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.

,

The City of Albuquerque has been actively seeking public input on what to do with the graveyard of children who attended the Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) Cemetery buried beneath 4-H Park. The initial conversation was set to have taken place in person, but was canceled for fears of COVID resurgence. There have been hurdles, COVID still being one. Sometimes the response to this issue feels stuck in the soft sand, especially as newcomers take time to get up to speed on the history. Many times these gatherings take about the first hour going over what and who is involved, where the place markers and records are or are not. Explaining that this is not a federal or state issue, and then graciously listening to all of the personal stories, takes time.

Last week, four of these public comment periods were made available online through the cities Office of Inclusion and Equity (OIE). In conjunction with the Office of Native American Affairs (ONAA) developed a plan of action over the past year and presented that to the City. The City then released a formal apology for the decades-long neglect of the site and sought public healing. Subsequently, the City and ONAA have reached out to numerous tribal entities and at last, the word was gathering more formal responses. All Tribes were given notice but some did not respond.

Even though there is some information on students still available, much of it is from the later ’40s – ’70s. The cemetery was active from 1882 – 1933. Many of the documents from that earlier era have been lost. 

When we reached out to the Office of Equity and Inclusion, city Spokesman Drew Ayote had some big news. “We contracted a local company that has over 20 years of experience with conducting what is called ground-penetrating radar or GPR. That radar was actually conducted on December 17 of last year and we consulted Native stakeholders first. [We] asked them, you know, is this appropriate, is this something that you would recommend? It was non-invasive, using sonar to send waves into the ground and send back an image based on the density. We recently got those results back this week. We will be meeting with tribal and native leaders at the end of this month to share those results, go over them with their recommendation, and those results will be made public around early February,” he said.

The city’s Tribal Liaison Terry Sloan understands the delicate maneuvering it takes to engage Tribes and is reminded of that countless times during these public comments. At the meeting, community member Tyson King made light of the time it takes to gather responses. “From experience, do not go guns blazing, do not go knocking on doors right away. Develop a sure plan before you go forward with everybody with the respect to what we’re all wanting to undertake. In the beginning, I’ve worked with people who say, you know, we gotta do this. We gotta go… We gotta ask them for this. They have to provide this. If you go at it full force, you’re gonna get the door slammed in your face,” he said.

One of the goals of these meetings is to find information regarding those buried there. Kevin Goodluck chimed in that his uncle Howard Leonard attended AIS. His sister found a yearbook of AIS at a garage sale and Goodluck offered up that as a resource. “They might have some info of who passed away from possible survivors of the school,” he said.

This will be the start of providing a baseline for the biggest question of all: who are they, how many are buried there and where do the remains lie? Alongside the data collected by sifting through the shared experiences of many in the community, we may soon have more concrete information. It is a long and arduous task, indeed, but the City and the AIS community may soon be starting a new set of conversations having taken two steps back to gain one major step forward. 

If you have any information regarding the historic Albuquerque Indian School, especially from 1890 – 1933, please reach out to Dawn Begay at the City of Albuquerque at dgbegay@cabq.gov