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The story of the Ute and the Grand Junction Indian School.

With the wave of white settlement to the West in the nineteenth century, Native American life in the West faced cultural annihilation. The passage of the Dawes Act in 1887 forced Native peoples to become farmers while attempting to dissolve their tribal structure. In addition, the Dawes Act mandated that Indian children be educated in reservation day schools, reservation boarding schools, or off-reservation boarding schools. Hoping to foster assimilation, the Indian School Service established many boarding schools throughout the West. As part of that system, the Federal Government established the Grand Junction Indian School in Colorado (1886) to assimilate the Ute Indians.

From the first contact with the Spanish in 1598, Utes and other tribes tried to adapt to their new environment. By the 1860s, tempers flared among the White River Ute band when Nathan Meeker, their government agent, insisted that they adapt and become farmers and send their children to a boarding school. Violence later erupted when the White River Ute band killed twelve U.S. soldiers and wounded forty-three others at the Battle of Milk Creek (Colorado). Although Ouray, the chief of the Uncompahgre Utes, quelled the violence, the government forced 1500 of his own tribe to leave their ancestral grounds in 1881 and relocate to the Uintah reservations in Utah. The Uintah and Ouray reservations later consolidated in 1886; however, a small number of Southern Utes remained on a reservation in southwest Colorado (Simmons, 65; Smith, 2002; Brown, 1970).

The Ute presence plagued Colorado Senator Henry Teller. Although favoring removal of the remaining White River Utes, Teller was a strong advocate of Indian education. Specifically, he embraced the off-reservation boarding school model created by Captain Richard Henry Pratt of the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. According to Pratt, assimilation was only possible when Indians were totally removed from their tribal surroundings and immersed in mainstream white culture at a boarding school or integrated into the community through an "outing program." Indian students participating in the outing program usually provided labor for the community while living with a family (Smith, 2002; Adams, 1995).

Both Teller and Pratt believed that education would lead to assimilation and prepare Indians for land ownership. Convinced of the possibilities of Indian education, Teller, later the Secretary of the Interior under Chester Arthur from 1882-1885, lobbied Congress for an appropriation to establish an off-reservation boarding school to "materially aid the Utes" in Colorado. Full of optimism, the Indian School Service predicted that over "100 pupils could be secured from the Utes." Teller's dream was partially realized in the fall of 1886 when the Grand Junction Indian School (later called the Teller Institute) opened its doors (Smith, 2002; MacKendrick, 1993).

Grand Junction, CO, was established in 1881 and became the economic and political center of western Colorado. The school faced many problems including poor land, poor drinking water and problems with their school sewage system mainly because of the clay soil.

Students were given the opportunity to receive an eighth grade education (MacKendrick, 1993). Teachers taught Ute children entering the primary grade the fundamentals of English by using object lessons, pantomime, conversation games, and a variety of other teaching strategies. The curriculum also included manual labor to help make the students self-sufficient. Teachers taught the male students to "till the soil, shove the plane, strike the anvil, and drive the peg," and the girls were taught to "do the work of the good and skillful housewife" (Adams, 1995).

The boarding school curriculum, as dictated by the Indian School Service, was highly structured dividing instructional time between manual labor and academia and organizing students into various grades. Commenting on the structure of the boarding schools, Connor Chappose, a Ute from the Ouray Reservation in the early 1900s, stated that boarding schools were "military like" because the students had "their own school clothing" and had to "drill and salute the flag and form a line when the flag went down." He stated that the government used "Indian Policemen" to apprehend children who "ran away and went back home." Nevertheless, Ute students had to conform to the government's educational approach. Roland McCook, the great-great grandson of Ouray and Chipeta, best expressed the young Ute student's attitude toward the boarding school textbooks, primarily the McGuffey Reader, by saying that the books had "no real meaning" to Ute children (Witherspoon, 1993; McCook, 2006). To counter, Ute parents and grand-parents taught practical survival skills. And as Chappose added:
 The men had a game where the leader would throw his arrow and then the
 rest of the men would try to come as close as they could to the first
 arrow. This was good training for the boys who played this game and it
 taught them marksmanship with the bow and arrow. (Witherspoon, 1993)

Government injustice further crippled the institution in the summer of 1887, just months after it opened. In August, a number of White River Utes under Uncompahgre Colorow returned to their traditional hunting grounds in southwestern Colorado. Colorow and the Utes believed that the Brunot Agreement of 1873 permitted them to return to these lands and hunt, fish, or gather berries. Claiming that the Utes had violated state game laws, a Colorado game warden led a seventeen-member posse to the Ute encampment and seized a young Ute boy.

An unnecessary reaction to this incident lead to another Ute boy being killed in the process. In another event, the Governor of Colorado called out the militia to apprehend Utes fleeing back to Utah. It is no wonder that the White River Utes were opposed to education and declared, "Me no give'um children up; fight first." Subsequently, Indian Agent T. A. Byrnes claimed the Indian parents from the Ouray agency were not prepared to send their children to the Grand Junction School at Colorado, for they were told that any "Ute Indians crossing the Colorado line would be shot on sight." (ARCIA, 1887, 1889, 1898)

The violation of Ute rights limited their involvement in the Grand Junction Indian School. On October 1, 1887, then Superintendent Breen, reported only seven Ute children present (26 total). Hoping to increase enrollment, Breen embarked on a recruiting trip with two students--Southern Ute Jose Maria and White River Ute Ben Reed to the "reservation of Ouray and Uintah" in January of 1888. In his travels, Breen was "looked upon with suspicion and aversion" because of the "Ute war" (Colorow affair of 1887). Dr. Sawtelle the agency physician, advised Breen not to mention "Colorado" in their presence, as the word "excited their anger and indignation." Breen left Jose Maria at the Ouray Agency to convince them to send their children to the Grand Junction Indian School (ARCIA, 1888; Salt Lake City Tribune, 1887; National Archives Records Administration Inspection Reports 1887, 1889).

Despite the animosity, Breen along with Ben Reed, proceeded to recruit the remaining Ute at Uintah. Unfortunately, their efforts failed. The Utes' perception of the Grand Junction Indian School had been tarnished by the experience of Turoose, one of their children who had attended the school the previous year. Being intimidated by the industrial teacher who "wore a loaded revolver strapped to his waist," Turoose escaped from the school. He was captured by Thomas Griffith, the Principal Teacher, who forced him back to the school at gunpoint and threatened to hang or imprison him. Given that most Ute parents rejected physical punishment as a means of discipline, such measures were entirely inappropriate (ARCIA, 1888, 1894; Smith, 1974).


In Breen's absence, the school fell into disarray. Indian School Service inspector Frank Armstrong chastised Breen for spending too much time recruiting Indian children for the school. As a result, the children's parents urged "them to return to Walker River (Nevada), and attend "the White day schools" and assist them with the annual crop planting (NARA Inspection Reports, 1887, 1889).

The Grand Junction School continued to decline. Inspector Armstrong denounced the Grand Junction staff stating that the "Principal Teacher, Rev. Thos. Griffith" is "a disorganizer, scheming to get the position of Supt." and "several boys ... have not worn a coat or jacket since they arrived, as there were no coats or jackets large enough for them." Besides being ill supplied, members of the Grand Junction community communicated low expectations for the Indian children. For as Indian student Joseph Banks stated, "the people of Grand Junction think that our pupils are like dumb driven cattle--they think we cannot learn." (NARA, 1887, 1889; Deseret News, 1888)

Despite the barriers, the twenty-six pupils, including seven Utes, adapted and made sufficient progress, for "all of the pupils" knew "enough of English to be able to transact the common business of life." But there was great internal strife among the Grand Junction staff. The faculty was divided over Breen's appointment in 1888. Hoping to discredit him, Democratic faculty accused him of excessive drinking. Republican staff, on the other hand, rejected such accusations. The squabbling among the Grand Junction faculty reflected a political trend in the late nineteenth century--an obsession with patronage often leading to corruption in the Indian School Service. Politicians rewarded their devoted followers with a plethora of spoils, including appointments as Indian agents to reservations and Indian boarding schools. Given the political dissension, the Indian Bureau dispatched special agent H.S. Welton to investigate Breen's conduct. Although acquitted, Breen commented on the detrimental effect of the scandal on the Indian students by stating that "the demoralizing effect of the dissensions and bickerings" caused "sullen, disobedient, and insubordinate demeanor and behavior" among the students (ARCIA 1888; MacKendrick, 1993; Adams, 1895).

He added the following:
 It is not the Indian pupils who are not amenable to discipline and
 necessary rules, but the employees, and I have found it far more
 difficult to preserve peace and harmony between them than in
 controlling pupils even as old as those I have in charge. (ARCIA,

Given the government's corruption, abuse, and neglect, the Grand Junction Indian School almost closed in the fall of 1889. George Wheeler, Breen's replacement, declared that "the fiscal year of 1889 has been near a complete failure." "Carelessness" abounds "everywhere," he stated; consequently, the seven students remaining at the Grand Junction Indian School returned to their homes in the fall of 1889 (ARCIA, 1889).

In conclusion, Ute Indians from the Ouray and Uintah reservations in Utah rejected the Grand Junction Indian School. Already bitter from their forced removal to Utah in 1881, the White River Utes developed a greater distrust of the staff after they broke a pledge to teach their children manual trades. The Colorado authorities' treatment of the White River Ute children in the Colorow Affair in the fall of 1887 only intensified the hatred. Coupled with the staffs harsh treatment of certain Ute children and Superintendent Breen's neglect, Ute parents forged a prejudice against the Grand Junction Indian School that almost destroyed the institution. Ute parents embraced the Uintah Boarding School at White Rocks, Utah, on the other hand, because of the devotion and concern for their children by the management and staff. Fortunately, the Indian School Service reorganized the institution in 1890 and prevented its demise. Nevertheless, only a small minority of Utes ever attended the school after 1889 (ARCIA 1888).

Government mismanagement of the Grand Junction Indian School and its treatment of the Ute Indians reflect its tendency to assimilate the diverse groups emerging in America society during America's Gilded Age. Unfortunately, the federal and state programs established for that purpose often alienated the very groups they intended to assist.


Adams, D. (1995). Education for Extinction. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

ARCIA, The Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, 1887-1898, 1907: Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office.

Brown, D. (1970). Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry and Holt Company.

Grand Valley, Colorado. Retrieved June 19, 2005. Website:,___(Colorado).

Grand Junction, Colorado. Retrieved June 12, 2005. Website:

Jefferson, J. (September 7, 2006). Telephone Interview and E-mail on Ute Origins.

MacKendrick, K. (Summer, 1993). "Cesspools, Alkali and White Lily Soap: The Grand Junction Indian School 1886-1911," Journal of the Western Slope 8, no.3.

McCook, R. (June 8, 2006). Telephone Interview.

National Archives Records Administration Inspection Reports, February 2, 1889; October 4, 1887; February 2, 1889; October 4, 1887; January 21, 1887; April 3, 1891; Sept. 30, 1892: 1899; April 15, 1899.

Peterson, J.A. (1998). Utah's Black Hawk War. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.

Salt Lake Dailey Tribune (1887, October 15).

Simmons, V.M. (2000). The UteIndians of Utah Colorado, and NewMexico. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.

Smith, A. (1974). Ethnography of the Northern Utes, Papers in Anthropology No. 17. New Mexico: Museum of New Mexico Press.

Smith, D. (2002). Henry M. Teller, Colorado's Grand Old Man. Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

Uriah Curtis Letters, 398, 85; Henry Teller Papers. Denver Public Library.

U.S. Office of Indian Affairs, Rules for Indian Schools, 1892.

Ute War of 1887. Retrieved August 8, 2007. Website:

Witherspoon, Y.T. ed. (1993). Conversations with Connor Chapoose, A Leader of the Ute Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation. Recorded in 1960. University of Oregon Anthropological Papers, no. 47. Eugene: University of Oregon Press.
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Author:Blackman, Craig H.
Publication:Whispering Wind
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2008
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