Former Stewart Indian School teachers look back at its final years
CARSON CITY, Nev. — As the rightful standing of Stewart Indian School is now coming back into its own, many people are being introduced to the beautiful grounds and buildings for the first time.
Some people know of the offices and classrooms of present day, while others have enjoyed the powwows and Indian tacos. Still others have their own experiences with Stewart from years past. Former students and staff are remembering a different Stewart.
The Agnews, both 87 years old, belong to the latter category.
With almost 70 years of marriage, April 2018 will mark the 70th anniversary for Morrie and Norma Agnew, who have a wellspring of shared memories.
What they consistently remember is their time about 40 years ago when they came to work at Stewart Indian School in Carson City. They not only have pictures on their walls at home to remind them, but live close by so that they drive past the facilities once or twice daily.
Attending the Stewart Father’s Day Powwow and hoping to see someone they knew from those days is a yearly endeavor.
‘A little culture shock’
The Agnews moved to Carson City and began working at Stewart Indian School in the late 1970s. Morrie was there when the school finally closed its doors in 1980.
“It was a learning experience for me I will never forget,” he said as he was remembering Stewart.
Both Morrie and Norma were licensed teachers who taught in California before moving to Nevada in 1977.
“It was a little culture shock for us as well as the students who attended,” Morrie reminisced. “When I was about 11 years old, I remember my family driving to California from Indiana and stopping in Arizona on a reservation. I have pictures of me with some of the children there.
“Looking back I remember that although we were poor, they seemed to be even more disadvantaged. Still, how hard it must have been for them to leave family and friends to stay on the campus of these schools.”
Morrie was hired full time to teach shop classes of welding and metal work, having come to Stewart with a teaching credential in Industrial Technology from Chico State College (now University).
Prior to their move to Nevada, he had taught shop at junior highs and junior college night classes. In practical terms, he brought to Stewart many years of vocational work in the field of welding and training in the Navy Seabees.
“I used what I had taught before as well as just putting together my own curriculum, trying to think of what would be the most use to my students,” he explained.
“Those Stewart kids were great,” he added wistfully. “In public schools when school was over, students went home to their parents. At Stewart, the kids didn’t have that type of comfort. For some it was very hard to take, especially the young students. Many were homesick. The staff did the best they knew how to help those students.”
Norma worked as a teacher’s aide and then as a substitute. Her educational background included anthropology, having gone on archeological digs in California, and loving all things Egyptian and Native American.
After earning her teaching credentials, she taught in elementary schools before moving to Carson City with Morrie.
Both Norma and Morrie recalled sharing life with their students both at school and away from the campus.
“Because I was a blonde, the students told me I should be named ‘Yellowhair,’” Norma recalled. “The students were quiet and attentive.”
“I had a student that was a natural in welding,” Morrie recounted. “I arranged to drive him to the shipyards in San Francisco for an interview. This shipyard was for submarines, needing a very special type of welding. He was told that if he wanted to work there as an apprentice, he could. I think that was one of my happiest memories.
“Another student was an excellent artist. I bought two of his works. I hope he was rewarded for his talent in the art world.”
Honoring the Stewart legacy
Norma also recalled: “Times were very different then. I remember having one of our students, Jewel, come to our home overnight, and then I drove her to Sacramento for the day of shopping. I offered to buy her something, but all she wanted was a 78 record. She was later an exchange student to Europe, but didn’t seem to care for it. When she got back she married one of the other Stewart students and sent us a picture of their darling baby daughter.
“I always look for her at the Stewart powwows when I go. Maybe someday…”
All the students boasted a vast variety of experiences, the Agnews recalled during their time at Stewart Indian School.
“The school had a ranch course taught by Roger Sam, who was a great teacher and a very good man,” Morrie added. “Once a year, they took the students out to their place in Jack’s Valley to brand and castrate some of the cattle. It was not fun to watch, but then I saw the students cook the testicles and eat them for the first time. The expressions on their faces were so funny.
“Then it was my turn. I took one bite and gagged. The students died laughing, as well as Roger Sam.”
“I remember one time in the classroom,” Norma stated, “when I was only supposed to run a film for the students. Well, I couldn’t run the projector. At that point my mind simply went blank. The students just sat there quietly and respectfully. You can just imagine what they were thinking!”
“Working with the staff and students was great except for one thing,” Morrie also recalled with a frown. “Once a week we showed movies. One other teacher and I were in charge. Almost all the students showed up. After it was over and the students left, we cleaned up. Many of the boys used snuff, and spit on the floor. It was a mess to clean up along with the popcorn!”
“When Stewart closed, many of the staff went to Phoenix,” the Agnews explained, in closing. “It is good that the grounds and buildings are being brought back to life as the Stewart Indian School Living Legacy. That will be wonderful.”
Sharon Wooding is a Carson City resident. Her parents are Morrie and Norma Agnew, and she interviewed them for this story.
The phrase “Indian Education” itself invokes generations of federal legislation aimed to assimilate via education. Modern day, the Title VI Indian Education Program administered by the Bureau of Indian Education provides federal funds to various educational institutions of students enrolled in federally recognized tribes.