investigation continues, some Indigenous people are pushing to reclaim a system that once persecuted them. Boarding schools used education as a weapon to assimilate Native people in a strategy historians have called cultural genocide. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg reports.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: Joslynn Lee's first experience of science was as a little girl on the Navajo Nation.

JOSLYNN LEE: And it was really with my grandma, my nelly. She helped me look at different plants, and this was when we were herding goats.

SIEG: She would eventually fall in love with chemistry. Lee now teaches it here at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

LEE: This is - here, I think I had amino acids. So these are...

SIEG: She rifles through a box of blocks students used to construct models of molecules. Lee is the department's first-ever Native professor at a school where almost half of undergraduates are Indigenous. In 1911, Colorado began offering Native people free tuition at Fort Lewis as part of an agreement with the federal government, which had forced Native people from these lands years before. Sometimes in lab, Lee will hear students teasing each other in Dine, her native language. She encourages that.

LEE: Just, like, welcome that that's a safe space for them to be able to use some of their vocabulary from their own Indigenous language, to then be able to be themselves in lab.

SIEG: Native students used to be beaten for speaking their language at some boarding schools. Fort Lewis operated as a boarding school from 1891 to 1910 and became a college in the 1930s. When Lee was an undergrad here, she'd walk past historical markers that whitewashed the school's history, describing it as a place where Native people, quote, "developed excellent skills." She was shocked to find these were still up on a clocktower in the heart of campus when she returned to teach a few years ago.

LEE: I was thinking of how I would feel as a student seeing these images and what they depicted, and I don't want another student to see that.

SIEG: The administration ultimately agreed. After Lee wrote the college's president and the school held more than a year of listening sessions, the markers were removed. But the history of Native American boarding schools still hangs over the U.S. education system. Fort Lewis' Majel Boxer says one of her grandfathers actually escaped from one of those schools in Montana.

MAJEL BOXER: Just as a family, we're proud of him (laughter). You know, like, we're glad that he had that spirit that he didn't want to stay at boarding school, and so he left.

SIEG: But Boxer, associate professor of Native American and Indigenous studies, knows most Native children were not that lucky. And likely all of her Native students are descendants of boarding school survivors. She says in order for them to succeed, they need to feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to college.

BOXER: Where they don't feel like they have to live in two worlds the way former boarding school students had to do.

SIEG: Boxer is an enrolled citizen of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and says teaching helped inspire her to start sewing traditional ribbon skirts with layers of colorful ribbons stretching around them. She wears one every day to class.

BOXER: I do think that that matters, and it helps our students be more comfortable. If a professor's wearing her ribbon skirt as part of her daily wear, then why couldn't they?

SIEG: And she is starting to see more students wearing their ribbon skirts. Despite Fort Lewis' large Indigenous enrollment, only about 6% of the faculty are Native. But Boxer says they're working to Indigenize instruction here, from drawing on their students' own Native knowledge to allowing them more absences to go home for ceremonies and family matters.

BOXER: Today, as contemporary Native peoples, we need to see education not through that adversarial lens but to see education as a tool. And the tool is for our own goals.

SIEG: And every student I speak with at Fort Lewis has the same goal - to return home to help their community.

(SOUNDBITE OF LASSO SQUEAKING)

SIEG: Justin Dash is twirling a lasso in the parking lot and practicing roping a plastic, bright orange steer.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLASTIC CLATTERING)

JUSTIN DASH: There.

SIEG: Dash, who says he learned to ride a horse before he could walk, started the school's rodeo club. He's studying to be a physical therapist and dreams of returning to his hometown on the Navajo reservation, Tuba City, Ariz.

DASH: Recently, we had our Navajo Nation fair, and there was only two EMTs parked there - lots of injuries with the bull riding and all that. So I'd love to go back and help with all of that.

SIEG: He says money is one of the biggest things keeping Indigenous people from a degree.

DASH: I've seen people grow up in shacks, sheds, broken-down trailers.

SIEG: And some of his friends who did make it to college had to drop out to help their families. He thinks that maybe more scholarships will help dismantle the mentality he felt surrounded by growing up.

DASH: Oh, I grew up poor, then I'ma (ph) be poor. My family didn't go to college, so I'm not going to college.

SIEG: Dash is a first-generation college student and says he feels blessed his parents can help pay his way. But Byron Tsabetsaye, director of the Fort Lewis Student Involvement Center, knows many young Native people don't have that support. In addition to Fort Lewis, a growing number of universities are now offering tuition waivers to Native students. But Tsabetsaye says that's only part of the equation.

BYRON TSABETSAYE: To provide the cultural sustenance that Indigenous students need in higher education, in college is another thing.

SIEG: The first in his family to graduate college, he did not feel prepared for college growing up on the Navajo Nation. Tsabetsaye says universities need to reach out to prospective Native students more, and once they're on campus, they need to be supported and embraced for who they are.

TSABETSAYE: If you're going to make a commitment to serving Indigenous students, it doesn't stop at enrollment.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD SQUAWKING)

SIEG: And it takes acknowledging the painful past at places like the Fort Lewis Indian School, which eventually grew into Fort Lewis College. Its original buildings still stand on about 6,000 lonely acres outside of Durango. In warmer months, classes are held here, and produce is harvested. As Heather Shotton, Fort Lewis' vice president of diversity affairs, steps onto the snowy grounds, she feels a sadness for what happened here but not just that.

HEATHER SHOTTON: With many of our programs and with our college today, I feel a sense of hope in the reclamation that I see happening.

SIEG: Reclamation of an educational system that once tried to erase the identity of an entire people, including Shotton's people. She's a citizen of the Wichita and affiliated tribes and a Kiowa and Cheyenne descendant. Her aunts, uncle and grandparents were boarding school survivors.

SHOTTON: I think about them all the time.

SIEG: They give her strength as she works within higher education to heal the past and look toward the future, a process that she says may never be finished. For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Hesperus, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stina Sieg