New Stewart Indian School museum director excited for challenge
This story was first published in the July 2017 edition of First Nation’s Focus.
Stewart Indian School: A detailed history For 90 years, Stewart Indian School fulfilled a federal commitment to pursue Native American education in Nevada. Located three miles southeast of Carson City, the school grounds encompassed 240 acres. The school opened on Dec. 17, 1890, with 37 students from local Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone tribes and three teachers. In 1888, the Nevada Legislature passed a bill that authorized the sale of bonds to purchase land for an Indian boarding school. Once purchased, the land was conveyed to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who established the boarding school to train and educate Indian children with the ultimate goal of assimilation. The campus opened with a capacity for 100 students and included a Victorian-style wood framed dormitory and schoolhouse. As enrollment increased, new buildings included shops for training, a hospital, and a recreation room. A Virginia and Truckee Railroad stop was established by 1906 to deliver supplies and facilitate transporting students to and from the school. By 1919, 400 students attended the school. During the next 16 years, students learning stone masonry from their teachers, including Hopi stonemasons, constructed over 60 native stone buildings. Student curriculum included classes in reading, writing and arithmetic, but focused on vocational training in various trades, agriculture and the service industry. Classes offered for boys included ranching and farming, mechanics, woodworking, painting and carpentry, while girls attended classes in baking, cooking, sewing, laundry and practical nursing. Much of the school’s basic needs were supplied by students’ products or fulfilled by their newly acquired skills. Vocational training remained the school’s principal focus until a shift to academics occurred in the late 1960s. The school closed in 1980 due to federal budget cuts and earthquake safety issues with the masonry buildings. The state of Nevada acquired the campus through several transactions during the 1990s. The campus is now used by the state for classes, training and agency offices, including the Nevada Indian Commission located in the former Superintendent’s home. The Washoe Tribe of Nevada and California established the Stewart Community on much of the former school’s land where they also occupy some of the buildings. Today, the Stewart Indian School is listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, and the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center is to be established in the former Administration Building. Memorabilia from the former Stewart Indian School is currently displayed at the Nevada State Museum’s Under One Sky exhibit. Visit stewartindianschool.com to learn more about Stewart Indian School.
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Bobbi Rahder’s job is to document and interpret the past, but she can’t help but be excited about the future of the new Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.
“It’s so well supported by the Indian community, alumni, and the Nevada Indian Commission and there is so much support in preserving the history,” she said. “They’ve laid the foundation for me to come in now and help create the cultural center because they’ve already done all these building blocks.”
Rahder started in late May as the new Museum Director at the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum.
The Stewart Indian School operated as a government boarding school for American Indian students from 1890 until 1980. Rahder’s hiring is a key component in telling the stories about the former school through exhibits at the cultural center.
“Once I heard Bobbi’s philosophy and vision for the school, I knew she was the right candidate for the job,” said Sherry L. Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “We are extremely excited to have Bobbi on board as she will be instrumental in developing the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center.
“She will take all that we have created to this point and bring it all together to create a unique visitor experience for Nevada and the nation.
PLENTY OF EXPERIENCE
This won’t be the first time Rahder has taken on such a task.
Rahder grew up in Nebraska, has a Master’s Degree in Museum Studies and is finishing her doctorate in American Studies. She has spent the majority of her professional career in and around museums.
“I’ve done a lot of work at various museums as a museum director, collections manager, exhibit designer, grant writer — a little bit of everything,” she said.
For 13 years, she was the curator/director of the Haskell Cultural Center and Museum at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.
At Haskell, she worked with staff, faculty, students, and alumni to create the Cultural Center to tell the history of Haskell as it evolved from a government boarding school to a four-year university for Native American students from all federally recognized tribes.
“When I first went to Haskell in 1994, they had this beautiful glass-plate negative collection of American Indian portraits from 1898 and they wanted some advice about how to care for them and preserve them and make them accessible,” Rahder said. “As I worked with that collection, I realized Haskell had this incredible, unique history as a government boarding school that very few people in the general public know about, but that researchers want to know more about.”
While working on the photo collection, Rahder and her small team also found scores of documents and artifacts ranging from artwork to moccasins to headdresses and more.
She also discovered that Haskell students and alumni had an interest in learning about museum work, and she taught classes in the American Indian Studies Program in Indigenous museum management and Indigenous archives, and these students and alumni worked as interns at the Cultural Center.
‘REALLY RARE AND UNUSUAL’
Once the Haskell collections were identified and cataloged, Haskell President Karen Swisher recognized the need to centralize and preserve the collections in a new museum.
The Haskell construction committee received a $1.3 million grant from the American Indian College Fund, as well as donated logs from the National Log Home Builders Association to build and open the Cultural Center in 2002.
In addition to that initial funding, Rahder and the advisory committee, the Haskell Cultural Preservation Committee, were able to raise another $1 million for preservation of the collections and programming to interpret the collections in exhibits and educational programs through additional grants and private donations.
Stewart Indian School is following a similar path and has an advantage of other former Indian boarding schools that have long-since closed.
“The fact that the campus exists as a campus like this is really rare and unusual,” Rahder said. “As I understand from the other boarding schools, there might be one or two buildings left. This has an entire campus. These stone buildings are absolutely beautiful. I love the river stone.”
Buildings have already been selected for use as the cultural and welcome center and funding proposed by Gov. Brian Sandoval for renovations, $4.5 million, has now been approved by the Nevada Legislature.
“There is this beautiful building they’re going to renovate, so we don’t have to build a building,” Rahder said. “They have some collections that I’ve been learning about and visiting. I know there are probably lots of people in the community that have items that they have been holding onto since we didn’t have a museum.
“Once people learn we have a museum and we’re interested in collecting those things, it will start coming in.”
TELLING THE STEWART STORY
Rahder wants to ensure the collection remains Stewart-specific and that it becomes not only a place to view the artifacts, but also a research facility where alumni, their families and scholars can go to learn the school’s rich history.
“We want to tell the Stewart story,” she said. “We don’t have the resources to tell the story of every American tribe, so we’ll really be focusing on collecting those Stewart memorabilia.”
In the meantime, Rahder plans to immerse herself into the history of Stewart.
“My first steps are to learn more about the history of the school and more about the area,” she said.
That includes spending as much time as possible on tours and in discussions with Rupert, who leads tours at the school and has spearheaded this effort for over 11 years, Rahder said.
Rahder will work with the new museum curator, Chris Ann Gibbons, who has been organizing and preserving the archival documents, photographs, and artifacts that tell Stewart’s history.
She’ll also work with the group developing the master plan for the school and with alumni groups.
“I want to know their vision and be able to put it into place for them,” Rahder said. “Once I study these things and have a better understanding. I want to start coming up with policies and procedures for how the museum will operate and thinking about future needs and what it is we’ll need for the museum to grow.
“It’s going to be fun.”
Guy Clifton is Public Relations Specialist for the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, focusing on museums, arts and Indian news.