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When we visited the Denver Indian Center on Morrison Road, our goal was to hang out at its weekly food pantry event and find someone who had a connection with the place. Within a few minutes of arriving, Lynn Eagle Feather got out of a truck, introduced herself and asked us to follow her and Ruby Sanchez, an old friend, inside.
The women had been here many times before. But this visit carried a certain weight.
Inside the Center’s gym, a small group was preparing to discuss something extremely heavy: scars that many indigenous people carry from experiences with boarding schools that were set up to eradicate their culture. The meeting was put on by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), whose members are planning a rally at on Oct. 2 at the University of Denver to raise awareness on the issue. But before they can take people’s stories to the public, DIFRC board chair Marsha Whiting said they needed to first speak to community members in a safe space.
“With the majority of Native Americans being a survivor, or a descendant of a survivor, we wanted a way to bring the community together for healing,” she told us. “And so what we’re doing here is gathering information from these elders, because they’ve experienced it. We want to make a healing event and we don’t want to make it traumatizing for them.”
Denver’s Indian Center and Family Resource Center were both created in response to more than 100 years of federal policy bent on assimilating Native peoples and destroying their cultural identities. While white settlers’ conquest over the west may feel like ancient history to some, the legacy of that time is still very present for others. These organizations continue to deal with the fallout.
In the late 1800s and into the 20th century, more than 300 boarding schools were built around the country to “kill the Indian, save the man.”
Ruby Sanchez was just a child when she was taken from her home on South Dakota’s Rosebud Indian Reservation to the St. Francis Indian School.
“My mom said they came and got here when I was five years old, and all the children have to go to the boarding school. The tribal police and the priests come and take your child,” she remembered. “If I didn’t go, there are six under me, the babies, then they will go to prison. My mom will go to prison. So she had to give me up.”
This was the story for a lot of boarding school students of her generation. Their capture and education was part of a broader effort to distance young Natives from their communities and traditions. Children were prohibited from speaking tribal languages and were often treated harshly.
“The first time I ever got hit was by a German nun, and I’ll never forget it,” Eagle Feather, who also attended St. Francis, told us.
She remembered nuns walking through rows of beds at dawn, ringing bells to stir them from sleep and pray before breakfast. While Eagle Feather only stayed for a few months before she was thrown into the foster care system, Sanchez stayed until graduation.
“They were my parents, the nuns and priests. They became my adopted parents, because that’s all I knew,” she said. “I grew up like that. I can even speak some Latin, but I can’t speak my own language.”
The Denver Indian Family Resource Center was created to address Native children’s overrepresentation in the nation’s foster care system, and Whiting said she and her colleagues have worked with many people who are still wrestling with the scars left on their families by Indian schools. Those experiences were mostly discussed within the community, until recently. Earlier this year, the remains of 215 children were found in a mass grave at a Canadian boarding school, which sparked an overdue reckoning in this continent’s broader public consciousness. The news out of Canada led to scrutiny of schools built in America, including some in Colorado.
The Denver Indian Center was created in response to another effort to squash Native sovereignty: relocation.
In 1952, the federal government began offering reservation residents one-way bus tickets and some cash to leave their homes and move to American cities. The voluntary relocation program drew criticism when people found jobs and housing were hard to come by, not to mention rampant racism. In 1956, congress passed the Indian Relocation Act, which provided vocational training to help lure people off tribal lands, to try to keep the effort going.
Thomas Allen Jr., who now runs a fatherhood training program at the Denver Indian Center, told us the government’s efforts ultimately failed.
“I remember my dad telling me a lot of people participated in the programs, but eventually went back home,” he said.
But some people did remain in Denver.
“There was no follow up to how different the city was as opposed to reservation life, to Native life. And the people who did stay, they felt they needed a place like back home where they could have powwows, they could practice their culture, and just be Native,” Allen told us.
Thus, the Denver Indian Center was founded in 1983. Its first location was in Capitol Hill, at 13th Avenue and Vine Street.
Allen’s parents, Mary Ann and Thomas Sr., met during a 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island, the notorious San Francisco prison, where they checked in regularly to care for activists demanding better treatment and sovereign lands for their people. The couple was already very keyed into their community’s needs when they arrived in Denver, and they became deeply involved with the burgeoning Indian Center when it was founded.
When it became clear that the organization was growing and needed a more permanent quarters, Thomas Sr. helped broker a deal with the city to first rent a shuttered school on Morrison Road and, later, purchase the property.
Like Eagle Feather and Sanchez, Thomas Sr. was also touched by the earlier effort to forcefully move children into boarding schools. Allen said authorities picked up his father twice, when he was six and eight years old, and took him from Oklahoma to a school in Arkansas. He twice escaped and walked home.
“The historical trauma is deep within our people, generationally, so I’ve seen that my parents and I wanted a place like the Indian Center,” he said. “Having that healthy space for people is good, where we start to heal. Because I see it all over.”
While the government’s overt attempts to marginalize Native people have largely ended, organizations like the Indian Center are still needed to deal with systemic challenges.
Housing is still an issue for Indigenous people in Denver. They’re overrepresented in the city’s unhoused population, and advocates like Allen are constantly working to make sure those numbers don’t continue to move in the wrong direction.
“Our main target is to help people gain a foothold into Denver’s metropolitan area, which is hard because the cost of living keeps rising,” he said.
In 2020, Allen and his colleagues worked overtime to make sure their community members were fed during lockdowns and had access to vaccines when they became available. While COVID-19 did spike among Indigenous Denverites late last year, advocates have been successful in making sure they did not fall behind in terms of inoculations. Some 70 percent of eligible Native residents have received at least one vaccine.
The Center has also been a place of healing for other kinds of traumas, like the death of Lynn Eagle Feather’s son, Paul Castaway.
In 2015, Castaway was in the middle of a severe mental breakdown when Eagle Feather, who was babysitting her grandchildren in a home off Morrison Road, ran to the Indian Center and called 911 for help. Denver Police chased him through the neighborhood before they confronted him. Then, as he approached officer Michael Traudt with a knife to his neck, Traudt shot him twice and killed him.
Eagle Feather said she first became an activist in 2015, when she and her neighbors picketed RTD to return bus service to Morrison Road. But the death of her son solidified her place in Colorado’s protest scene. She regularly attends rallies across the Front Range to make sure people killed by police, like Castaway, are not forgotten. Eagle Feather told us six other family members across the U.S. were also killed during confrontations with police.
Be it police misconduct or the brutality she witnessed at the St. Francis boarding school when she was young, Eagle Feather said all of the things facing her people are related. And it’s always the right time to try to make things better.
“It’s never too late to speak out against the wrongdoings of our people, never, and I will continue to speak out about everything until the day I die,” she said. “Our ancestors fought hard for us to live and for us not to be quiet.”
Castaway’s funeral took place in the Denver Indian Center gym, beneath the tribal nation flags that hang from its rafters.
“This place has good and bad memories,” Eagle Feather told us in that gym, before the discussion on boarding schools began. “We had the funeral for my son, but also the gathering of the people. And that’s what we need.”