Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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There is a saying: “Sometimes there are too many cooks in the kitchen.” If you can’t figure out what that implies, either you have never cooked in your life or you have never had to collaborate on something. Following our investigation into the city park that was built on top of unmarked gravesites of children from Albuquerque Indian School, The Paper. had hoped to have some great working details about what will now be done regarding the AIS cemetery at 4-H Park. What should be realized, however, is that this issue will be a long journey made by many stakeholders. These initial steps in determining what should take place are crucial and delicate.

First there is the city to contend with, as they own the property which is built upon these student’s graves. Following the release of our story, the city made quite sure to contact The Paper. to inform us that they have info that “can fill in the blanks.” But this left us with more questions than answers. 

Here is the statement they asked The Paper. to publish: “We have been made aware of a missing plaque at 4-H Park, which denoted the area as a final resting site for students from the Albuquerque Indian School. The plaque was not removed by the city. A public art piece and a second plaque remain in place at the park that also references the history of the site. Our department, along with the city’s Native American liaisons, will now be working with leaders from the tribes and pueblos, the City of Albuquerque Commission on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs (CAIANA) and historical experts to determine what steps should be taken next. As we continue to work with the respective leaders on this issue, we urge the public to respect the cultural and spiritual significance of this site.”

The above is masterclass-worthy deflection. The sort of things you say when you don’t have anything pertinent to offer. What many may not know is that there is a group tasked with being advocates for Native people and families in Albuquerque. The City of Albuquerque’s Commission on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs (CAIANA) was formed in 1994 in response to a need for the city to provide equitable resources and consultation with tribal communities near the city, especially Albuquerque’s own Native population. The group’s participation has ebbed and flowed over the years, and this year the commission is filled with 12 or so knowledgeable Native people. Alas, there are no meeting minutes posted for the last two years, so go figure.

This week, on the eve of our publication about the cemetery under the park, the commission tried to hold an “emergency” meeting—but couldn’t mobilize its board to show up for the meeting. Especially where a quorum is needed to take action or make recommendations on such a delicate and timely situation, the meeting was a bust. To be fair, this was their first in-person meeting in over a year since COVID. But this was the meeting touted by the city in their statement as working with “historical experts to determine what steps should be taken next.“ This committee is asked to do an amazing amount of work. Not only do they “consult” with tribes, they make suggestions about appointees, assess city programs, provide written reports on the success of city programs among tribal citizens, encourage the employment of Native people in the city and provide the city with concerns by evaluating governmental, educational, environmental and health challenges.

The next time the commission can meet is in August. So where does that leave us? During the meeting one thing became evident. The channels of information are not clearly defined. Commissioner Denise Zuni asked her peers if, as tribal reps to the commission, it is their place to act as a channel of information to their respective community leadership. Or are they there to encourage a more formal government-to-government discussion? But then, in the same breath, she expressed that this communication should be left to Terry Sloan, the City of Albuquerque’s official tribal liaison. Sloan, in his response, expressed that commissioners should make contact and move things forward on their own at times, and then appraise the commission and the mayor of important information. So who is the official point of contact here? Sloan also said in his update that Parks and Recreation Director Simon “had kinda taken a lead on this also, extending invitations to the tribes for consultation on what to do with the site.”

The city does have an official tribal liaison in addition to Terry Sloan—an actual Native American affairs coordinator—Dawn Begay, who works closely with the commission. Sloan reported he did call outlying tribes immediately when the news broke about the park. Tribes included Ute Mountain, Jicarilla Apache, Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, Southern Ute, Hopi and Salt River Pima Maricopa tribes—as well as the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

Initially, a stakeholders meeting was set for the end of July, but this was canceled due to information issues, apparently, and is now set for sometime in August. Board Chair Rebecca Riley made it aware that this was just the initial process and that so much more would need to happen as this situation plays out.

So who was glaringly absent? Parks and Recreation might have a vested interest in a meeting like Tuesday’s. The Mayor’s Office? Has the commission or the city sought out any local experts in having dealt with situations like this? Many local tribes have worked through repatriation and dealing with sacred objects being found in public domains. It might behoove the commission to seek out these experts for consultation. At this point commissioners are still asking the question, “Are the remains still there?” Maybe this is the first question to answer. Maybe we don’t even take this step out of respect. So much is in the air. But the public moves much quicker than the government. Local organizations converged together on July 17 to honor those possibly buried at the park and to honor the lives of those lost to boarding schools across North America. The Paper. will report on the local community response and sentiment next, and we hope to have more information to pass along as far as the city is concerned. Stay tuned.

Follow our continuing coverage of the legacy of New Mexico’s Indian Schools at abq.news/indianschools

Written by

Jonathan Sims is a media producer and former appointed official at the Pueblo of Acoma. He covers news and writes a column on Indigenous People's issues for The Paper.

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