COMMUNITY LEADERS GUIDING OTHERS, BRINGING A SENSE OF HOPE DURING THESE CHALLENGING TIMES.
By Natasha Bourlin
A citizen of the Washoe Paiute nation born on a reservation in Schurz, Nev., Stacey Montooth is charged with being the liaison between the governor’s office and the more than 60,000 Native Americans spread amongst 27 tribal governments within the state. Her mission is to improve the quality of life for these indigenous peoples.
Just over a year into her position, it’s “quite a job,” Montooth says.
In January 2020, the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum opened its doors in Carson City … for 60 days. A long-envisioned endeavor, the campus, now on the National Register of Historic Places, served as an off-reservation boarding school for American Indians from across the west between 1890-1980. About a dozen popped up throughout the U.S. beginning in the mid-1800s, created around a military model.
In 1892, Captain Richard H. Pratt declared a mission to, “Kill the Indian, and save the man.” His intention was to make the land’s indigenous peoples “Americanized” by teaching them trades and keeping them out of the way of “progress.”
He started young.
Reservations were established, largely rural. Children were removed from their families, then taken to the schools, including Stewart. Lives were devastated in an effort to make the true locals “productive citizens.”
Montooth’s predecessor, Sherry Rupert, believed the closed school could serve as an educational tool comprised of a walking tour narrated by school alumni and their predecessors sharing their firsthand experiences. Authenticity was critical.
As Montooth reinforces, history is written by the winners. She explains that for years other people have been telling Native Americans’ stories, inaccurately. Often Native Americans are discussed in the past tense.
“That’s absolutely wrong, we continue to have a thriving, sophisticated, beautiful culture,” Montooth shares. “We have all kinds of Native Americans that are doctors and lawyers, and high-profile professions. We wanted to have a cultural center that exemplifies that we’re still here.”
Upon opening the cultural center, nearly 1,000 visitors came through in 60 days. Once closed for the pandemic, they launched virtual tours online. It’s now re-opened to the public, with safety measures in place.
Her hope is that open-minded individuals will visit and learn the facts about the indigenous peoples. She’s seen empathy sprout from those learning of the government policies that affected her relatives and ancestors. A light goes on with each visitor’s understanding of the social ills that still continue to plague the Native American communities.
“We know for a fact our people are very resilient, this is not our first pandemic. Our relatives have learned to live through everything from smallpox to tuberculosis, all kinds of ailments.”
As the pandemic effects all walks of life today, Montooth sees a silver lining for her people.
“We know for a fact our people are very resilient, this is not our first pandemic. Our relatives have learned to live through everything from smallpox to tuberculosis, all kinds of ailments.” stewartindianschool.com