UNLV students experience customs, culture at Stewart Indian School
This story was first published in the June 2017 edition of First Nation’s Focus.
More onlineVisit www.stewartindianschool.com to learn more about Stewart Indian School and its long and storied history.
CARSON CITY, Nev. — Emi Kramer had never heard of Stewart Indian School until earlier this year.
“I honestly didn’t even know it existed,” the 20-year-old University of Nevada, Las Vegas, student said during a tour of the Native American exhibit “Under One Sky” at the Nevada State Museum. “I had no idea what to expect coming up here. It has really been eye-opening.”
Kramer and seven fellow students from UNLV made the 430-mile drive to Carson City during the week of May 17 for five days of Alternative Spring Break, a university program that allows students to experience a different community and explore social justice issues through service.
This is the second year Stewart has been a part of an alternative spring break program. The school, located on 110 acres about 3 miles southeast of downtown Carson City, operated as a federal boarding school for Native American children from 1890 to 1980.
“The students were very eager to help and to learn about the Native American culture,” said Sherry Rupert, executive director of the Nevada Indian Commission. “Most were unfamiliar with Nevada Tribes and knew nothing of the Stewart Indian School and the Indian boarding schools instituted across the nation.
“They were open to learning and giving and were a great group of students.”
Over their 5-day stay, the UNLV students’ service included cleanup of Stewart’s historic cemetery and several of its buildings, including the school’s auditorium, and dining hall and the Washoe Tribe’s community church.
Much of the cleanup work was completed in the mornings with cultural activities filling the students’ afternoons, including trips to the Pyramid Lake Museum and Visitors Center, the Nevada State Museum, Native American art exhibits and to Lake Tahoe.
Each stop included a lesson in Native American cultural experience.
For UNLV student Thuon Chen, it was a chance to have history set right in his own mind.
When he first heard of Stewart Indian School, he wondered if it had been named for Helen J. Stewart, a Las Vegas pioneer often called the “First Lady of Las Vegas,” who had donated land in 1922 for the first Las Vegas Grammar School — the first public school attended by Native American students from the Southern Paiute Indian Colony.
In fact, the school is named for Nevada’s first U.S. Senator, William Morris Stewart, who sponsored the national legislation creating the school.
“It’s been really great to learn about the history and the culture,” Chen said.
Stine Odegard, a program coordinator with UNLV Student Engagement & Diversity Department, which coordinates the alternative spring break program, grew up in Carson City, so she was familiar with the school.
“I used to go to powwows with my parents,” she said.
Odegard said it was nice to see the UNLV students soak in the cultural experience.
“I think they all have really enjoyed this trip and gotten to know a lot about the culture,” she said. “I think some of them said, ‘oh, I had my impressions of what to expect and it was nothing like I thought it would be. It’s been a great experience for them.”
Rupert noticed the same thing.
“I was struck how they all mentioned they came in with one impression and left with a different perspective,” she said.
While cleaning up at the Stewart Cemetery, the students cleaned the grave of the iconic Washoe basket weaver Dat So La Lee.
Then, during their trip to the Nevada State Museum, they were able to see up close, some of the baskets Dat So La Lee created — many now valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Tantri Porter, who is originally from Indonesia, said the entire experience was eye opening for her.
“I didn’t know at all about Native American culture before I came to the U.S.,” she said. “This has been a great experience.”
Rupert said it’s possible that Stewart becomes a regular option for UNLV’s Alternative Break Program.
“We have been approached by UNLV the last two years,” she said. “Many of the students participating in the program have never been beyond Las Vegas and it is an opportunity for them to see another part of the state and to experience the Native American culture. It is a different perspective for students to consider, and they would like to continue the partnership.”
Guy Clifton is Public Relations Specialist for the Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, focusing on museums, arts and Indian news.