The Grand Junction Indian School opened its doors to students in 1886 as the seventh school in the federal off-reservation residential boarding school system for Indigenous youth. The Grand Junction campus was the first boarding school in the mountain west and began operating just four years after the founding of the city. Like all off-reservation schools, education at the Grand Junction Indian School was both academic and industrial. Graduates received the equivalent of an eighth-grade education and specialized trade skills that would theoretically enhance Indigenous livelihoods on and off the reservations; however, the school’s broader purpose was the erasure of Indigenous culture, causing immense harm to Indigenous peoples’ ability to maintain their languages and customs.
History and Life of the School
Thomas B. Crawford, Grand Junction’s first postmaster, donated the roughly 170 acres of land east of the city on which the school would be built. Not long after, the first building was erected. This three-wing building served as a combination schoolhouse, dorm, teacher’s quarters, and dining hall. The early years of the Grand Junction campus’s life were marked by low enrollment. For one, the school was tasked with educating the same Utes who had been forced out of Colorado five years earlier, and, second, enrollment was limited to boys at first. Ute people resisted sending their children to the school, and, once there, Ute students periodically tried to escape. Like other Indigenous boarding schools, the Grand Junction school forbade students from speaking Indigenous languages, made sure children dressed in the Western manner, and forced them to worship in the Christian tradition.
Commissioner of Indian Affairs Thomas Morgan visited the fledgling campus in 1890, pledging more material support. With the addition of new faculty, a girls’ dormitory, a dairy barn, a laundry facility, and a beekeeping area, the school was reinvigorated. It began to be known as the “Teller Institute,” after Colorado senator Henry Teller, an advocate of Indigenous education and a critic of US Indigenous policy. From this point until its closure in 1911, the Teller Institute grew in stature, adding students from several neighboring states as well as new programs, indoor plumbing, sidewalks, and other amenities. With its plumbing and sidewalks, the Teller school was cleaner and more sanitary than Grand Junction itself. Enrollment hovered around 200 students per year.
A key feature of the boarding schools was “outing,” where students worked in local industry as part of their educations. Boys typically worked as blacksmiths, farriers, and farmers, while girls were employed in local homes as domestic workers or as stenographers and typists. The agricultural economy of the early twentieth-century Grand Valley was perfect for outing, and many Indigenous boys found work in local orchards and ranches. A 1910 letter from school superintendent Charles Burton to the commissioner of Indian Affairs indicates students in the outing program were earning a total of $3,000–4,000 yearly and saving local orchards from having to import laborers into the valley. Most boys in the boarding school system were paid between $5 and $15 monthly, with girls making $2–$8 over the same period.
But life at the school was not all work and no play: The school fielded baseball, football, and track teams and put on music recitals and other performances for Western Slope residents. The girls had a mandolin band that proved to be regionally popular, and the school published a newspaper, the Reveille, using its own printing equipment. It also appears that, at Grand Junction at least, some Indigenous arts were nurtured by the faculty, despite the overarching goal of ethnocide. In a 1909 report, Estelle Reel, national superintendent of Indian Schools, notes Teller Institute students were “encouraged to preserve the legends and traditions of their respective tribes, and to practice and keep alive the tribal music and industries.”
Closing the Grand Junction School
The federal off-reservation boarding school model fell into disfavor in the early 1900s. The government decided the schools were too expensive to maintain and were not producing enough graduates. Schools were either shut down or handed off to religious bodies or other private organizations. Grand Junction’s closure came in 1911, along with the other Colorado boarding school, Fort Lewis. The last 165 students at Grand Junction left for different opportunities. Eleven students were sent to Rocky Ford for work under the supervision of Charles Dagenette (a member of the Peoria Tribe), an alumnus of the well-known Carlisle Boarding School and then-supervisor of Indian Employment in Colorado. A few students were sent to other federal schools. Most students, however, were sent home to their respective reservations. At the time of closure this included Tohono O’odham, Dine (Navajo), San Juan Southern Paiute, Hopi, and several of the New Mexico Pueblos. Other nations represented at the school over the years included the Ute, San Carlos Apache, Jicarilla Apache, and Ho-Chunk (Winnebago).
After the closure of the Fort Lewis and Grand Junction campuses, Congress granted them to the state of Colorado, along with all buildings and infrastructure. The grant came with certain stipulations: the campuses had to be maintained in perpetuity as institutions of education, and Indigenous people were to have access to the institutions free of charge. Fort Lewis became Fort Lewis College, and to this day it is committed to providing free education to Indigenous students. The Grand Junction campus was originally slated for conversion into a western campus of the State Agricultural College (now Colorado State University). After these plans fell through, the Grand Junction campus fell into disrepair.
In 1921, after receiving congressional permission to convert the dilapidated school into an asylum, the state of Colorado rehabilitated the main campus buildings and opened the State Home and Training School for Mental Defectives to alleviate the overcrowded facility at Wheat Ridge. Over the years, most of the original buildings were torn down and replaced with more modern facilities, though three nineteenth-century buildings remain standing. The State Home continued life as the Grand Junction Regional Center until its closure by the Colorado legislature in 2016.
In its waning years, the Grand Junction school and its students were not well cared for. A 1909 inspection report to the Office of Indian Affairs indicates that the heating and plumbing systems at the school were in dire need of repair and that the school engineer did not have the expertise to get the work done. The accidental saturation of the land by canal water, coupled with a hard freeze, led to cracked foundations and ruined basements in most of the buildings.
This lack of care led to one of the most poignant elements of the school’s story. Children who died while attending residential boarding schools were often buried in school cemeteries, never to see their homes again. Deceased students at Grand Junction were no exception, and a minimum of twenty students were buried on campus over the years. Somehow, the cemetery was lost during the idle decade. A single oral history taken from a Grand Junction resident in 1993 suggests some of the dead were unearthed and reinterred at Orchard Mesa Cemetery, but no known documentary evidence corroborates this account. This anecdote could possibly pertain to non-Indigenous teacher Lue Childs, a 1900 victim of typhoid. Childs died on campus in early July, and her remains were later transported to Orchard Mesa for burial. The location of the Indigenous children’s cemetery remains unknown. No known map or photograph of the campus bears any indication of its whereabouts.
What will become of the now-shuttered Grand Junction campus is also unknown. A 2019 act signed by Governor Jared Polis indicates the property could be sold. Neither the 2016 act that ordered the facility to close, nor the follow-up 2019 act, accounts for the historic nature of the property or its legacy to Indigenous peoples and Coloradans of any ethnicity. As a result, Colorado Mesa University, the Southern Ute Tribe, and the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs have initiated efforts to find and preserve the cemetery and to commemorate Indigenous children’s experiences at the Grand Junction Indian School. These efforts are ongoing.