Project seeks to identify Indian students who perished while attending Grand Junction Indian Boarding School

Students at the Teller Institute Indian School. Circa 1900.
Courtesy The Daily Sentinel

The U.S. government’s agenda for American Indians — by way of forced assimilation through education, since the beginning of the reservation era, was straight forward: “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” Capt. Richard H. Pratt, made these sentiments known in a speech in 1892. Pratt was the founder and longtime superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs lead this charge focused on the Americanization of Indigenous youth through indoctrination using a military model of education. Students who attended government sanctioned educational institutions, often forced by threat of legal action, were frequently subjected to physical and emotional punishment if they did not conform to American lifeways and speak English. Because of disease and ill-equipped medical staff, many students lost their lives to illness and or infection.

The first Indian boarding school in the American Southwest was the Albuquerque Indian School. In 1883, a year after it was founded, twenty-seven Ute children were sent to the boarding school. Within a year, almost half of the children died. Ute leaders immediately demanded the return of the survivors. Appalled by promises not kept by the United States government, the Ute nation argued that the U.S. Government must abide by the Treaty of 1868, which stated that an educational system would be established on Ute lands.

The first official off-reservation Indian Boarding School in Colorado was established in Grand Junction. Founded in 1886, most of the Ute community opposed sending any more of their youth to off-reservation schools due to the loss of life at the Albuquerque Indian School. In operation between 1886 – 1911, at least twenty-three students died because of various reasons while attending the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School. Some of the deceased have been identified and documents indicate at least one student was Ute. However, it is unclear how many, if any of the other unidentified students who perished while at the Grand Junction Boarding School, are Ute.

Currently, there is an on-going Grand Junction Boarding School Project that involves all three Ute Tribes’ cultural preservation departments. By informing the public, we hope to encourage anyone who has information about relatives who may have attended this institution to come forward. Additional information about those who attended the institution could add more depth to the history of the institution, as well as assist in the identification of the unidentified individuals and return them to their respective communities.

Colorado History of Indian Education Among the Utes

The earliest documentation of federal involvement in the education of Utes is evidenced in the Treaty of 1868. Article 8 of this provision states that education was necessary, “to insure the civilization of the bands entering into this treaty.” As promised under the Treaty of 1868, the U.S. Government established several educational programs at the various Ute agencies. The establishment of these educational programs within the Ute reservation were the first of their kind in the state of Colorado.

The Indian Office upheld promises made in the Treaty of 1868 and approved a boarding school on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in 1884. The first school house on the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s reservation was constructed in 1885 and opened in 1886. The school was named the Ignacio Indian School and became the first official on-reservation Indian school in Colorado. A year later, the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School was established.

The original rationale for establishing the Grand Junction Boarding School was to remove and educate Ute youth away from their communities. After unsuccessfully pursuing the Ute Indian Tribes, administrators forfeited their institutional objective and placed neighboring reservations in their crosshairs to reach their enrollment quota. In 1899, the demographic of the Grand Junction Indian Boarding School was comprised of more than a dozen different Indian Nations. Dr. John Seebach’s, assistant professor and archaeologist at Colorado Mesa University, was quoted in the Daily Sentinel on April 9, 2018, as saying that the student body “… included Navajos, Apaches, Hopis, Pimas, Papagos (now known as Tohono O’odham), Pueblo Indians, and even eight tribal members from the Upper Midwest. Only eight were of them were Utes.”

List compiled and provided by Dr. John Seebach (11/05/2018)

According to Dr. Seebach, at least twenty-three enrolled American Indians died while attending the Grand Junction Boarding School. As of November 2018, four students have not been identified by name, while eleven of the twenty-three students were associated with a Tribal affiliation on a list provided by Dr. Seebach. The students who died were not given a proper American burial with a headstone. Therefore, paired with the lack of proper documentation, the location of the cemetery is unknown today.

After the school closed in 1911, the State of Colorado purchased the building and turned it into a home for people with disabilities. On June 10, 2016, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law Senate Bill 16-178 that mandated that the Grand Junction Regional Center (formerly known as the Grand Junction Boarding School) be vacated and sold. On Jan. 9, 2018 it was confirmed that the property would be sold regardless of the graves on the premises.

Consultation with Descendent Tribal Communities

On April 4, 2018 Dr. Seebach mailed notifications and consultation requests to all three Ute Tribal Governments as well as to the other tribes affiliated with the institution based on Grand Junction’s Indian Boarding School’s records between 1886 and 1911. Ben Reed is listed on those records as being from the Uintah Agency and died from typhoid on September 8, 1888 (Table 1). It is unknown if the other ten students with no Tribal affiliation were of Ute descent.

The Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe were also contacted because of the 2008 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU): The Process for Consultation, Transfer, and Reburial of Culturally Unidentified Native American Human Remains and Associated Funerary Objects, Originating from the Inadvertent Discoveries on Colorado State and Private Lands (hereafter referred to the State Process). The State Process is unique to the United States because it is the only one in existence.

The Grand Junction Boarding School project is subject to the State Process instead of the federal law the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act due to its land status. The state of Colorado purchased the land from the federal government during the first half of the 20th century. Hence, the land transferred from federal to state ownership.

The State Process, in brief, is an agreement that applies to Native American ancestral remains and associated funerary objects found on state or private lands in Colorado. The State Process is the result of a diverse workgroup, composed of the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, History Colorado, the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribes (the two Ute Tribes’ located in the state of Colorado), and forty-seven-Tribes affiliated with the State of Colorado. Thirty-nine of the tribes sent along letters of support, appointing the Southern Ute and Ute Mountain Ute Indian Tribe as being responsible for culturally unidentifiable ancestral remains and associated funerary objects, which cannot be affiliated with a modern-day Indian tribe, and rebury them if they cannot be preserved in situ.

The individuals at the Grand Junction Boarding School are considered culturally unidentifiable due to a lack of headstones or other primary documentation to identify the students’ graves. However, there are several non-destructive techniques that can be used to assess the physiology of the human remains. Once the graves are located, forensic anthropologists can evaluate the ancestors’ teeth and specific skeletal regions to determine sex and approximate age. The information collected from these physiological methods, paired with Dr. Seebach’s archival data, will be disclosed and discussed with the consulting tribes throughout the duration of the State Process.

On Jan. 1, Dr. Seebach updated the NAGPRA Office about being approved by Dr. Holly Norton, the State Archaeologists of the State of Historic Preservation Office, to use a combination of techniques to assess two possible locations where the cemetery may lie on campus. Dr. Seebach and his team will first evaluate those locations using cadaver dogs, followed with the use of ground penetrating radar. Both techniques will be used to identify whether there are subsurface anomalies indicating the students’ cemetery.

All three Ute Tribes cultural preservation representatives will be involved as the project continues. The Grand Junction Boarding School Project is a collaborative interagency and intergovernmental effort. The project includes representatives from various Tribal Governments, State Agencies, and Educational Institutions, among others.

Contact the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s NAGPRA Office if you have any photos, letters, information, or stories about those who attended the Grand Junction Boarding School between 1886 and 1911. Managing the case on the behalf of the Southern Ute Indian Tribe are NAGPRA Coordinators, Cassandra Atencio and Garrett Briggs. Contact at

This article submitted by Garrett Briggs | NAGPRA Coordinator Apprentice

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