The School on Snyder Street: Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Resilience at the Stewart Indian School, 1890-2018
In 1879, the U.S. government embarked upon a program to assimilate thousands of Native American children who were taken from their homes and sent to off-reservation boarding schools managed by federal officials. These schools were designed to destroy the connections between Native children and their lands, isolate them from their families, and divorce them from their cultures and traditions. The Stewart Indian School opened in Carson City, Nevada, in December 1890, and enthusiastically embraced its mission. Newly enrolled students were separated from their families, had their appearances altered, and were forced speak only English. They were assigned work details on campus, compelled to attend church, and placed in remedial classes and vocational training programs. The message at Stewart, particularly during its early years, was clear: assimilation meant the adoption of white, middle-class values for Native students, forgoing their connections with tribal lands and communities, and the explicit acceptance of Indigenous inferiority and white supremacy. For U.S. officials, school like Stewart would resolve the “Indian problem” once and for all by eradicating Indigenous cultures, ending U.S. treaty obligations, and allowing the unfettered expansion of white settlers into Native lands.
In this dissertation, I argue that settler colonialism propelled U.S. government programs designed to assimilate generations of Native children at the Stewart Indian School. I examine the history of the Stewart Indian School from its opening in 1890
to its closure in 1980, and underscore the settler colonial underpinnings of assimilationist practices at the school. At the same time, I also employ a borderlands framework to explain how and why Indigenous students and their families subverted school rules, and to investigate tensions between federal officials and the local authorities charged with implementing their policies. I further evaluate the current status of the Stewart Indian School grounds to underscore the ongoing nature of federal and state settler colonial policies, which have focused, until recently, on erasing the trauma inflicted on generations of Native families connected to the school.
Each chapter explores different periods of the Stewart Indian School’s history and connects them with trends in federal Indian policy. After a discussion of methodologies and the boarding school system, chapter two focuses on the early decades of the school, when students were subjected to harsh assimilationist policies. Chapter three examines reforms that occurred between 1925 and 1948, and argues that, despite new federal guidelines, Stewart School officials remained intent on the assimilation of Native children. The fourth chapter focuses on the implementation of the Navajo Special Program at Stewart, and connects this rigidly assimilationist program with federal attempts to terminate tribal rights and relocate Native peoples to urban areas. In chapter five, I describe student and parent-led reform efforts in the 1960s and 1970s, their connections with national self-determination movements, and Stewart officials’ continued focus on assimilation. My final chapter examines the history of the Stewart School after its 1980 closure, and illustrates how state, federal, and local officials sought to erase negative Indigenous experiences at the Stewart Indian School and replace them with an overwhelmingly positive historical narrative.