Former Boarding School Now a College Welcomes Native American Students
Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado is filled with signs of its past and future, as students who are members of Native American tribes fill its halls.View Team
DURANGO, COLORADO — This mountain town is a meeting point for members of many Native American tribes, with Navajo Nation, the huge homeland for that tribe, the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation as well as the reservations of a handful of other tribes within easy driving distance.
Many of the young members of those tribes, which are indigenous to the land that is now the U.S., look to Fort Lewis College once they graduate from high school. The four-year liberal arts college was once a boarding school for students from Native American tribes. The property was given to the state of Colorado in 1910 via an act of Congress that stated that Native American students would always be allowed to attend free of charge.
Today, the college is filled with reminders of its past and signs of its future. Global Press Journal photographed some of the Native American students who attend there.
Shawna Woody is in her final year at Fort Lewis College. Woody is studying biology with a concentration on environmental and ecological studies. Woody, who was raised in Ramah, a town in New Mexico, says she was drawn to science at a young age after she received a toy microscope.
Woody’s hometown is located on Navajo Nation, a 27,000-square-mile (about 70,000-square-kilometer) area that spans the states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.
Woody says her family didn’t have running water or electricity in its home, so she would often wake up at dawn to fetch water and to build a fire to warm the water. Many families in her hometown still don’t have basic amenities, she adds.
Woody hopes her college education will help her find a good job and help improve living standards for people in her community.
Zefren Anderson, a member of Diné be’ iiná, a Navajo-run nonprofit, gives a rug-weaving demonstration at Fort Lewis College. Diné be’ iiná means “sheep is life” in the Navajo language. During the demonstration, Anderson shares with students the agricultural and pastoral way of life and traditional teachings of the Navajo. The event was sponsored by the college’s Native American Center, an academic and cultural resource center. Throughout the academic year, the center hosts various events for students to showcase and learn about the traditional practices of various tribes.
April Yazza (left), from Mentmore, New Mexico, uses yarn to tie Alyssia Alex’s hair into a bun. The traditional bun, called a tsiiyéel by the Navajo people, is worn by both men and women. Alex is a third year student at the college.
Sage Maybee is a first year business and engineering student who belongs to the Northern Arapaho tribe. For Halloween, he dressed up as a character from the TV show Game of Thrones. Maybee says he made his outfit using fabric and beads.
For November’s National American Indian Heritage Month, the Native American Center at Fort Lewis College encouraged students to wear moccasins and brought students together for a photo shoot in front of the university. Moccasins are shoes made with animal skin and fur and finished with beading and embroidery. This type of footwear is common to many Native American tribes.
Shauntel Thomas, a public health student from Navajo Nation, attends Fort Lewis College because her family convinced her to take advantage of the tuition waiver for Native American students.
“Being Native American and coming from different families where money is really tight, I felt that it really helped me,” Thomas says of the waiver.
Now in her second year, Thomas says she’s joined many student clubs, where she has met other Native American students and exchanged traditional knowledge.
After college, Thomas wants to implement suicide awareness and prevention programs in Wide Ruins, Arizona, where she grew up.
At halftime of a women’s basketball game, Shawn Price, a drummer with Dineh Tah Navajo Dancers, a dance troupe that performs nationwide, sang a traditional Navajo song as dancers performed the Navajo sash belt dance, a traditional dance that depicts the act of weaving.
During National American Indian Heritage Month, the Fort Lewis College women’s basketball team wore Nike Air Native N7 shoes, a product line designed and produced by Nike in collaboration with tribal leaders across the country.
The women’s team has five Native American players, each from a different tribe. Here, Aubre Fortner aims for the basket during a game.
Editor’s note: Global Press Journal reporter Crystal Ashike attended Fort Lewis College, which offers free tuition for Native American students, between 2014 and 2018. Ashike, who is Navajo, benefited from that free tuition program.