The “I” is fading fast on the mountainside above Brigham City, Utah. Winter snows threaten to erase it for good and with it, the memory of one of Utah’s more significant stories: The Intermountain Indian School, a federally-run Native American boarding school.
The Intermountain Indian School opened its doors in January 1950 on the site of the old Bushnell General Military Hospital. The school served students from the Navajo reservation, covering southern Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico.
In the early 1950s, many Navajo children had difficulty reading, writing, and speaking English. Instead of building new schools on the reservation, policymakers sent students to vocational boarding schools like the one in Brigham City. Tribal leaders initially went along with the plan because it seemed the only way their children could get an education.
During its peak years, enrollment at Intermountain Indian School topped 2300 students, making it one of the largest Indian boarding schools in the United States. One of the school’s teachers, Clair Olson, recalls that each year “the school [scheduled] with Greyhound Bus Company for pickup points on the reservation... The parents would stand off a distance from the loading area.”
The School worked to assimilate Navajo children into the dominant American culture. Students had to speak English and adopt the hair styles, dress, and social patterns of other American teenagers. In addition to regular academic subjects, students learned a vocation, preparing them for entry-level employment. Classes were drawn along gender lines. Boys learned welding, auto mechanics, and painting, while girls took classes in homemaking, cooking, and sewing.
In some ways, the boarding school system succeeded in unanticipated ways. It produced a new generation of Native Americans ready to challenge government programs and policies. In 1973, Navajo leaders pushed to educate their children closer to home. The Intermountain Indian School remained open by accepting students from other tribes, but ultimately closed its doors in 1984.
Rebecca Andersen for the Utah Humanities © 2012
See Clair and Virginia Olsen, March 11, 2002, interview by Kathy Bradford, Brigham City Library, MS163; Intermountain Indian School Yearbook, Class of 1956, Utah State University, Merrill-Cazier Library Special Collections, Logan, Utah. http://digital.lib.usu.edu/cdm/compoundobject/collection/IndSchool/id/3596/rec/146; Lomawaima, K. Tsianina. They Called it Prairie Light: The Story of Chilocco Indian School. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1994, 130; Lewis A. Williams. The Intermountain Indian School. MFA Thesis. Logan Utah: Utah State University, 1991, 2-5; Robert A. Roessel. Navajo Education, 1948-1978: Its Progress and Its Problems. Rough Rock, Navajo Nation, Arizona: Navajo Curriculum Center Rough Rock Demonstration School, 1979, 16, 18; Szasz, Margaret.
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