Nevada Commission on Tourism
Aletha Tom was 12 when she left her home on the Moapa Indian reservation in southern Nevada to attend the Stewart Indian School in Carson City. The year was 1959, and the Stewart Indian School — a federal boarding school for American Indian children — had been in operation since 1890. Times had changed a bit from those early decades, when the children at Stewart often were there against their will, forcibly separated from their families and forbidden to speak native languages. Instead, Tom recalls life at the school as generally positive — a life governed by strict rules, but one that also included happy memories, such as the times she and her classmates snuck food into their room in the Small Girls Dorm.
Tom’s story is one of many visitors can listen to during a self-guided audio tour that can be accessed through personal cell phones at the Stewart Indian School, about three miles south of downtown Carson City. The 109-acre facility today is owned by the state of Nevada and is open to the public, although many of the 83 buildings are currently in use by state agencies, such as the Nevada Indian Commission, and nonprofit groups.
“There are beautiful buildings out here,” said Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission.
Those handsome structures also hold a complex history, one that visitors can learn about on the Stewart Indian School Trail cell phone tour. The trail, about a half mile on paved ground and sidewalks, takes a rectangular route around the campus. Visitors, referencing signs at the site, call the audio tour from their cell phones; walk the trail; and at 20 different buildings, listen to a recorded story told by a Stewart alum. Those range from Florence Millett, who shares her difficult time at the school, to Buck Sampson, who had happier memories of boxing in the new gym.
“They were more than willing to do it,” Rupert said about alumnae participation. “They want to keep the history alive.”
The school closed in 1980 due to federal budget cuts; the Nevada Indian Commission began offering the audio tour in 2008.
Rupert, who delivers the welcome message on the audio tour, explained that the school changed over its 90 years of operation, which helps account for the difference in student experiences.
Stewart opened in the late 19th century, when the federal government was establishing Indian boarding schools throughout the country designed to assimilate American Indian children into mainstream society. It was a rough process for many: Separated from their families — sometimes for years at a time — students were given English names and forbidden to participate in traditional ceremonies and culture. Perhaps the most devastating blow was the prohibition on speaking native languages — a policy that severely reduced the number of people who could speak those languages.
“That transcended generations,” Rupert said.
In later years, Stewart’s focus changed, Rupert said, and the school “almost became a place where Indians wanted to come.”
In the mid- to late-20th century, American Indians could choose between public schools — where they still faced some discrimination — or Stewart, Rupert explained. Many chose Stewart, where they would have more opportunity to participate in school life and activities. Students during this era also had good and bad experiences at the school, Rupert said, but the bad experiences were mostly due to homesickness or other issues rather than the institutional structure.
“Not everyone loved Stewart,” Rupert said, “but for some people, it was a family.”
The Nevada Commission on Tourism is a part of the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. For more on Nevada travel, visit the website www.travelnevada.com.
Breakout box 1: If you go:
The Stewart Indian School Trail audio tour is offered at the site of the old Stewart Indian School, 5500 Snyder Ave. in Carson City. Visitors, referencing signs at the site, can use their personal cell phones to call the audio tour, which consists of Stewart alumnae sharing their stories about the school. The trail is .6 miles on paved surface, with 20 stops, each connected to an audio recording.
For more, including a map to the Stewart Indian School campus, visit the Stewart Indian School website, www.stewartindianschool.com.
For a downloadable pdf map of the Stewart Indian School Trail, see www.stewartindianschool.com/stewart-trail-map.html.
Breakout box 2: The future at Stewart
A project is under way to open the Stewart Indian Cultural Center in school’s old administration building. The estimated cost is $1.6 million to upgrade the structure, built in 1923. That includes a seismic retrofit and building rehabilitation to retain as much of the building’s historical integrity as possible. Currently, the project is in the fundraising stage. For more information, contact the Nevada Indian Commission, 775-687-8333 or www.nic.nv.gov.
Photo credit: Nevada Commission on Tourism