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Research into Colorado’s Indian boarding school history to continue under new law

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Sara Wilson

(Colorado Newsline) Colorado will continue its research into the history and legacy of boarding schools in the state where Native American children were forcibly sent in order to sever ties with their culture and assimilate to the government’s standard.

Governor Jared Polis signed House Bill 24-1444 into law on Thursday at the Denver Indian Center, surrounded by boarding school survivors and their descendants. The bill revives the state’s Federal Indian Boarding School Research Program until the end of 2027 and appropriates $1 million for the continued work.

PROMO Politician - Colorado Governor Jared Polis

Colorado Governor Jared Polis

“Today was not really a celebration, but it’s more of a recognition of looking at what happened in the past,” said Rick Waters, the executive director of the Denver Indian Center. “If we don’t understand the history, we’re likely to repeat it.”

Waters, like many present on Thursday, is a descendant of boarding school survivors. Both of his parents were sent to schools in Oklahoma.

There were more than 500 of these boarding schools across the country in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition. That includes at least nine federally-supported schools in Colorado between 1880 and 1920.

HB-1444 bill was sponsored by Representative Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat, Representative Leslie Herod, a Denver Democrat, Senator Jeff Bridges, a Denver Democrat, and Senator Cleave Simpson, an Alamosa Republican. It had wide bipartisan support in both chambers.

Colorado’s Legislature first created the program through 2022 legislation. That work resulted in an August 2023 reportfrom History Colorado that aimed to document the impacts of federally-run schools within state boundaries, with an emphasis on the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School in Durango. These schools regularly committed abusive acts to its charges including cutting students’ hair, renaming them and punishing them for speaking their tribal language. The report identified at least 65 children who died at the Fort Lewis school in Durango and one in Grand Junction.

“That report alone was never meant to be the end all of all boarding school research. It was really a starting point and the initial effort would help launch our efforts to provide a true understanding of the work that needs to be done,” Polis said ahead of the bill signing.

“Until we are fully honest and understand the complete history and impact that these boarding schools have had on the most senior continuous inhabitants of the state of Colorado, we cannot move forward in a way that honors all the children that were lost or impacted and the families that were torn apart,” he added.

The bill directs researchers to collect confidential oral histories of survivors and conduct tribal consultations and listening sessions with Native American communities in the state. Additionally, researchers are tasked with giving recommendations to the Legislature, Department of Education and Department of Human Services to address the ongoing, intergenerational impact of the boarding schools.

Those preliminary recommendations are due in November 2025.

The bill also creates a new 14-member steering committee to advise History Colorado on its work. That committee will include a representative from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe, members of other tribal nations who had children enrolled in a Colorado boarding school at one point, survivors of boarding schools and their descendants and a Native American person in the cultural resource management field, among others.

The committee was added through an amendment in its House committee hearing.

“As we do the research and learn more about what happened, apologies are not enough,” Herod said. “It is time for continued action, acknowledgement and repair. It was said to be assimilation, but quite frankly what it was was annihilation.”

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