Nevada bill brings the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum to the brink of reality

by Brian Bahouth

The Stewart Indian School Administration Building - image - Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, by permission.

Carson City – Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn appointed Sherry Rupert to be executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission in September of 2005.  Not too many years after Rupert’s appointment, plans began forming to develop a cultural center and museum on the campus of the Stewart Indian School, just a few miles south of Carson City, and AB44 is a part of the ongoing effort to bring that vision to reality.

The Stewart Indian School operated from 1890 to 1980 and was one of as many as 60 Indian boarding schools located throughout the nation.  Schools where students were involuntarily gathered from local tribes and forced to adopt western, Christian culture. The Stewart school and others like it were tools of cultural assimilation.  The first of these off-reservation boarding schools was launched in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania where the motto was, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.”

According to the Stewart Indian School website, “The school opened on December 17, 1890 with 37 students from local Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes and three teachers.”

Sherry Rupert presented AB44 to the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs on Monday February 25.

“The Stewart Indian School, Cultural Center and Museum will provide an opportunity to tell the unique story,” Rupert said.  “The story that is not taught in our schools. The story that has been swept under the rug and ignored.”

Rupert said the museum would help citizens better understand the sacrifice of Native American people.

“They have sacrificed so much.  Not only were their homelands across the nation given up, but something even greater than that was forced to be given up, our families.  We had to give up our children, tearing apart the family unit, forcing our children to take on new identities, shaming them into denying their culture and their languages.  

“And when you are finally able to tell your story, to relieve that burden.  Maybe some healing can come from that,” Rupert said.

Hopi stone masons built many of the buildings on the Stewart Indian School campus – image – Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.

During the 2015 Legislative session, the Stewart Indian School garnered an operating budget large enough to fund two full-time positions.  Of equal importance, the Nevada Indian Commission was officially designated as the coordinating agency for future uses of the Stewart Indian School campus.  Sherry Rupert told members of the Assembly Government Affairs committee that the designation was important.

“This was important to establish, as the people who were most affected by the policies of the school, the American Indian people should have some voice in its future.”

2015 funding also enabled the Indian Commission to develop a master plan for the 110-Acre Campus with 65 buildings just south of Carson City.  The campus is divided into seven zones with one for tribal and cultural resources, educational and interpretive spaces, lodging and conference center, community recreation, market driven development zone, infill housing, and a flexible development zone.

The Stewart Indian School Auditorium – image – Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.

The 2017 legislative session brought $5.7 million dollars in funding for capital improvement projects to include a new roof on the gym and renovation of the former administration building for the new cultural center and museum.  The money also funded the renovation of the former post office as a new welcome center. A grand opening is expected later in 2019, though a consistent source of operational funding is an unanswered question. 

“We’ve made tremendous progress and are on our way to preserving one of the state’s finest and most unique assets and on the cusp of creating a platform where the untold stories of thousands of American Indian children, taken from their homes and their families, and made to take on new identities in an unfamiliar environment and culture, can finally have a voice,” Rupert said.

AB44 is not intended to provide hard-dollar funding for any aspect of the school campus, though it does further enable the agency to raise money through grants, donations, gift-shops and other revenue generating efforts.  

Assemblyman John Ellison, a Republican from Elko and Assemblyman Glen Leavitt a Republican from Boulder City both asked Rupert about sources of an operational budget. The cultural center and museum are expected to open later this year, but as of now, Sherry Rupert said, they have no money to operate and that the agency is in discussion with the governor’s office.

“The operating budget is in discussion right now between the agency and the governor’s finance office, and so we’re hopeful that we will come to an agreement on that.” Rupert said for the record.

The cultural importance of the cultural center and museum was underscored by the testimony of a woman who attended the Stewart Indian School, Alitha Tom. 

Hear Alitha Tom’s testimony to the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs …

Alitha Tom is a member of the Moapa band of Paiute Indians, and like her mother before her, Alitha was made to attend the Stewart school when she was twelve years old.  Tom graduated from the Stewart school in 1954.

“This is not just a simple museum,” Althia Tom said to the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs on Monday.  “Why I call it a unique museum is because a lot of students that went there never asked to be there.

“I think its awareness, even for you to understand where we come from and how we learned to live and accept the way of life there on that campus.  When you’re a young child growing up there on that campus not knowing that this day would come for me to sit here before you to talk to you about what it was and how it was and who you lived with, not your parents.  You grew up with matrons. You grew up with boys advisers for the young men, boys. You grew up around many people you had to learn to know about. To learn how to live there without your parents. Being disciplined by non-parents.  Waking up on a cold morning under cold sheets. We never had sheets in my home,” Tom said.

On Monday, the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs took no action on AB44.