Fort Duchesne • Researcher Y.T. Witherspoon knew he would find a gap when he investigated how well Ute students were learning compared to their white peers.
As director of the University of Utah’s Bureau of Indian Services — which no longer exists — Witherspoon read studies of Native students across the country. And he had concluded that Indigenous kids were being generally failed by public education. To measure the disparities in the Uinta Basin, he gave Ute and white students the same standardized exams.
Witherspoon didn’t anticipate just how poorly Ute students would fare: He found that many were scoring “no higher than chance.”
Either the Ute children “had learned nothing from their education experience,” he decided, “or for some reason the test was not an effective measure.”
After trying a mix of verbal and nonverbal tests instead, Witherspoon had his conclusions: Ute students were starting school less prepared and were not able to catch up.
The analysis, he wrote, shows “this disadvantage becomes larger as the children move through the public schools.”
His 1962 research, done at the request of the Ute Tribe, is one of a century of warnings that Ute students were being denied an effective education.
Ute students started being left behind by the two boarding schools on the Uintah and Ouray Reservation — where white superintendents focused on labor over academics. Such neglect was sharply called out in the influential Meriam Report from 1928, which chastised the nation for its poor education of Native students.
And once the tribe’s students were moved into public schools, report after report documented the schools’ persistent dereliction of their responsibility to serve them. In the 1950s and ′60s, at least seven students at Utah universities wrote their thesis projects on the shortcomings they found.
A second national alarm was sounded in 1969 with the scathing report, “Indian Education: A National Tragedy — a National Challenge,” named for then-President John F. Kennedy.
Red flags continued as Congress passed occasional reforms each decade into the 2000s, when the No Child Left Behind law offered funding to support Native student learning. Utah leaders chose not to participate and rejected the money.
Today, Ute test scores are the lowest in the state, and the students drop out of school at a higher rate than any other demographic.
At this point, says Forrest Cuch, a former education director for the Ute Tribe, the question is no longer why failures to educate the tribe’s kids have endured. State and education officials, he said, have clearly known about the gulf in achievement and not decisively responded to it for decades.
Instead, he asks: Who has benefited from Ute students failing in public schools?
The way he sees it, the negligence is intentional.
“The state of Utah is satisfied with that,” Cuch said. “If the tribe was more educated and more competent, they would be more aggressive and limit the state from taking advantage of them, especially in water and other resources.”
Not being educated “inhibits the tribe’s development” and “keeps the Indian down,” contributing to poverty and powerlessness on the reservation, he argues. Cuch specifically pointed to the state’s recent sale of Tabby Mountain — land that was part of the tribe’s reservation before it was winnowed out.
Tribal leaders say their bid for it last year was intentionally rejected by the state. They are now suing — and Cuch argues state leaders rarely listen to the Utes unless they bring their lawyers to the table.
“The colonialism here has been so successful,” Cuch said, “that we’ve been robbed all the way around.”
The Kennedy Report acknowledged that the boarding schools’ assimilation of young Natives fed into a national land grab. Indigenous children would become “civilized” and their need for reservations would fade, federal officials had hoped, “thus freeing large amounts of additional land for the white man.”
Reservation boarding schools were ‘painful and traumatic’
Many in the Ute Indian Tribe have seen a direct line from the boarding schools on the reservation to a public education system that continued to oppress their children and attempted to erase the Utes as a people.
In 1874, Uintah Valley Agency Indian Agent J.J. Critchlow started the first day school for Ute children, but he aspired to open a “boarding manual-labor school” to keep them away from their parents, whom he considered “demoralizing influences,” according to his annual reports submitted to the U.S. Department of Interior.
By 1881, he had opened the first reservation boarding school in Utah, launching it two years after the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania. The Uintah Boarding School in Whiterocks would operate almost twice as long, for a total of more than 70 years.
A second Ute boarding school, in nearby Randlett, was open from 1893 to 1905, when the students were transferred to Whiterocks.
In both schools, Ute children were required to provide unpaid labor for the underfunded institutions they were often forced to attend. For decades, superintendents boasted about how much work the students supplied to the Utah schools, detailing it for decades in their annual reports.
Among the children’s duties: hauling water, which superintendents acknowledged was “drudgery,” and chopping wood. Building fences, digging ditches, and leveling ground. Doing laundry, ironing, mending and sewing clothes. Cleaning restrooms, cooking and helping in the dining room.
In a 1928 hearing, an interpreter shared the concerns of Ute parent Sapaneese: “He says from the littlest to the biggest they have to work. He says they are hungry.”
Using federal reports, The Salt Lake Tribune has tallied nearly 60 student deaths at the Whiterocks and Randlett schools, largely from measles and tuberculosis, and cataloged abuse of Ute kids.
When the Ute boarding schools started, many parents fought against sending their children, and at times soldiers were sent to collect them. Parents repeatedly were dismissed by federal agents as “ignorant” and “stubborn savages” and often denied rations for resisting. Racist school records from the 1930s, obtained from the National Archives at Denver, labeled truant Native students as “incorrigible,” “recalcitrant” or “obstinate.”
Many members of the tribe today had parents or grandparents who attended the schools.
Cuch’s late mother, Josephine LaRose Cuch, went to the Whiterocks school for a few years, beginning when she was 6 or 7 years old in the 1920s. “The harshness that they experienced, that I know of, was being forbidden to speak the Ute language,” Cuch said “That was quite painful and traumatic to them.”
Former tribal Chair Shaun Chapoose’s late father also went to Whiterocks as a young boy in the late 1940s and early ′50s. “They were basically abused,” he said, “slave labor, more or less.”
Late Ute leader Clifford Duncan described being hit over the head with a yardstick so hard that it shattered into pieces when he was attending the school at the same time, according to a 2000 interview with The Tribune.
Betsy Chapoose, the current cultural rights and protection director for the Ute Tribe, told The Tribune recently about her late mother attending the Randlett school and her late aunt going to the Whiterocks school.
Both schools, because they were on the reservation, were not far from students’ homes, but many kids were forced to board and forbidden from seeing their families. “Frequent visits home are harmful,” reads one school policy from the 1930s.
Chapoose said when her mom was at the school, she was so close to home that she could often smell her family’s cooking, and it would devastate her.
When the federal agents first came to collect Chapoose’s mother, Chapoose’s grandmother had braided her daughter’s hair in preparation. When Chapoose’s mother got to the school, staffers there forced her to take the braids out, as they sprayed the Ute kids with DDT — a pesticide that has since been found to be harmful to humans — believing they were “unclean.”
“She cried and cried and fought with them. The braids were the only thing she had left from home,” Chapoose said. “And then she was disciplined for fighting.”
Most of the Utes who attended as children have since died, Chapoose said, and much of the history is scattered.
A rocky transition to public schools
These tribal members say their relatives’ experiences mirrored their own education in many ways later in the public school system. They saw harsh treatment, racism and a failure by teachers to educate.
When the first Ute kids started transferring to public schools in small groups in the 1920s and ′30s, there was “revolt on the part of teachers and white patrons,” according to a report from the superintendent over the area at the time, which U. graduate student Kim Gruenwald cited in her research published in the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1996.
Some educators refused to allow the students to enter the classroom. Some bus drivers wouldn’t stop to pick up Ute kids on their routes.
At that time, the federal government started the Johnson-O’Malley Program in 1934 to subsidize education with the tribes. It was designed to supplement school district budgets to support Indian children, because families on the reservation don’t pay the taxes that fund schools. But some feel the federal funding was used as an excuse for districts to stop allocating other money to help Ute students.
By 1951 — the last school year before the Whiterocks boarding school closed — Gruenwald found that “Ute children failed at the new high school in Roosevelt, receiving mostly D’s and F’s in their classes.”
Three of 12 Ute seniors then enrolled there were eligible to graduate. At the same time, 31 of the 47 Indian kids total at the school were failing.
Those numbers aren’t far off from the data today.
As a Ute student at then-Todd Elementary in the 1950s, the late Gloria Thompson told Gruenwald in a 1988 interview that the books used in the classroom called Natives “red men” and “savages.” And teachers called the Ute students “just plain lazy,” Thompson said. In her studies, Gruenwald found a list of derogatory comments that educators regularly made about Native kids.
In a recent email to The Tribune, she said: “It occurred to me years later that it might have been a list of answers to a question like, ‘Why are the students failing?’”
By the 1960s, Cuch said the discrimination was so pervasive at his public middle school — with administrators telling him that he wasn’t worth anything — that he gave up trying and failed his classes; he was close to dropping out. His parents pulled him out and moved him to Wasatch Academy in Salt Lake City.
“Very few of us got a quality education” in the Uinta Basin schools, he said.
Research by graduate students in the 1950s and ′60s described the disparities.
In 1955, Utah State University graduate student Darrell D. Atkinson wanted to examine how well Ute students were adjusting to public schools. After examining their low test scores, he said intervention was critical.
“If there are no remedial classes for these students or no change in the educational system which would favor [them],” Atkinson concluded, “it seems that all four years of high school will almost be a waste of time.”
In 1960, U. graduate student Elsie Shults pointed out that in schools that hadn’t adapted to the needs of Indigenous kids, “The Indian child is not merely handicapped and misunderstood, but also frequently and unjustly stereotyped as stupid.”
After that, in 1969, came the Kennedy Report. In a congressional hearing about its findings, experts discussed how education should be culturally relevant to Indigenous students.
The report notably had input from the late Francis McKinley, a prominent member of the Ute Tribe, who said Natives continued to have an adversarial relationship with the public education system. Many tribal members, he said, still referred to them in the 1960s as “the white man’s schools.”
McKinley wrote this sobering summation:
“The educational system has not succeeded in providing the majority of Indian children with the minimum level of competence necessary to prepare them to be productive citizens in a larger society.
“Additionally, very little attempt has been made to perpetuate the values and culture that might be unique to the Indian people and provide them with a sense of pride in their own heritage, or confidence that they can effectively control their own future development.”
Continued warnings, no change
By the time Shaun Chapoose was in school in the 1970s, the pattern was set. Chapoose said his teachers seemed shocked to learn he had read Shakespeare — suggesting that they were surprised he could read at all.
“The whole perception is that you’re Indian and you don’t know,” said Chapoose, who earlier this year completed his term as chair of the Ute Tribe.
Ute achievement then remained as dismal as it was in the 1950s, researcher Gruenwald found. By 1977, eight of the 38 Ute students who had begun school in ninth grade graduated.
Cuch repeatedly raised concerns with state leaders about the graduation rates, as well as test scores, of Ute students.
In an interview with the Deseret News in 1977, Cuch said: “By the time they are in junior high school, Ute children are two and a half to three years behind other students in the classroom.”
He also noted — as is the case today — that no Utes were serving on a school board or county commission, and said anti-Indian prejudice was “insidious” across the Uinta Basin. He pushed again for culturally relevant education for Ute students that prioritized culture and arts and taught math with more concrete examples for visual learners.
By 1986, more than half the Ute students failed a majority of their classes, reported Gruenwald, who is now an associate professor of history at Ohio’s Kent State University.
She finished her thesis on Ute education in 1988, and it was printed again in the Utah Historical Quarterly in 1996. It detailed years of neglect of Native kids in the school districts there.
She recalled, “There was no reaction when I published it — I never heard from anyone who read it.”
Like Cuch, she had concluded in her research: “In this power struggle, the school districts hold all the cards and have nothing to gain by changing the educational system. … The one consistent trend in the 20th-century Ute education is the children’s failure to receive an education.”
And that wasn’t the last of the warnings.
• In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Languages Act, which encouraged states to add Native languages in the classroom. There is “convincing evidence,” it said, “that student achievement and performance, community and school pride, and educational opportunity is clearly and directly tied to respect for, and support of, the first language of the child or student.” The efforts in the Uinta Basin, however, were short-lived.
• By 1997, the Ute Tribe’s Business Committee became frustrated by the lack of action to help Ute kids, according to Sondra Jones’ research in her book, “Being and Becoming Ute.” The committee urged tribal members to boycott the school districts. Many did.
The tribe then formed its own alternative charter high school in 1998. It still runs its own school — Uintah River High — today for grades nine through 12.
• The No Child Left Behind reform law brought new urgency to the school districts in 2002 to help Native students succeed by offering federal funding if test scores improved; a Tribune article from that year focused on what Uintah and Duchesne school districts might do with the incentive.
Instead, then-Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman signed a measure in 2005 defying the act and waiving the state’s responsibility to comply. The state was estimated to have lost $76 million in aid with that action.
• In 2015, Congress passed another measure, the Every Student Succeeds Act. It pushed states “to ensure that Indian students gain knowledge and understanding of Native communities, languages, tribal histories, traditions, and cultures.” Utah did not launch any significant new initiatives.
Throughout the 2000s, the National Indian Education Study has tracked how Native students across 15 states — those with larger tribal populations — perform compared to their white peers.
In 2019, that research found that Utah’s Indigenous students fell substantially behind their classmates on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, tests given to fourth and eighth graders. Utah Native students were 11 points behind the national average for reading, for instance, in the fourth grade.
Without any changes, Cuch said, Ute kids will continue to see the same results.
Editor’s note: Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is the brother of Paul Huntsman, chair of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune’s board of directors.
[NEXT: Read part three here.]