The Stewart Indian School’s story is too large to tell, but over time many have tried. It’s generally agreed that early on it and other schools like it were focused on the assimilation of Native American children into the larger American culture. Over its 90 year history 30,000 native American children attended Stewart.
Changes occurred in 1919 when a new superintendent arrived. By then the school had been opened for 19 years. At first families did not like Stewart. It was initially called the Carson Indian School and the children attending it were punished for speaking their native languages. Now Native Americans are being encouraged to speak their tribal language, but these early children generally lost touch with their native culture. By 1919 architect Frederich Snyder was superintendent. By the 1930s many students willingly attended this school. However, four decades into its existence, Stewart students still spent the first half of their day learning job skills and the 2nd half learning English and focused on academics like math.
Earlier than this, many students were forced to attend, and parents were not allowed to visit them. In some cases natives tried to hide their children or move to where their offspring could not be kidnapped. The museum now in Stewart is honest about the early years when some students were taken by force from Paiute, Washoe, and Western Shoshone communities. Sadly, when parents were able to locate their kidnapped children, they often tried to visit them and were only able to wave to them from a hill near the campus since no direct contact was allowed. Early dorms were cold. The school was full of children who were forced to attend. Students wore military style uniforms, and many ran away.
The Stewart School became less strict by the 1930s and many students willingly attended it. A timeline in the museum helps visitors understand Stewart’s complex history. I learned from it that in the 1930s Stewart won boxing titles and noted athlete Jim Thorpe visited. Many Indian families by this era were actually sending their children to Stewart voluntarily because native traditions were being honored. Former students were becoming teachers at Stewart, and many employees lived on the campus. Nevertheless, the atmosphere was still mostly militaristic.
Progressive changes continued to be implemented until Stewart officially closed in 1980. By then the prevailing attitude seems to have been, “This is our home.” By then more than 200 tribes had been represented in the student body. The trail brochure that guests are given before taking a detailed campus walk after visiting the Reception Center and its museum states, “Vocational training remained the school’s principle focus until a shift to academics occurred in the late 1960s.” The school’s closing was attributed to federal budget cuts and safety issues having to do with the still in use masonry buildings.
Now those who recognize Stewart’s past importance are trying to attract visitors to this historic campus to see the museum and take a cell phone assisted campus stroll. I hope those who visit Carson City, NV will show up to do this. There are still 65 buildings created by Hopi stonemasons to see on Stewart’s 110 acres.