Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center about to become a reality

by Brian Bahouth

The Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center is set to open later this year - image - Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

Reno – Plans began forming more than twenty years ago to develop a cultural center and museum on the campus of the Stewart Indian School, just a few miles south of Carson City. AB44  is a part of the ongoing effort to bring that vision to reality. In a meaningful ceremony for alumni and others, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak signed AB44 into law on the steps of the school on June 8. The bill formally establishes the museum and cultural center in statute and provides an operating budget for the biennium.

The Stewart Indian School opened in 1890 and was one of as many as 60 Indian boarding schools located throughout the nation. These were schools where students were involuntarily gathered from local tribes and forced to adopt western, Christian culture. The Stewart school and others like it were front-line 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.”

Stewart Indian School, 1946 Yearbook, Grade 1 – image – Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

The campus is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is made up of more than 50 buildings on 110 acres. The state of Nevada assumed control of the rapidly deteriorating facility in 1982 following the closure of the school in 1980. The historical assets where cataloged and much planning and scoping occurred. Due to the age of the buildings, rehabilitation is a challenge. Seven buildings were placed on a rehabilitation priority list.

The infirmary was constructed in 1904 and is the oldest structure on the property. The former Administration Building and Dining Hall were built in 1923, the Auditorium in 1925, the superintendent’s home in 1930, the old gym in 1938, and the dormitory in 1942.

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

In 2015, the Nevada Legislature created a new budget account as part of the Nevada Indian Commission called the Stewart Indian School Living Legacy. This enabled the commission to hire a museum director and curator. Additional funding also enabled the Indian Commission to develop a master plan.  

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 Gym. A new roof is currently being constructed – image – Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum, by permission.

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 this year.

Bobbi Rahder is museum director for the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum. Before coming to the Stewart school a couple years ago, Rahder worked for 13 years building a museum for another federal Indian school, the Haskell Institute in Lawrence, Kansas. Rahder explained that because the museum has been established in statute, they can now accept a fee for admissions, do fundraising events, apply for grants, and operate a retail store. The Nevada Indian Commission is the museum’s parent agency and is now set up to accept and manage money through those means.

Hear an audio interview with Bobbi Rahder.

The Nevada Indian Commission was established in 1965 to be a liaison for the Governor to the 27 Tribes, Bands and Colonies of native people in Nevada. The governor appoints the 5-member board that oversees the Stewart Indian School campus and developed its master plan.

AB44 also ensures that the museum remains under the Nevada Indian Commission and is not incorporated into the Nevada Division of Museums and History.

Nevada tribes have a sensitive history with the Nevada Division of Museums and History. In 1940, archaeologists unearthed the remains of a man in Spirit Cave roughly 90 miles east of Reno. Radiocarbon and other methods of dating eventually showed the man found wrapped in reed mats and dressed in rabbit fur and moccasins died some 10,400 years ago, an international news story at the time. Partial and cremated remains of other individuals were also taken from the site and housed in the Nevada State Museum’s storage facility in Carson City. The Paiute-Shoshone Tribe of the Fallon Reservation and Colony vigorously protested the taking and ultimately filed a claim under the North American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to reclaim and rebury the body.

After more than a decade of rigorous evaluation to prove that Spirit Cave Man was indeed related to the native people who inhabit the region today, DNA testing finally showed the ancient man was genetically linked to contemporary Paiutes and Shoshone in Nevada. In 2016, Spirit Cave Man was given to the tribes for reburial. That the tribes want the museum to remain under the control of the Nevada Indian Commission is not a surprise.

Bobbi Rahder said, “We also wanted to make sure that the museum would be located under the Nevada Indian Commission, and not within the Division of Museums and History, which has all the other state funded museums, because our museum is different. It’s different because of the Stewart Indian School. It’s different because the tribes want it to remain under the Nevada Indian Commission.”

Why is it important to preserve this story?

The importance of telling the Stewart Indian School story was evident when Alitha Tom offered testimony on AB44 during a meeting of the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs on Monday February 25 of this year.

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 it’s 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.”

The now retired head of the Nevada Indian Commission, Sherry Rupert presented AB44 to the Assembly Committee on Government Affairs on Monday February 25 of this year.

“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,” she said. “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.” 

Bobbi Rahder is committed to telling the story and is working with a fabricator to build an exhibit that will tell the school’s entire story. Rahder said they are working closely with alumni and regional native artists.

“The way that we’re creating that exhibit is with local native artists who are connected to Stewart through their families, Ben Aleck and Melissa Melero. We also have a committee of alumni who are sharing their stories with us, and that’s what we’re putting into this new exhibit,” Rahder said.

The Stewart Indian School Cultural Center lobby. The facility will open later this year – image – Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

The future

To open the museum requires operating costs not included in prior funding. AB44 provides nearly a quarter million dollar annual budget for the museum to hire two new positions, a curator who manages education programs, school tours, educational activities, workshops and lectures, and a museum attendant who plans and manages promotion and marketing of the museum. Funding will also be used to establish three new departments within the museum: Education, Collections, and Exhibits.

For now, Rahder is pleased with the outcome of her first legislative session in Nevada. In addition to two years of operating budget, AB44 provides the project with a substantial amount of money to rehabilitate the campus bakery, not to bake bread but to store artifacts.

“That will be for our collection storage,” Rahder said. “We have a number of Stewart historical artifacts and documents and photographs. We’ll be able to use that building now to store all of our artifacts.”

An undated image of the Stewart Indian School band – image – Stewart Indian School Museum and Cultural Center

Bobbi Rahder takes a long view regarding the ambitious master plan that will ultimately include a hotel, conference center, homes and commercial development.

“We worked with an architecture firm to create a master plan for renovating all the buildings over three phases of time, and depending on funding through grants or through donations or whatever, we can bring the school kind of back to life, and also bring it back to the native culture that we would like to see it have.”