When We Remain
Reflections of a Native Fort Lewis alumnus on school's dark legacy
All around me, leaves are blushing and bleeding. In the back yard, two cats lounge in the shade. The world surrenders to October, and I observe in silence. I hear history through the wind, and it feels like I’ve been speechless for days. I’ve been reading History Colorado’s 140-page report on the state’s Indigenous boarding schools. The unspeakable violence that Native children endured has been heavy to process. The fallen leaves that surround me reflect a blood-soaked country.
As a Fort Lewis graduate, the report confirms stories I’ve heard from Native classmates about the college’s boarding school legacy. “Through archival analysis we identified 31 deaths of students over an 18-year time frame at the Fort Lewis Indian Boarding School,” History Colorado reported. My heart sinks over that statistic. The researchers worked thoroughly to confirm a number. But since much of the boarding school’s record-keeping has been lost or damaged, it’s hard to fully know how many children died there.
My heart drowns for the unknown.
In another section, the report details the investigations at the boarding school cemetery. The cemetery was first used during the Fort’s early days as a military post. When the post turned into a boarding school, administrators continued using the burial site. The report notes that over time, surrounding communities also used the cemetery. “To date,” History Colorado wrote, “the cemetery is the final resting place of 350-400 individuals.” Of that, “30-100, or more” are associated with students from the boarding school.
It’s chilling to know there’s a mass grave holding the enforcers and victims of colonial violence. I’m shaken over the fate those children were forced into.
My sinking heart reaches for the sky.
The sun eventually surrenders its hold on the day, and the chill sets in. I need to hear something healing, the sound of god. I need poetry. So I head inside and play Samantha Crain’s music. Crain is a Choctaw Nation songwriter from Oklahoma. Her voice often quivers, not like she’s afraid but like she’s channeling something transcendent. Her voice comes through the speakers like whispers in the shadows, and I hear music from another lifetime.
Her song, “When We Remain,” centers on Indigenous resilience. Like all that is holy and sacred, Crain sings it in her Native language. It begins with the lyrics: When we remain, we will not be like the beautiful bones of a forgotten city & it reminds me of the starving antennas poking out of the West Building on 2nd Ave. aimlessly reaching for the sky waiting for a sign, waiting for the gates to open because I find myself doing the same thing in the void of a quiet night when my hope has fallen asleep but my doubts are wide awake & it’s amazing it’s heartbreaking to realize those children in those boarding schools in those unmarked graves are my ancestors & their prayers are still circulating in the air & some days I see them as sunbathed birds reaching for the sky.
& I cherish being an alumnus but I know the same cannot be said for those children for my ancestors because what’s another word for having your tongue cut out having your hair ripped off having your heart stomped out, but I find comfort in Samantha’s voice when she croons: When we remain, we will be the flowers and the trees and the vines that overcome the forgotten city & that calls to mind one night when my friend Kathleen and I walked by the Himalayan Kitchen & as we made our way up that sidewalk slope, Kathleen stopped to point out the silhouette of a skeletal tree leaning along the fence after fall had plucked all the bloody leaves away & it felt like the angel in flames on Horeb & I stayed to watch that shadow crookedly stretch reaching for the sky.
& Samantha godblessHer she keeps praying I mean she keeps singing I mean what’s the difference when she says We have woven ourselves into the cloth of the earth, We have mixed our breath into the expanding sky & I think of the night the Native children tried to burn down the boarding school because if they couldn’t make it at least the flames had a chance to escape reaching for the sky because what it comes down to is land back means lives back & my heart is always reaching for the sky like my ancestors traveling through former worlds because I still believe another world is possible I see it in dreams with hands held high waking up to rainbows & rhizome horizons & just right over there do you see them in that world full of borderless love no map can articulate just right over there the children have returned home & they begin singing:
Kirbie Bennett is part of the creative team behind “The Magic City of the Southwest,” a podcast aiming to add new stories to Durango’s history books. Tune into the next episode on Sun., Oct. 15, at 2 p.m. on KSUT. Find out more at themagiccity.org