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Stories of Old Nevada

Stories of Old Nevada: Stewart Indian School

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Stewart Indian School

American Indian students stand in front of the Stewart Indian School administration building in 1905.

The Stewart Indian School (1890-1980) for Native American children was established southeast of Carson City, Nevada. It is noted for the masonry work of colorful native stone used by student labor to construct the buildings on the school campus.

The school, part of the Native American boarding schools project, was the only off-reservation boarding school in Nevada. Funding for the school was obtained by Nevada’s first senator, William M. Stewart, and was named in his honor when it opened in 1890.

During the first 10 years, only Nevada-based Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes attended the school. For two decades, the children could be punished for speaking their native language. Later on, children from over 60 tribal groups, including Hopi, Apache, Pima, Mojave and Ute were forced to attend the school from three dozen reservations and 335 hometowns across the West.

The campus had a gymnasium, dormitories for the students, laundry, carpentry shop, metal shop and other facilities. This was a boarding school and students were required to live there and earn their keep. Boys worked on the farm, learned wood and metal working, raised vegetables and did other chores. Girl students learned sewing, worked in the kitchen and laundry, and learned other skills.

The V&T Railroad had a spur to Stewart to deliver supplies and transport students when needed. The Stewart students were very interested in sports, competing with other schools in sport events and playing in the band. They were proud to march in Nevada Day Parades.

The school had a museum where they displayed Indian artifacts. I donated my arrowhead collection to the museum. A few years later the museum closed so I took the collection to the Douglas County Museum in Gardnerville where it is today. This collection is the basis for my book, “Preserving Traces of the Great Basin Indians.”

Native American children were forced to attend the Stewart Institute up to secondary school age. The initial intent of the school was to eliminate the Indian language and culture from the children, to provide them with trade skills and to make them assimilate to American culture. Students during the early years were harshly disciplined and acted as unpaid labor to maintain the institution.

The school struggled and some superintendents lasted less than a year. in 1919, Frederic Snyder was put in charge and he turned the floundering school into an architectural and horticultural showplace. The children were prohibited by assimilation policies until 1934 from using their native language and culture.

After the Indian Reorganization Act, Alida Cynthia Bowler became Director of the Stewart Indian School and Reservations. She defended the Indians’ interests against the federal government’s ongoing desire to prevent their ownership of land, and supported retention of Indian culture among the students.

For several years, I was a volunteer tour guide at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City. The museum had a separate section called “Under One Sky,” meaning all people and all races have in common that we all live under one sky. This section of the museum is devoted to the Stewart Indian Museum history.

I told visitors to the museum I had a special interest in the Stewart Indian School. When I was a teenager on the farm/ranch where I lived in Sparks, every year in the fall, our family and other farms in the area hired the Stewart Indian School students to help harvest their potatoes. Bus loads of the students came from Stewart to work picking potatoes and lifting bags of spuds into trucks. We did not pay the students individually but our family paid the school. We were told the school considered the work part of their education in agriculture and their compensation went for room and board at the school.

Over the years I worked on the farm, I got to know many of the Indian students who worked with us on the farm bailing hay, picking and loading potatoes and other work. I was always impressed with their ambition and their sense of humor.

In 1980, the federal government cut the funding for Indian boarding schools and closed the campus. During its 90 years, about 30,000 students are believed to have attended the school. The facility is now used for other purposes and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli’s books can be ordered at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.

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