Indigenous college faculty and students lead the removal of racist panels in Colorado

A former Native boarding school turned liberal arts college in Durango reckons with its ugly history.


Destiny Morgan (Diné), Fort Lewis College’s Hozhoni First Attendant, chats with Professor Joslynn Lee (Navajo Nation, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo) prior to a ceremony to remove racist panels from the Fort Lewis College campus.
Benjamin Brashear/Fort Lewis College

The sun shone brightly, drums beat rhythmically and a hint of sweetgrass lingered in the air on a warm September morning at Fort Lewis College, a small liberal arts institution in Durango, Colorado. That day, a thousand or so community members and officials gathered to hold a ceremony for the removal of a set of controversial panels. The panels, which were installed on the college’s clock tower in the early 2000s, inaccurately depicted the institution’s long-obscured history: For two decades, Fort Lewis was used as a federal Indian boarding school. At the time, proponents promoted boarding schools as the best way to “eliminate the Native” and “civilize” Indigenous peoples.

In the late 19th century, Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced into a Westernized schooling system, where they were forbidden to speak their Native language and punished for simply being Indigenous. Fort Lewis operated as a boarding school from 1891 until 1910, at which point it became a state college. The panel-removal process began in earnest in 2019, led by an alumna and current faculty member, Joslynn Lee. Lee (Navajo Nation, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna Pueblo) recalls being bothered by them when she was a student at Fort Lewis. Later, when she returned as a chemistry professor, she brought her concerns to the administration. 

A committee was formed, Lee included, and the September ceremony marked the culmination of its efforts to begin the process of reconciliation. “The healing and the acknowledgment of what happened at boarding schools like Fort Lewis is an important part of that process, which is ongoing, continual and central for us as we look to the future honestly and authentically,” said Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritikus. 

Recently, Tiara Yazzie spoke with Lee for High Country News about the removal and its significance for Indigenous students and community in Durango, the Four Corners and beyond. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity

A thousand or so community members and officials gathered at the clock tower for the ceremony.
Benjamin Brashear/Fort Lewis College
TY: You joined Fort Lewis College’s faculty in 2019, joining the ranks of a growing number of Indigenous faculty on campus. When did the inaccuracy of the panels catch your attention and what specifically motivated you to do something?

JL: Being an Indigenous scientist, I’ve had to explain the history of Indigenous peoples throughout my entire career, because it’s not accurately taught in all your history education books. In every space I’ve been in — whether it’s in my grad school department, different jobs I had in different universities or previous places — just the knowledge of why we should be aware of these boarding school histories was one thing I’ve been exhausted trying to teach people. Something that they should have learned in regular school.

Both sides of my grandparents went to boarding schools, and I have, throughout my life, consistently talked about it. It felt incongruent to work for a place that didn’t want to talk about it. My motivation was very personal, but I was also thinking about the greater community message. I wanted to make an institutional change as a part of this faculty, because I don’t want students who have a similar experience to have to deal with this. It’s a lot to carry. 

When I came to Fort Lewis, I brought up the clock tower panels and how I didn’t enjoy seeing them as a student. The boarding school history and the white-washed version of those depictions  were recurring topics then, in 2006, but the panels were still there in 2019. I talked to (Fort Lewis College) President Tom Stritikus, after having come back as an alum, about what can make our campus more inclusive.

TY: I’m a transfer student and a member of the Navajo Nation. When I saw the panel removal, I thought it was powerful to see Fort Lewis acknowledge the inaccurate depiction of its history. As a professor and someone who is an advocate for our Native youth, what do you think is the broader significance on Native students and other Indigenous people in the Four Corners?

“We don’t have to put the blame on those whose ancestors did the original harm, but I think the more we know, we can make better decisions on how we want to treat other people.”

JL: I grew up in the border town of Farmington, New Mexico, and I’ve dealt with a lot of microaggressions and racism. When I think about a community that I want to feel safe in, I think of just having the community be aware. We don’t have to put the blame on those whose ancestors did the original harm, but I think the more we know, we can make better decisions on how we want to treat other people. We can set an example here within our college community; we can talk about this. I hope that cascades into others as they have to make their own choices. In the Durango community, that racial divide still comes up — and not just with Indigenous populations, but other people of color.

I’m hoping that folks in Durango see Fort Lewis doing this and will begin to incorporate other things within the city — whether it’s a website, or educating tourists — to be more aware of the people who were here before and who still inhabit this land, and to recognize and celebrate the diversity of our community.

LeManuel “Lee” Bitsóí (Diné), associate vice president for Diversity Affairs and special advisor to the president for Indigenous Affairs, removes the racist panels.
Benjamin Brashear/Fort Lewis College

TY: How does this moment in Durango, a border town community and a former boarding school, fit into the broader national and international reckoning of colonization of Native lands?

JL: This work started in 2019, and this past summer, with the Kamloops Boarding School history in our Northern neighboring country of Canada earning more attention, that discussion has sort of blown out. I’m happy that we started our panel-removal process before that news broke, but it’s also pushed Fort Lewis to search for mass burial sites as well. There are many chapters of this history that, when our committee came together, we had to think about. One is land and how it was stolen or given up. Then reservations were created. There was a whole loss of connection to the land that disrupted many communities of this area. Here in southwestern Colorado, we have our wilderness that is pristine, and many people take care of it. We’re fortunate that a lot of community members care for it, but there should be some reconciliation and discussion of how land can unite and heal.

TY: This is one small step toward healing. What needs to happen next — at Fort Lewis in particular — but also in other communities that are engaged with righting the course of history? 

JL: I always tell folks reconciliation is going to be different for every individual. We have all levels of trauma that we have to balance. For me, what I would envision with Fort Lewis is thinking about reaching Indigenous alumni and getting insight from them, and supporting current students (as they) navigate these questions. As we head in our Fort Lewis History Committee, we also had listening sessions and heard from students, faculty and staff members. The major starting point was: Let’s go with the panels and then think of not just physical space on campus, but on the internet. How do we word things? This is going to be a multistep process, getting input not just from our college community but also the Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, the Jicarilla Apache, and just seeing who was affected and what they would want, because we can’t just do one thing and expect it to help everybody who is affected. What are some pockets that we can continue to be open-minded about and grow?

“I always tell folks reconciliation is going to be different for every individual.”

The panels were a good start, because that is a part of the white-washing that occurred, and we can step away from that. But what do we then educate people on, with regard to that panel? What replaces that? I want input from the community. Could an art exhibit that’s permanent on our campus take that space? Or something like a healing garden specifically dedicated to our history? There’s so much that needs to be done in the central places on campus, but we’re also thinking about how to become more inclusive in the classroom. There’s probably no ending to this, and I hope that it’s a continuous conversation.

Skyhawk Nation Drum Group perform following the removal of the panels. Noah Shadlow, right, a member of the Osage Nation and a senior at Fort Lewis College majoring in educational studies, leads the group.
Benjamin Brashear/Fort Lewis College

Tiara Yazzie is a journalism student at Fort Lewis College. She writes from Durango, Colorado.

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