Where are the bodies buried?

That is the question swirling around an infamous piece of property in Grand Junction as at least 20 Native American children are believed to have been buried on the site of the Grand Junction Regional Center, formerly the Teller Institute, an Indian boarding school, that was founded in 1886.

Where the bodies are at, specifically, is unknown, but the question is circulating again in light of discoveries of mass graves containing hundreds of bodies at former Indian boarding schools in Canada and a new effort from the federal government focused on the children who died at Indian Boarding Schools. The Teller Institute’s Grand Junction campus spreads across 160 acres just off Riverside Parkway near 28 road.

“Who was here and what happened out here?” asks Colorado Mesa University archaeology professor John Seebach.

The Teller Indian School was designed to assimilate Native American children into Euro-American culture, Seebach said.

For example, he said, children at the school were not allowed to speak their native languages in favor of English.

“The early children who came first had to be taught English and were forbidden to use their native language,” Don MacKendrick, a CMU history professor emeritus, said in a 1978 lecture. “Reports from runaways were that they had been beaten because they spoke in their native tongue. They literally chased them down with posses when they ran away.

“The whole purpose was to destroy the Indian culture,” MacKendrick said. “These children were to go home after five years at the school completely indoctrinated in white man’s ways.

”Now at that time, the whole philosophy of the Indian education was based on this assumption that the Indian just had to be Americanized,” MacKendrick continued. “This meant the destruction of his culture and the inculcating of the white culture in the mind of the Indian. If you didn’t do this, according to the Indian educators, they would probably all be killed. So it was either this or that. Either you saved the human being and destroyed the culture or the culture would continue to operate and probably the human being would be destroyed.”

That assimilation extended to when children died at the school, according to Seebach. The children were given Christian burials, their bodies buried on-site in a cemetery at the school, instead of having their bodies sent back to their tribes.

Seebach believes this practice was more than school officials wanting to save time and money that would be spent sending the bodies back home. He said his research suggests giving the students Christian burials was a way to assimilate them into American culture even in death.

There are records of at least 20 children who died at the Teller Institute, Seebach said. With one or two brief mentions of other children who may have died. Records of the burials are pretty spotty.

“I wouldn’t be surprised one bit if there are bodies we don’t have records for,” Seebach said.

MacKendrick said in his lecture after the institute was closed the records were taken to Leavenworth, Kansas, and stored in a building that caught fire and burned with the records inside.

Death records from the institute include a typhoid outbreak in 1900, Seebach said, and there will probably be more bodies recovered from that than there are death records.

The children’s bodies must be buried somewhere on the campus. The problem is no one knows where on the property the cemetery is. Today, the property serves as a state-run care facility for those with developmental disabilities, however that function is coming to an end as officials work to move residents into other housing in an effort to close and, eventually, sell the property. As that all unfolds, though, the question of where perhaps dozens of graves might be lingers over the state’s efforts.

At some point, according to Seebach, the grave markers were removed, but there is no mention in the schools’ records of the cemetery being moved.

“It’s out there somewhere,” Seebach said.

The most important thing to remember is the people buried in the cemetery have living relatives, Seebach said.

HEIGHTENED FOCUS ON BOARDING SCHOOL DEATHS

Following the news of 215 children found in a mass grave at a boarding school in Canada, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland announced in June the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative.

The initiative will identify past boarding school sites, known or possible burial sites located near those facilities, and the identities and tribal affiliations of children who were taken there, Haaland said.

“We must uncover the truth about the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of these schools,” Haaland said when announcing the initiative.

The Teller Indian School housed children from nearby tribes such as the Ute, Pima, Navajo, Hopi and Tohono O’odham nations from places like Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico, Seebach said, and also from more faraway places like the Ho-Chunk tribe from the midwest.

MacKendrick also mentions Apache and Mescalero Apache Indians in his lecture.

Speaking at the National Congress of American Indians’ mid-year conference, Haaland, a member of the Laguna-Pueblo tribe, recalled her grandmother’s stories of being taken away to boarding school, saying “our communities are still mourning.”

“I come from ancestors who endured the horrors of Indian boarding schools,” Haaland said. “Assimilation policies carried out by the same department that I now lead.

“The federal policies that attempted to wipe out native identity, language, culture, continue to manifest in the pain our communities face, including long-standing intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, disappearance of indigenous people, premature deaths, mental disorders and substance abuse,” Haaland said.

A Department of the Interior press release said the Federal Indian Boarding School Initiative’s work will happen in several phases, with submission of a final written report to Haaland by April, 2022.

The Interior Department is uniquely positioned to help uncover the dark histories of Indian Boarding Schools because it operated those schools, Haaland said.

Haaland said the process will be long and difficult, but acknowledging the past can help work toward a future everyone is proud of.

“It’s our responsibility,” she said.

LOCAL INVESTIGATION

Seebach has been interested in the site since 2016, when Gov. John Hickenlooper mandated the property be sold.

Seebach said he’s trying to raise the public’s consciousness of the historical significance of the site, which was not mentioned in the legislation at the time.

The Teller Indian School, also known as the Teller Institute and the Grand Junction Indian School, was founded in 1886, just a few years after settlers started arriving in the area, according MacKendrick’s 1978 lecture, given to the Plateau Valley Historical Society in Collbran.

The school was named after former Colorado senator Henry Teller and followed the model of other Indian boarding schools of the time, most notably the Carlyle Indian School in Pennsylvania, which operated under the motto “destroy the Indian and create a man.”

DESTROYING A CULTURE

”The idea being that the Indian children should be removed from the reservations and out of the influence of their families and friends and completely immersed in civilization,” MacKendrick said.

According to MacKendrick, after five years at the school the goal was for children to go back to the reservations completely indoctrinated in white American culture.

How this went about involved the students not being allowed to speak their native languages, MacKendrick said, as well indoctrinating the children into white American culture through pursuits such as music and baseball.

The Teller Institute’s baseball team really was quite good, MacKendrick said.

In the early years, MacKendrick said, the school was trying to bring in Ute children to be indoctrinated and was not finding much success.

”(The Utes) absolutely refused to come and apparently they hogtied some and dragged them in so the first few years, they had a few students,” MacKendrick said.

After giving up on the Utes, the school sent recruiters down to Arizona and Nevada, MacKendrick said, and most of the school’s students came from that area.

The school maintained agricultural pursuits and taught the students trades such as blacksmithing, MacKendrick said.

After a period living in the boarding school, MacKendrick said, students were sent to host families around the area to be further indoctrinated and serve as labor.

A MESS FROM THE START

The Teller Institute was not well run, according to MacKendrick. The agricultural side of the school largely failed at whatever crops it tried to grow.

“The land was poor to begin with but then they found the vocational teachers that they brought in were from apparently the Ozarks or the Tennessee mountains and they knew nothing about irrigating,” MacKendrick said.

Sewer issues plagued the campus for years (at one point the superintendent suggested dumping the waste into the Colorado River, but the location was deemed too close to where Grand Junction got its drinking water) until it was hooked up to Grand Junction sewer just a few years before it closed, according to MacKendrick, and the drinking water was taken right out of irrigation ditches and caused the children constant stomach problems.

Management was also poor. One man, Theo G. Lemmon, who served as superintendent for 13 years, was supposed to take care of money earned by students from their labors in the trades and in agriculture, MacKendrick said. The money, some $2,000-3,000, disappeared.

Lemon remained superintendent for five more years after the investigation into the missing money, which also found that Lemon was having an affair with a teacher, used foul language in front of the children and spent most of his time practicing photography, according to MacKendrick.

“There were about 15 or 16 charges against him and they still didn’t fire him,” MacKendrick said.

WHERE THINGS STAND

There are conflicting reports about which year the school actually closed, but the Grand Junction Regional Center, which serves and houses people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, dates back to 1919, according to the state of Colorado.

Some of the center’s 28 buildings are uninhabitable, and two legislative committees started looking into alternatives for the Regional Center Campus about six years ago.

In 2016, Gov. Hickenlooper signed a piece of legislation requiring the center’s residents to be moved and the campus listed for sale.

In 2019, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill saying the state must list all or a portion of the property for sale or agree to transfer all or a portion of the campus to a higher education institution, local government or state agency, giving the human services department other options besides selling the whole thing.

Seebach said he has no indication to whom the campus might be sold, or what the property might be used for.

According to the Colorado Department of Human Services, which owns and manages the Regional Center, the campus can’t be sold until all the residents have been moved to different accommodations.

So far, 12 of 23 residents have been moved, according to the state.

In order to move the remaining residents, two new homes must be built to accommodate individuals with disabilities, as no suitable spaces exist in the community, according to the state.

“The building is to be sold when the last person is moved from the campus. We do not have a date for when that will or must happen, but we are working to move residents as quickly and safely as possible,” Human Services Deputy Director of Communications Madlynn Ruble said in en email.

State Human Services also addressed the campus’s history, saying “CDHS is saddened at the history that happened at Indian Boarding and Residential schools across much of the United States, and that history happening here in Colorado.”

In April, the CDHS established the Teller Institute Task Force, which is tasked with working with tribal leaders and other experts on the necessary steps that must be taken regarding the grounds.

Members of the task force include representatives from the Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, CDHS, the Colorado Commission of Indian Affairs, History Colorado, Colorado Mesa University and a community representative. Seebach is CMU’s representative on the task force.

“CDHS will partner with Tribal governments on what future steps look like,” Ruble said in an email.

But if and when the cemetery is discovered, then what happens? There are a lot of options on the table, according to Seebach, but he said he expects that either a memorial to the children will be put up at the site or the bodies will be disinterred and sent back to their home tribes.

Seebach said he would prefer to excavate the site archaeologically and “not just take a backhoe to it.”

If there is a memorial, he said, he would “fight fiercely” to ensure part of the property not be sold to and create some sort of memory garden to endure the memories of the children at the Teller Institute are preserved.

“Almost nobody knows that this place existed,” he said.