Stewart Indian School leaves behind a complicated history 

Five or six years ago, I took a night class on Wašiw [Washoe] language and culture offered through Western Nevada College in Douglas County. During that time, I learned the story of the probable-penguin who kept pine nuts in his pouch and threw them across the hills leading to the pine forests throughout the region. I learned about Ong, the giant reptilian bird who lived in a spire in the middle of Lake Tahoe and would snatch unsuspecting people from the shores to devour. I also learned that the Wašiw language was dying.

During the weeks I spent in class, I attempted to learn parts of the language, at which point I discovered that there were only a handful of people (really–I mean single digits) in the world who were still fluent in Wašiw. Since that time, some of those elders have passed, bringing that number down even further. 

While there are many factors as to why a language dies, none are so blatant as the attempted forced assimilation of native children at hundreds of so-called boarding schools across the U.S. and Canada, such as the Stewart Indian School in Carson City.

Stewart Indian School students helped to construct the historical stone buildings preserved on the campus – image: Kelsey Penrose

However, the school, which has now become a Museum and Cultural Center managed by the tribe, leaves a complicated legacy. While there are alumni who look at the school as an internment camp, their teachers and administrators no better than kidnappers, there are still other alumni who recall their time at the school fondly and are proud to have attended the school that taught them a valuable trade, fed them when they were hungry, and offered an alternative from growing up on reservations throughout the western United States.

Tribal members celebrate their culture with the annual Powwow on the Stewart Indian School campus which at one point banned students from speaking in their native tongues – image: Kelsey Penrose

On June 18, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held for the Carson City-based museum, which was attended by several members of the school’s alumni, some of whom drove thousands of miles to take part in the commemoration. 

The Stewart Indian School was founded in 1890, during a time when many similar institutions were cropping up across the U.S. In the beginning, children were taken from their parents, many involuntarily, and were forced to cut their hair, trade in their traditional attire, and were forbidden to speak their native languages in the name of assimilation. Many of the beautiful historic buildings, famous for their notable masonry work using native stone, were constructed by the students as an unpaid workforce during the school’s inception. 

During my time in the Wašiw language and culture course, an elder of the tribe came and spoke to our class about his experience with the school. He told us that, when he was young, he and the other children were always on the lookout for the “black vans” that would come and snatch children from the streets. It sounded like a spooky story meant to be told at summer camps to scare children, except in this case, the boogeyman was all too real, and he was paid by the U.S. Federal Government. One day, while walking home from fishing at the river, the elder saw one such black van pulled up beside him and he was taken away. He didn’t tell us much more about what happened after, other than his hair was cut and for many years he was forbidden from speaking his native language, or else he and the other children would be beaten. 

Aletha Thom was taken to the school involuntarily at the age of 12 – Image: Kelsey Penrose

During the ribbon-cutting, alumni Aletha Thom of the Southern Paiute Tribe, class of 1965 from the Stewart Indian School, spoke about her time within the school. 

“I was 12 years old when I first arrived. Carson was not what it was today – there was nothing beyond the main street, all sagebrush. It was very scary my first night at the little girls’ dormitory. The first thing that they told me was to go to the shower–they called it the lavatory. I was an Indian little girl from Moapa, not knowing what a lavatory is. My first word I learned here at the school was lavatory. I went there, as [the matron] had me remove my clothing, check my hair for lice, and my body for any sores. And she handed me government soap, government towels, government shampoo, and government brush, although I had my own.

After I cleaned up I went to the administrative office of the little girl’s dormitory, and they gave me a number. My number was number 2. I still remember that number.” 

Tribal members celebrate their culture with the annual Powwow on the Stewart Indian School campus which at one point banned students from speaking in their native tongues – image: Kelsey Penrose

Aletha had to number all of her clothing and possessions with her number – not her name. 

In her new home, Aletha found bunk beds lining the room from end to end. The school was mostly empty, as Aletha was one of the first students to arrive. 

“My room and my bed were so far away, we were scattered. I had never had sheets in my life. They were cold. I missed my home, I missed my mother, I missed my family.”

There are many elders from Moapa still alive today that remember coming to the school, Aletha said.

“This is only my story. There are many stories that others have. It was a scary place for a young child not knowing where she was going. When my mother told me that I was going to come here, I didn’t have no clue what this place was all about. She told me it was a beautiful place, it had a lot of grass and trees and the buildings were made out of rocks. She made it sound so pretty that I wanted to come but I didn’t want to come here. She was one of those that had no choice. But I learned to live here. I learned to accept it, because there was no other way. I had no other choice. If I tried to run away, I would not know which way was south, north, west…So I accepted this place.”

Aletha graduated from the school in 1965.

“This place is a place that a lot of us will always remember.”

Minden siren – image: Matt Johanson

In the beginnings of white settlement across the west, forced assimilation was not to bring indigenous peoples into society. In fact, in what are called “sundown towns,” most native peoples had to be off the streets or even out of the towns entirely that were inhabited by white settlers or risk arrest – or worse. Minden, Nevada is one such sundown town that, according to Wašiw members, had a siren that sounded at 6 p.m. which meant all indigenous and people of color had to leave town. 

While in 2007 the town of Minden passed an ordinance stating the siren was “intended to show respect for volunteer firefighters,” tribe members who remembered the original sundown ordinance forcing non-white residents out of the streets, weren’t impressed or convinced. 

Last year, Gov. Steve Sisolak, on the grounds of the Stewart Indian School, signed into law a number of bills regarding Native Americans, one of which outlawed sundown sirens throughout the state. Minden fought back, stating the siren was a part of the town’s culture and history and was not intended to be racist, and, after a short-lived skirmish, it was agreed the siren would sound at 5 p.m. instead of 6 p.m.

The fact that laws were voted into existence and enforced to keep non-whites off the streets goes to show that, while the Stewart Indian School and other institutions like it were based on forced assimilation into white culture, it wasn’t to welcome students into society with open arms, but rather to create a servant class for white settlers, while also working to destroy native culture. By not allowing students to speak their native languages, wear traditional clothing, or even in some cases, have any contact with families, it severed many avenues of culture which affected multiple generations.

Alumni of the Stewart Indian School, June 18, 2022- image: Kelsey Penrose

However, for many of the students, the history of Stewart is not so black and white. As the school grew and time went on, new trades were brought into the curriculum and new opportunities were granted to students. In the early 1920s, School Superintendent Frederick Snyder brought Hopi stonemasons from Arizona and taught the students to become stonemasons. The students built all 65 stone buildings on the campus, as well as the historic Thunderbird Lodge at Lake Tahoe, along with many other buildings within the region. The first building they constructed, which was the administrative building, is now the building the museum calls home. 

While Aletha Thom had no choice but to attend the school, others she met had very different experiences. 

“While there were people like me, people who had no choice, this place also represents people that chose to come here because times had changed. So they had a choice.”

Aletha Thom cuts the ribbon for the Stewart Indian School Museum and Visitor Center – image: Kelsey Penrose

Aletha told a story of a year during which the alumni had a barbecue at the school. She met a woman who had graduated around 1975. Her experience at the school was very different from Aletha’s. 

“I asked her, ‘Did you like it here?’ She said ‘I loved it here.’ I’d never heard anyone say they’d loved it before. I wondered, why did she love it? She said, ‘Well, I had three meals a day. I got to sleep in my own bed. I had my own dresser, my own everything here, and I even made friends. Because at home, I didn’t have that. Me and my siblings had to sleep on the floor. We didn’t have any food, because my mom and my dad were alcoholics. They spent all our money on alcohol, and sometimes we starved.’ I did not realize that some children could grow up in that kind of atmosphere, but it’s true, even on my reservation. But these are just a little bit of the stories, just a little bit you hear.” 

As the school continued through the decades, students began voluntarily admitting themselves in the hopes of learning a trade or even for the simple escape of leaving behind their lives on reservations which sometimes involved abject poverty, addiction, and hunger. 


Rob Lewis had to convince his mother to allow him to attend the school and remembers his time there fondly – image: Kelsey Penrose

One such former student and proud alumni who has a different perspective on his time at the school is Ron Lewis of the Pima Tribe, class of 1978. Though he graduated only 13 years after Aletha Thom, his experience at the school was vastly different. He began as a Freshman and traveled all the way from Arizona after convincing his mother to send him to the school so that he might learn a trade. 

“I came from a big family. My mother washed our clothes in a tub and washing board. I first heard about Stewart from some neighbors down the road who had attended, and I asked my mother if I could attend here, but she didn’t want to sign the papers. When I finally convinced her, [the school officials] picked me up at night and I wondered, why would we travel at night. And someone told me later, it’s because they didn’t want us to run away.”

Ron’s first impression of the school was the fact that he hadn’t known there were so many other tribes; he’d only ever known the tribes from his own area in Arizona. 

“I really enjoyed my time living here, and got to learn how to wash, make my bed–I got to watch TV for the first time in my life. I was poor, and I don’t take a lot of things for granted, same with how I grew up. I learned a lot here.”

Ron learned diesel mechanics and in his senior year, he studied operating classes like many of the other alumni. After he graduated, he returned home to Arizona and put himself through diesel mechanic school, and credits his teachers, including the late Bud Allen, for putting him on his path.  

Alumni 0f the Stewart Indian School stand for an honor song – image: Kelsey Penrose

These varying perspectives are exactly why the histories of native peoples need to be placed in their own hands, not in the hands of the U.S. Government or their former oppressors. The school was operated by the federal government through the Bureau of Indian Affairs until 1980 when the school closed its doors. Now, the museum is overseen by those who should be the only parties able to craft its future story: the Stewart Cultural Advisory Committee, made up of Stewart alumni and family members. 

Former Governor Sandoval was integral to allocating funding for the preservation of the school – image: Kelsey Penrose

During the ribbon-cutting, former governor and the current University of Nevada Reno, President Brian Sandoval spoke to the crowd.

“When I first came out here [to the Stewart Indian School], I didn’t know what I didn’t know. But my parents taught me to appreciate and respect all peoples, and all cultures. It made an impression on me as a young boy. There is not a proud history here, but it is really important to have an honest history here. This is a place that people from all over the world should come to and now we’ve taken this very first step to make this happen.” 

A representative of Senator Catherine Cortez Masto also attended the ceremony and stated Senator Cortez Masto was able to initiate a congressional record for the grand opening event and the historic school landmark as a whole. 

Stacey Montooth speaks to the crowd – image: Kelsey Penrose

“We’re all going to be able to go to the National Library of Congress and read about this day, read about our ancestors and our elders,” said Stacey Montooth, Executive Director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission. “I say they should be headline, front and center.”

Sherry Rupert has worked for years to see the school’s preservation realized – image: Kelsey Penrose

Sherry L. Rupert, Chief Executive Officer of the American Indian/Alaska Native Tourism Association, is credited with being a major contributor to the museum’s inception. 

Many speakers mentioned Stewart alumna Reynelda James, who shared many stories about the school with Rupert and others. 

“Through my discussions with the alumni and hearing all of their stories…Reynelda was one of the alumni that I spoke to, and she talked about being here with her best friend in her dorm room, and she talked about not having a voice. Not being able to tell anybody what was going on here at this school. And that really resonated with me, that these children, these thousands of children across the country, never had a voice. They never had anybody to advocate for them, to help them. Some people have asked me, ‘Sherry, why would you want to preserve this place? It should be burned down.’ But I ask, who am I to prevent your voices from being heard? Your stories from being heard? I am so proud that I can be just a small part of telling the story from across this nation.”

Speakers at the event, including Ervin Jim, seen here with his son  – image: Kelsey Penrose

Stories like those that come from the Stewart Indian School must be told for an accurate portrayal of history and, with the official grand opening of the museum, these stories will finally be cemented in our nation’s history, not from the perspective of the U.S. government, but from those who were brought to the school–voluntarily or involuntarily–and have lived on to see it change from an internment camp to a trade school, and finally to a cultural center aimed at helping create some understanding regarding its complex, often contradictory history. 

Kelsey Penrose grew up in Carson City, Nevada is an alumna of Arizona State University, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in Creative Writing with Sierra Nevada University. She lives and gardens in Washoe Valley. Support Kelsey’s work for the Sierra Nevada Ally here.

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