Colo. lawmakers backing away from Indian treaty
Associated Press Writer
DENVER – Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would cut $1.8 million in funding each year for Native American students attending Fort Lewis College in Durango and could violate a 99-year-old Indian treaty.
In 1911, as a condition of accepting thousands of acres of land in Hesperus in southwest Colorado, state lawmakers agreed to establish an institute of learning and all Native American students would be admitted tuition free.
Now, facing a budget crunch, Colorado lawmakers want to take some of that money away.
Rep. Karen Middleton, D-Aurora, said the cost of educating Native American students at Fort Lewis College has soared from $6.5 million to $10.7 million over the past five years because the state pays tuition for all Native Americans, regardless of their tribe or where they live.
About 750 Native American students of the college’s 3,700 students accepted the offer, most of them from other states.
Colorado is home to the Southern Utes with 1,500 members and the Ute Mountain Utes with 2,000.
Middleton proposes cutting $1.8 million, reimbursing the college only for the cost of instruction instead of paying out-of-state tuition for Native Americans who do not live in Colorado.
“It doesn’t make a lot of sense. What we’re trying to do is have the same policies for all colleges. It’s the right thing to do,” Middleton said.
Steve Schwartz, vice president of finance and administration at the college, said this is one of the few treaties the United States has kept with Native Americans.
Schwartz said the college began as a boarding school at Fort Lewis near Hesperus, and later moved to Durango where it grew into a thriving, four-year college.
He said the goal in 1911 was to lure Indians for indoctrination, and lawmakers didn’t expect many of them to accept the offer.
Schwartz said the mission has changed over the years and the budget cuts would be devastating. He said federal government still requires the school to educate all Native Americans and comply with the treaty.
“We’ll have to fire teachers and staff,” he said.
He also said it’s not fair to single out one institution to bear the brunt of the cuts. He said Fort Lewis is facing a 31 percent cut in funding over the next two years, compared with 23 percent for the University of Colorado, the state’s largest.
Rep. Mike May, R-Parker, said it’s ironic that Democrats are trying to cut funding for a program helping Native Americans.
“They want to give tuition to illegal aliens and they want to take away tuition for Native Americans. Unbelievable,” he said.