Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Indian School Graves Rediscovered Under City Park

A Plaque Goes Missing, and History Is Uncovered


*Editor's Note: The following story is the first in a series chronicling the legacy of New Mexico's Indian Boarding Schools. Our reporter, Jonathan Sims, is a former appointed leader of the Acoma Pueblo and is himself a product of the Indian boarding school system, as were generations of his own family.

Indian Boarding School atrocities have been in the media lately as our relatives up north in British Columbia began searching through untold histories and found the unmarked graves of 182 Indigenous children that never made it home from their residential school system. Locally, Albuquerque's tie to the big story made its way into the media when a handmade plaque tied to a tree in a city park commemorating dozens of unmarked graves of Indigenous children from Albuquerque Indian School went missing in June. The plaque had been placed in lieu of the actual missing plaque placed in cement decades prior to acknowledge that a city park was built upon the graves of Native schoolchildren. That cement plaque had gone missing in 2017. While media focused on the missing handmade plaque, the larger story is that city leaders and many locals had no idea the plaque was there, or what its significance was to begin with.

Photo Courtesy Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

Behind the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center building and the Bernalillo County Extension Office off 12th and Menaul, is a small, triangular park called 4-H Park. According to research conducted by University of New Mexico professor Dr. Ted Jojola, it is an unmarked gravesite for Indigenous children who attended the Albuquerque Indian School. Dr. Jojola's area of research is in the community and regional planning program. He says the cemetery was specifically built for AIS students. From 1883 to 1933, this small section of land was home to an estimated 60 to 100 graves of Native children. Lack of documentation from that time makes the exact number of graves hard to pinpoint. What confounded us at The Paper. was the overwhelming lack of acknowledgment from anyone about the history of this place. Albuquerque Indian School had a major impact on Indigenous children around New Mexico and was an important element in how Indian education changed in the last century. As a city memory, it is important to educate ourselves about our past and properly pay tribute to this reverent place. It is a story that includes one of the largest tracts of land that is still being developed inside the heart of the city and a place Native children throughout the region called home for better or worse. We begin with a short history of this place.

The School

According to Dr. Jojola's research, the year was 1881 and the United States was removing children from tribal homes and sending them to a mixture of government and parochial schools that were built with one goal in mind: assimilation. “Kill the Indian and Save the Man” was the motto of the day, coined by Brigadier General Richard Henry Pratt, who was an American general best known as the founder and superintendent of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. In New Mexico the feeling, it seemed, was no different. There were many institutions in the state at the turn of the century operating as schools for Indian students, prior to a later push for “Day Schools,” as they would be known, built within tribal villages.

Aerial view, Albuquerque Indian School ca 1930. Photo courtesy Albuquerque Museum

Menaul School, formerly known as the Pueblo Training School in the late 1800s, was just one of the Indian schools. But by far the largest school was Albuquerque Indian School, which was located at what is now the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center (IPCC) and the Native American Community Academy (NACA) on 12th St. near I-40. The school was formed by the Presbyterian Church, and a year later the land for the AIS campus was purchased by a group of New Albuquerque businessmen who transferred it to the federal government. The 66-acre campus lay about two miles north of Central Avenue, just beyond the flood plain of the river. The north boundary of the campus was a road, originally named Foraker Road, now known as Menaul Avenue. The school was operated by the church through a contract with the federal government until 1886, when the United States Federal government took over full control of the school until the 1980s.

The campus grew from just one building to nearly 46 buildings at its height. This included dorms, bakeries, mechanic and wood shops, as well as a full farm, orchard and dairy. Schooling, early on, was rough and militaristic in style. Children as young as 4 and 5 years old attended an institution that must have felt a million miles away from home, in a place that was built to separate them from their traditions.

Albuquerque Indian School students ca 1930. Photo Courtesy Albuquerque Museum

Those early years also marked the death of many young students. The school brought together children from various pueblos and across the Navajo Nation, housing them in close proximity, which led to outbreaks of disease. Influenza, scarlet fever and measles spread like wildfire through the dorms. The sheer number of sick kids created the need for a hospital and recovery building, which was built on campus in 1890. Old maps from Dr. Jojola's research show the gravesites of many of these students in a section titled "Indians" at Sunset Memorial Park across the street from Menaul School. Children were also buried at what is now 4-H Park off Indian School Rd. and Menual Blvd. behind the IPCC.

The Cemetery

The cemetery site located at the 4-H Park was known to members of the surrounding neighborhood who heard about the cemetery for decades prior to 1973, when remains of a baby were found as a trench was being dug by city construction crews for the park. An article published in the Albuquerque Journal on Saturday, Oct. 6, 1973, mentions that during the installation of a sprinkler system, workers uncovered the remains of several children. At least 20 to 30 graves were speculated to be in the area. The article goes on to say that local children had accidentally unearthed these remains even 20 years prior during other construction projects in the area. Quoting neighborhood resident Rudy Martinez, “The police just told us to put the bones and the jewelry back.” Furthermore, there is a quote from the caretaker himself. A man named Ed Tsyitee told the reporter that he had taken care of the cemetery for some time. He said the school had placed a fence around the site and maintained it until 1964 when he retired. At the time a follow-up article claimed the city and AIS agreed to seed and plant trees in the area to not draw attention to the site.

Many people have some fond memories here; future tribal leaders were educated here. The school also had a well-regarded football team. But as the years waned into the late ’70s, the school was considered one of the worst in the bureau. Attendance and grades had fallen, students were not graduating, and the buildings were falling apart. The pueblos of N.M. came together under the All Indian Pueblo Council and took over the school, the first of its kind in America. The high school was then moved to Santa Fe and shared the campus of the Institute of American Indian Art, which was also changing its focus from an arts high school to a two-year college program. Santa Fe Indian School is the direct result of AIS and is today one of the best high schools for Native youth in America.

In 1995 the city relocated a large public art project titled “Solar Arc” to the 4-H Park. The commemoration plaque for the pubic art installation has the artist's statement as well as other quotes. But notable is the statement from Dr. Joe Sando, the late Jemez Pueblo historian. He was not about to let the history of the site be forgotten, saying, “In honor of former Albuquerque Indian School students interred in the burial ground nearby. Few are recalled after going to rest as these resting here. Indeed they are in peace.”

Remembering Our History

Community Memorial 4-H Park. Photo Courtesy Tierna Unruh-Enos

On July 17 of this year, organizers held a prayer and remembrance vigil at the park. The crowd was a mix of Albuquerque residents and Native relatives from outside the city. The crowd was respectful. It was a place of discovery, and some people found healing. We will undoubtedly see more news in the future as Interior Secretary Deb Haaland from Laguna Pueblo has called for more open investigations into boarding schools and their histories in the U.S. A handmade plaque wired to a tree is no longer enough to serve as a dedication to these children. No formal apology has ever been given to the tribes who handed over their children. Albuquerque needs to know what lies beneath the Starbucks and Laguna Burger. Too many times we bulldoze our history; it’s easier to forget than remember. We owe this part of Indigenous history remembrance.

On the eve of our publishing date, after speaking with our reporter, leaders from the City of Albuquerque Commission on American Indian and Alaskan Native Affairs held a meeting to discuss creating a memorial at 4-H park. Lacking a quorum, no official recommendations were made about creating a memorial. Follow The Paper.'s ongoing investigation of New Mexico Indian Schools and how city and Tribal leaders respond to the discovery of a cemetery of unmarked graves buried beneath a city park. See the gallery of images and documents uncovered in our investigation at abq.news/indianschools


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