An inside look at the new Stewart Indian School
This story was first published in the March 2017 edition of First Nation's Focus.
CARSON CITY, Nev. — For the group that toured the Stewart Indian School Feb. 14, it’s most likely the last time they’ll see the campus in its present state.
Like alumni Delbert Holley — he couldn’t help contemplating the ambiance of where he and his siblings gained their education, friends, and other experiences when they were young.
“In the gym over there, we beat every team in the basketball games,” he said. “We were the best. Everything still looks the same. I have generations of family that went to this school, brothers and sisters.”
The tour was an exclusive one as it was part of Nevada Tribes Legislative Day, for a seventh consecutive year — and before the campus undergoes substantial renovations.
For alumni such as Holley, many tribal groups expressed their excitement for the new features, as it will produce more interest in the community to learn about the school.
With more than 80 buildings on 110 acres owned by the state, it’s going to be quite the makeover. But its historic vibe will forever remain on campus.
“We want to bring life back out here,” said Sherry Rupert, executive director of State of Nevada Indian Commission. “We want to interpret stories throughout campus and renovate these beautiful buildings for use.”
Gov. Brian Sandoval supports the project as stated in his January 2013 State Address, the Stewart Indian School Living Legacy Initiative. The funding for the project was approved last session, including approval for a museum curator and director.
As the museum is currently recruiting for a Museum Director, Chris Ann Gibbons, former administrator assistant & program officer for the Nevada Indian Commission, is proudly taking on her new role as the school’s Museum Curator.
She’s been with the commission for at least a decade.
Being a part of this is a dream come true,” she said. “With so many plans in the works, it’s a positive place.”
Working with the Historic Preservation Office, the state is in the process of potentially funding $4.5 million to renovate two buildings on campus, including $1.2 million for the gymnasium.
Bringing chronicles to the community
The renovations are going beyond fancy décor and office space. Each room in every building will serve a purpose for the community with a modern touch, while preserving historic tokens and impressions.
One of the older administrative buildings — known as building #3 — will become a hub for research, public events, exhibits and galleries. The public will soon be welcome to obtain records from the resource center, and hold meetings for presentations or educational purposes.
The museum also plans to host Native American authors and other individuals to speak in those rooms. The basement, for instance, will become another section for classroom space.
The space also will be an opportunity for Native American artists to showcase their work and artifacts to share.
Then, there’s the post office; a place where students and faculty would greet each other and pick up mail.
With it’s engraved plaque of “Stewart, Nevada” still fastened above the door, the building will no longer be a post office, but still a place to meet and greet as the museum’s Welcome Center.
“It’s not just for the school but for the surrounding area,” Rupert said. “This area used to be the community of Stewart. We’ll bring that back by inviting alumni to share their stories here, along with navigation on guided tours.”
And, back in 1925 when the auditorium settled large audiences and reached full capacity for shows and holiday pageants, the building today is frail and worn.
But it won’t be in those conditions for long; it will transform into a place to showcase artistry again, from performances to fundraising events.
Same goes for the old gymnasium—the roof is deteriorated and falling apart. Wild animals and strays are currently nesting in the building. But once renovations are at full swing later this year, it will become a lodge for local sports teams that come by.
When there are new purposes for buildings, there are new jobs. Reconstruction of the old cottage on campus also was approved by the legislature in August, to remodel the building for office space.
What will Stewart Indian School become?
The school was established in 1890 and according to Rupert, the school has seen a lot of changes over the years — and is used to it.
“These buildings were used for many purposes,” she said. “The campus is an encompassing place that took care of itself.”
Think about it: over 30,000 students attended the school during its 90-year heritage, and used those buildings. It only started out with 37 students from Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes, and three teachers. It evolved 16 years later, thanks to the students who learned stone masonry and constructed over 60 native stone buildings.
But the quality of those masonry projects didn’t last long, as the school permanently closed in 1980 because of earthquake safety issues. But since 1990, the state occupies the building for classes and training, and also became the office for Nevada Indian Commission. Today, the school is part of the National Registrar of Historic Place and serves as a tour museum.
Legacies are meant to live on for the sake of preserving history. But to better enhance that for educators and the community as a whole, it’s time to take the campus to the next level by recreating it as a cultural heritage destination.