Stewart Indian School was a federal government boarding school for Native children from 1890-1980. A recent exhibit at Reno-Tahoe International Airport offered a glimpse into the plight of the region’s indigenous children who were removed from their families with the intention of assimilating them into the dominant culture. But there’s so much more to their story, a tale being preserved for future generations to hear through the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.
Cut off from their families, students were forbidden from speaking in their native tongues and from practicing any traditions and customs associated with their native backgrounds. By the time Stewart closed, the lives of thousands had been detrimentally affected.
The museum has a two-fold purpose — to share first-person accounts from former students, and to help families and Native communities to heal from the historical trauma of the federal assimilation policy.
“The story of the Stewart Indian School is an important part of Nevada’s and America’s history,” said director Bobbi Rahder. “The story of forcibly removing Native children from their families to learn English and job skills needs to be told, but is not taught in our school systems. We are trying to correct that by telling the first-person accounts here in our museum exhibits and on the Stewart Indian School Trail, as well as through our website.”
The success of the airport display has led to a traveling exhibit with stops planned throughout the region.
“We don’t portray the Native students as victims, but as survivors,” Rahder said. “We tell the stories of their resistance and resilience as they left Stewart to lead productive lives.”
Although Stewart was originally created for Great Basin tribal nation children — Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California, Northern Paiute, Southern Paiute, and Western Shoshone — eventually kids from over 200 tribal nations attended the school. The museum is guided by a Cultural Advisory Committee of over 20 tribal representatives who attended Stewart or are their relatives, who share their stories.
“We want to remind visitors that Native people are still here and thriving,” said Rahder. “There are 28 tribal nations in Nevada from the four Great Basin tribal language groups. Assimilation failed because its intent was to destroy Native culture and turn the Native children into White citizens with job skills. But tribes are revitalizing their traditions, ceremonies, and languages after surviving the federal assimilation policy of the federal government.”
The museum helps by telling the stories of what the tribes are doing now by featuring contemporary Native art in museum exhibits, in the Great Basin Native Artists Gallery, and by hosting special events like the Remembrance Run and basket weaving workshops taught by the Great Basin Native Basket Weavers Association.
“By focusing attention on present day Native people and events, we hope to counteract the old history of the past,” Rahder said.
~ Juliana Demarest/Special to Moonshine Ink