What about the Head Start building?

The Head Start Building circa 1960’s. The building was still used as a school after the consolidation of the Ute Vocational School and the Ignacio Public Schools in 1955.
Drum Archives
Drum Archives

The NAGPRA Office is responsible for the documentation and preservation of Southern Ute heritage and history, before and after the arrival of European immigrants, for future generations. For the last two-years, the NAGPRA Office has been involved in the discussion regarding the fate of the historic buildings standing on the Tribal Campus. Specifically, the remaining buildings from the Indian Boarding School Era. At the moment, the historic Head Start School Building (HSSB) is at the heart of the discussion.

In February of 2018, the NAGPRA Office officially requested involvement in the HSSB workgroup tasked with preparing proposals for Southern Ute Tribal Council. The NAGPRA Office submitted their request based on the historic significance of HSSB and the other structures on Tribal Campus from the Indian Boarding School era. During a meeting on March 7, 2019, Tribal Council gave the NAGPRA Office two directives. First, to determine if HSSB is eligible for listing on Colorado’s State Register of Historic Places (SRHP) or the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP). The potential of either listing would determine if the Tribe could apply for state or federal preservation funds. Second, Tribal Council directed the NAGPRA Office to develop two proposals for consideration: 1) a rehabilitation proposal and 2) a mitigation proposal if HSSB is demolished.

The NAGPRA Office took immediate action and contacted the Colorado State Historical Fund (SHF) to schedule a meeting. On April 17, 2019, SHF Representatives recommended HSSB and the other buildings and the park from the Indian Boarding School era were eligible for SRHP and NRHP. SHF Representatives informed the NAGPRA Office that a letter of support from Tribal Council is required if a nomination is submitted for either the SRHP or NRHP. Further, SHF representatives explained, per state policy, a historic property or district listed on the NRHP is simultaneously listing in the SRHP. Therefore, upon the recommendation of SHF, NAGPRA supported the recommendation of nominating the Historic District (SUIT Historic District), including: the HSSB, the Girls Dorm, park, Nurses Quarters, and Dining Hall for the SRHP, while the Girls Dorm and Dining Hall could be nominated for both the SRHP and the NHRP individually.

A student in the 1960’s practices writing her name on the classroom’s chalk board.

The NAGPRA Office created a survey to collect a sample of tribal member perspectives about the rehabilitation and reuse and the demolition of HSSB. The rational for the survey was based on the fact that all Southern Utes were directly or indirectly affected; meaning, either an individual experienced it firsthand as a student or struggles with cultural loss today, due the lasting effects of forced assimilation. Therefore, the NAGPRA Office felt all generations needed to be consulted.

The surveys were distributed to the Southern Ute tribal membership on May 15, 2019 during the General Meeting at the Sky Ute Casino Resort. The surveys returned detailed not only the tribal membership opinions about rehabilitation or demolition, but recounted community and personal memories about the HSSB. Tribal members, for example, reflected on personal memories from the Indian Boarding School era and how the building was used for community functions: powwows, holiday gatherings, wedding receptions, basketball games, plays, youth dances, etc.

On September 3, 2019, the most recent work session was held. Those in attendance included Southern Ute Tribal Council, the NAPGRA Office, Justice and Regulatory, Risk Management, Property and Facilities Management, and Contracting and Project Management. At the meeting, the NAGPRA Office informed the group about the eligibility of the HSSB, gave their recommendation for nominating the SUIT Historic District for SRHP and NRHP, state and federal preservation funds, the results of the tribal membership survey, and the two proposals for rehabilitation of the HSSB and the mitigation measure if Tribal Council votes to have HSSB demolished.

The assessment used to evaluate the eligibility of historic properties or historic districts for listing on the SRHP or NHRP is based on the process established under the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA). The first step to evaluate eligibility is to determine whether a historic property or historic district is at least 50-years old. The HSSB, Girls Dorm, Dining Hall, park, and Nurses Quarters were constructed between 1928 and 1930. Therefore, the HSSB, within the context of the SUIT Historic District, as well as all the Girls Dorm, park, Nurses Quarters, and Dining Hall are eligible individually or as a group for the SRHP and or the NRHP.

The second step to determine whether historic properties or historic districts are eligible for listing on the SRHP and NRHP is to determine whether they are historically significant and have a high degree of integrity. The NHPA has four-criteria of Historical significance, outlined in 36 CFR 60.4:  A) The property must be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; B) The property must be associated with the lives of persons significant in our past; C) The property must embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, represent the work of a master, possess high artistic value, or represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; and or D) The property must show, or may be likely to yield, information important to history or prehistory.

The NAGPRA Office recommended that Tribal Council nominate the HSSB within the context of a SUIT Historic District attributed to the Southern Ute Indian Boarding School. A Historic District, under 36 CFR Part 60 § 60.3 (d) of NHPA, is defined as a “… geographically defined area, urban or rural, possessing a significant concentration, linkage, or continuity of sites, buildings, structures, or objects united by past events or aesthetically by plan or physical development. A district may also comprise individual elements separated geographically but linked by association of history.” The grounds for this recommendation was based on tribal member input and historic significance on a tribal, state, and federal level, as well as the environmental benefits for saving buildings verse demolition.

Tribal Council was notified that the SUIT Historic District met the requirement of being older than 50-years old and is eligible for listing on the SRHP and NRHP Criteria A. HSSB and the buildings within the SUIT Historic District fulfill criteria A, because their relation to the signing of the 1868 Treaty. Article 8 in the 1868 Treaty is the first mention of the U.S. Government’s intent to ensure the “civilization” of the Ute bands entering into the agreement, via education. Additionally, the mural painted by Sam Ray (funded through Government Works Project Administration, during Great Depression) and being used in the filming of “When the Legends Die” (1971). It is important to state that the SUIT Historic District is the last, salvageable example within Colorado from the Indian Boarding School era.

The NAGPRA Office distributed 100-surveys to tribal membership during the General Meeting on May 15, 2019. Out of 100, 51-surveys were returned with extensive comments. The surveys returned represented a wide array of feelings towards either the rehabilitation or demolition of a tribally owned and historically important property. Although a sample, the results indicate that it would be beneficial to have a larger, all-inclusive discussion about the future of the HSSB and the other buildings identified within the SUIT Historic District. Perhaps, even a tribe wide survey and or community meetings.

The responses indicated 64 percent of tribal members favored the rehabilitation and reuse of the HSSB and 23 percent supported the demolition of the HSSB. Only a 11 percent of the tribal membership were undecided (Graph 1). The largest concern was the presence of asbestos in the building. The two other concerns were the total cost and the history associated with the buildings within the SUIT Historic District. Tribal membership responses for future use of the HSSB best reflect a mixed-use approach (Graph 2). Numerous comments reflected a concern for preserving the historic significance of the architecture for future generations and the murals painted by Sam Ray within the HSSB, of which very few exist on the reservation. Based upon tribal member feedback, the NAGPRA Office requested and was granted additional time by Tribal Council to identify and apply for grants to further record the history of the HSSB and monies available for historic preservation, while Tribal Council further discussed what should happen to the HSSB.


The NAGPRA Office identified several grants and opportunities to document additional information about the SUIT Historic District. In August 2019, the NAGPRA Office nominated the SUIT Historic District to be listed on a non-profit historic register, known as Colorado’s Most Endangered Places (CMEP). CMEP is a non-profit organization, established in 1997, and requires only the notification of the property owners to submit a nomination on the behalf of a historic property or historic district.

On November 18, 2019, CMEP notified the NAGPRA Office that the nomination for the SUIT Historic District was selected for listing on CMEP. Out of 20-nominiations submitted for 2020, the SUIT Historic District was one of five properties selected due to its historic significance to tribal, state, and federal history. By being selected, CMEP helps with publicity, advocacy, technical expertise, and provides a preservation mentor, if the owner of the property, who is the Tribe, determines they want to save and rehabilitate the HSSB or other buildings within the SUIT Historic District. In fulfilling their promise, CMEP staff visited the Southern Ute Indian Reservation to film a mini documentary with representatives from the NAGPRA Office and with four tribal members, about the history of the HSSB and the Indian Boarding School Historic District.

On January 31, 2020, Cassandra Atencio, Garrett W. Briggs, and Xavier Watts attended the annual conference for Colorado Preservation Inc.; during the Endangered Places luncheon, the mini documentary about the SUIT Historic District, along with the other four properties were premiered. The mini documentary was filmed by Robert Sanchez and Kevin Strong. At the luncheon, the NAGPRA Office representatives were recognized for their successful nomination in front of 500 attendees. The opening remarks were made by Dave Aguilera, CBS4 Meteorologist, who has been involved with CMEP for 18 years. The mini documentary will be available on Colorado Preservation Inc. website within the month, while a summary can be found on Colorado Preservation, Inc’s website: coloradopreservation.org.

The NAGPRA Office is thankful for being selected for the CMEP register and for the teamwork of CBS4 film crew and the representatives from the Endangered Places program. A special thanks goes out to Robert Sanchez and Kevin Strong, from CBS4, and Kim Grant, the Director for the Endangered Places program. Further, we would like to thank Alden Naranjo, Alex Cloud, and Linda Baker for being interviewed for the mini documentary.

The NAGPRA Office plans to conduct future interviews with tribal members and apply for additional grants to document and preserve the stories for future generations. Although the future of the HSSB and those within the SUIT Historic District are unknown, we will continue our historic documentation efforts to ensure that the stories associated with these buildings are recorded.

If you would like to share stories about the HSSB or the others within the SUIT Historic District, please contact the Cultural Preservation Department to schedule a meeting. Cassandra Atencio and Garrett Briggs can be reached at 970-563-2983. Pamphlets detailing the five historic properties, including the SUIT Historic District nomination can be picked up at the front desk of the Cultural Preservation Department.


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