There isn’t much left of the Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. The once sprawling campus is now mostly made up of barren fields of dying grass. A giant white letter “I” fades into the side of the nearby mountain.
There are only a few buildings left. One is sitting empty and abandoned. Two others have been converted into a high-end furniture store.
But for Lorina Antonio, the memories are still clear. She first arrived in 1967 at the age of 12.
âThe first time I got here there were Greyhound buses lined up around campus,â she recalls, tracing the line with her finger. “They had 2,000 students they were bringing in.”
On a warm cloudless day in July, she was dressed in a traditional Navajo outfit with a purple blouse and turquoise jewelry. In 1967, she came with very little. She had two sets of clothes in a plastic bag. She didn’t know anyone, barely spoke English, and was 400 miles from home.
âI was scared because I didn’t know where I was,â she says. âI didn’t know when I was going to come home. I did not know what to do.
To escape homesickness, Antonio said she got into activities. She played sports and joined the student council. She became the reunion queen in 1974.
In all, she spent about a decade of her life at Intermountain. She said school taught her personal responsibility and gave her opportunities that she didn’t have at home.
âWe were away from a lot of alcohol,â she said. âWe were far from a lot of the tragedies that took place on the reserve. We had counselors and we had teachers who cared about us. Every day they would talk to us: âWhat do you want to be in life? What do you want to have? ‘”
Many students report experiences similar to Antonio’s. Intermountain alumni are active on Facebook groups and they hold meetings.
But for historian Farina King, a Navajo Nation citizen who writes a book on the school, Intermountain is still part of the troubling history of residential schools in the United States.
A dark story
Many Americans are discovering schools like Intermountain, following the recent discoveries of hundreds of indigenous bodies buried in anonymous graves outside residential schools in Canada.
Similar schools existed across the United States, and the United States Department of the Interior is currently investigating the country’s boarding system. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez called it an important step to deal with the country’s discrimination against Native Americans.
Indigenous advocates in Utah hope schools here will also be investigated, including Intermountain.
The Office of Indian Affairs opened Intermountain in 1950, transforming a old military hospital in what would become the largest Indigenous residential school in the world. This was decades after other federally-run programs across the country gained notoriety for brutal practices, such as forcibly shaving the heads of students and their physical and sexual abuse.
While Intermountain was not so harsh, King says federal officials had the same goal in mind.
“They wanted to assimilate them, integrate them, and they wanted to cut the bridges [to their land]”Said the King.” I mean, it’s in the BIA’s records as to how they designed this school. “
Intermountain was born out of a sort of bargain between the Navajo and the federal government, King said.
The Navajo have long been skeptical of public schools. But they were also facing a major economic depression after World War II – mainly because of previous federal policies according to King. They began to see these schools as the best of the bad choices.
“It’s always a balance because the Navajo have never given up their sovereignty, have always seen the importance of their people, their culture, their language,” she said. “But as a survival strategy, they realize we need more schools for our children.”
What Intermountain looked like
So, on a cold day in January 1950, 526 Navajo students arrived in Brigham City. Like Antonio, few spoke English. Some had apparently never seen a shower before.
The students learned math and English. Older students also received vocational training, which, especially in the early years of school, was mainly gender-oriented, low level trades it didn’t offer much upward mobility, according to USU history professor Colleen O’Neill. Girls, for example, tended to work in trades such as cleaning and boys trained in agriculture or car mechanics.
The previous year, a group of students filed a complaint to close the school. They alleged that the administrators drugged the students with Thoraznie to put them to sleep, that the school illegally separated the students and provided inferior education.
The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed. The principal applicant declined to speak with KUER for this story. Former teacher Hal Reeder said the allegations were not true.
âI can think of a case the whole time I was there where an employee got hold of a child in a violent way,â Reeder said. âThere were skirmishes between the children, especially when we had our famous riot. But it exploded. “
Shortly after the school began admitting students from other tribes in 1974, several riots broke out.
But Reeder said it was mostly a clash between Navajo students and students from other tribes. And no one was seriously injured. He said police and the surrounding community made it a bigger deal than it was.
And that, for him, has always been the biggest problem.
âPeople are racists,â he said. âAnd a lot of people in town weren’t necessarily nice or friendly to Indian children.â
A balancing act
Reeder taught at Intermountain for almost 20 years, until it closed in 1984. He said the teachers cared about the students and did their best to make them feel comfortable. But he said many students came from difficult backgrounds and he recognized that it might be difficult for some to be so far from home in a strange new culture.
He remembered escorting the students to the reservation on the bus at the end of the year. When they were almost home, the students began to take off their school clothes and put on their âNavajo clothesâ. He said the students appeared to be afraid their friends and family would think they had been whitewashed.
“I think [the students had] ambivalence as to “what will make me happy here,” he said. âI think they came with a lot of Navajo culture. And they tried to adapt as best they could.
Unlike previous boarding schools, Intermountain students could speak out and their culture. They held bonfires and traditional dances, baked fried bread in the kitchen, and painted native artwork on the walls of their dormitories.
When the BIA officials have planned close school Due to limited funding and declining enrollment, students have stepped up to keep it open. They organized a 24 mile run from Brigham City to the Ogden Federal Building to speak to federal delegates from Utah, including Republican Senator Orrin Hatch and Republican Representative James Hansen. None of them showed up.
âI think Intermountain offers a lot more than most residential schools, the ones I’ve been to from afar,â student Darrell Bradley said in a video of the event.
Antonio said he saw students struggle to stay connected to their culture while attending school. But it wasn’t something that bothered him.
She still speaks Navajo. But she never returned to the reserve. She went to Salt Lake and worked in construction.
âWhat happened in Canada is very sad, but I would never put that on for Intermountain,â she said. âWe were far from home. We were away from our family, but we were brought here to learn an education and to learn about ourselves. It’s my way of seeing things.
Antonio helps organize the next meeting in September and tries to get a group together to repaint the letter “I” on the side of the mountain.
Even though most of the school is now gone, she said she wanted people to know it existed and to remember the students who went there.