Fort Lewis College is an accredited four-year liberal arts school located in Durango. Originally an army post, Fort Lewis evolved into an Indian boarding school in the late nineteenth century before the state of Colorado purchased the facilities in 1911. The deed accompanying the purchase specified that the site remain an educational establishment and that Native American students be admitted with free tuition. As such, Fort Lewis College was and remains an important institution for Native American education in both the state and the nation.
The US Army established Fort Lewis in 1878 in southwestern Colorado, a landscape characterized by imposing mountains, cascading mesas, lush riverine valleys, and dry uplands. The Utes have long called this region their home.
Fort Lewis was part of a growing network of army posts that protected white settlers as they pushed westward in the late nineteenth century. This San Juan Valley post lost its strategic importance following the 1873 Brunot Agreement in which the Ute people ceded their lands in the region and were removed to nearby reservations. On May 28, 1891, the post was decommissioned and re-established as a federal Indian boarding school. By March 1892, the new superintendent of Fort Lewis Indian School, Lewis Morgan, arrived with a handful of staff and the institution’s first students.
Like many Indian boarding schools of the era, Indian Agents at Fort Lewis often used coercive measures in their efforts to boost Ute enrollment. School superintendents reported crowded conditions and unsatisfactory buildings, which contributed to high levels of student illness. By September 1903, enrollment had dropped to an all-time low, due in part to competition from another local Indian school located closer to the Southern Ute reservation. In 1910 Congress offered to sell the facilities to the state of Colorado, with two important stipulations: first, that Fort Lewis remain an educational facility, and second, that it grant indigenous students free tuition and equal standing throughout its existence. The second mission would be largely ignored for the first part of the twentieth century, until student activism and reform-minded administrators took up the cause in the 1960s.
Becoming a Liberal Arts College
Colorado officials initially established Fort Lewis as an agricultural and mechanical high school, but by 1927 college courses were offered to ensure that local youth had access to higher education. Initially affiliated with Colorado State College of Mechanics and Arts (today known as Colorado State University), by 1948 Fort Lewis had cut ties with its larger institution to the northwest while maintaining an emphasis on agriculture and mechanics.
In the postwar period, Fort Lewis hosted an increasing number of veterans, but indigenous student enrollment remained low. As farming became less and less profitable for many southern Coloradans, college administrators began to question the agricultural focus of the institution. In 1954 President Dale Rea suggested that the college move to a new location in Durango, a mere sixty miles from its original site in Hesperus. Local Grange organizations and other farmers were concerned that this move signaled the end of Fort Lewis’s agricultural focus, and their apprehensions were well-founded. By 1956 the facilities had moved to Durango, and six years later Fort Lewis would open its doors as a four-year liberal arts college, boasting seven majors.
The number of indigenous students inched up slowly over the course of the 1960s to roughly 10 percent of the student population. This increase was due in large part to new programs that hosted Bureau of Indian Affairs employees for summer training and to the efforts of an indigenous student group, the Shalako Indian Club. In 1968 Fort Lewis hosted an Indian Education Conference designed to help better accommodate and recruit indigenous students. As enrollment numbers continued to climb into the early 1970s, heated debates flared up over who would foot the tuition waiver. By the end of the decade, payment of indigenous student tuition rested firmly with the Colorado state legislature, which continues to fund indigenous students at the college today.
The 1960s also witnessed the creation of Fort Lewis’s Center for Southwest Studies, which has grown to house a sizable archive and considerable programming focusing on the American Southwest, particularly the region’s rich indigenous history. It remains a cornerstone institution for the preservation and circulation of this important regional history.
Fort Lewis has played a part in both the forcible and the elective education of Native Americans since its founding as a boarding school in the nineteenth century. Today, the Native American Center and an indigenous student group, the Wanibli Ota, host a month-long celebration of Fort Lewis’s cultural diversity titled “Hozhoni Days.” Indigenous students now hail from more than 155 American Indian and Alaska Native tribes. From its inception as an army outpost to its present state as a foundational site for the education of indigenous people, Fort Lewis was and remains deeply tied to local and national histories of native peoples. Today, a vibrant community of native students shape the cultural and intellectual community at this army-post-turned-college in southwestern Colorado.