Indigenous communities face choices about Indian School gravesite in Albuquerque

Mayor Tim Keller says Saturday’s apology from city government for historic abuses is the start of the process — not the finish

By: - September 27, 2021 6:04 am

Jac Peynetsa sings while his son Brentyn Peynetsa observes during a memorial and honor song Saturday afternoon at the Native American Community Academy. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

The rain came after a prayer and an apology. 

Clouds were visible miles away from the Native American Community Academy when Terry Sloan (Diné/Hopi) opened Saturday’s event to acknowledge, heal and reflect on a city park built on an Albuquerque Indian Boarding School cemetery. 

By the time Mayor Tim Keller took the podium after a ceremonial prayer, rain clouds hung above the campus, the last remaining building from the Albuquerque Indian School era. Keller offered an apology “for the grievous actions over the past decades that have occurred against Native American communities right here in the city.”

Then the rain really started.

“If this was a Native, Native event, we’d actually stay in the rain and get all wet,” said Sloan, the city’s intergovernmental tribal liaison, as he continued the proceedings inside the school.

The event was a significant break from nearly every event hosted by a government agency in Albuquerque. First, it did take place at NACA, a stone’s throw away from the gravesite.

Second, the mayor was there, but so was the drum group Zuni Knifewing to sing a prayer song. 

Zuni Knifewing perform a a memorial and honor song for those who attended Albuquerque Indian School Saturday afternoon at the Native American Community Academy. Mayor Tim Keller listens. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

And last, Keller took a backseat to the Native American leaders that are researching the boarding school history and coordinating with tribal nations about the appropriate steps to take with the burial site for over 100 children at the city-run 4-H Park.

“None of this ends with an apology. I want to be clear about that,” Keller said. “And so, as difficult as these conversations may be, we are here to face our history, and face our actions and commit ourselves to doing better in the future.”

The park made news in June when a plaque denoting the burial site was noticed missing. The bronze marker identified the location as a burial site between 1882-1933 for Albuquerque Indian School students from “Navajo, Zuni and Apache tribes.” City researchers also determined children — and maybe some adults — from the nearby Indian Health Services Hospital were also buried on the site. 

The city officials from the Parks Department eventually said the plaque was reported stolen in 2019. 

Dawn Begay (Diné), Native American affairs coordinator said she remembers feeling upset that the plaque was gone. “But I think I was more shocked. And I was more frustrated and saddened of the fact that a city would build a park over a cemetery,” she said. “And to me this represented disrespect and an erasure of Native peoples.”

As a descendant of boarding school survivors, a member of this community and also as a city employee, I felt it was my responsibility to learn more about the history of this site, and to face the truth — no matter how painful.

– Dawn Begay, Native American affairs coordinator

Plans on what’s next were also unveiled at Saturday’s gathering. Sloan said he will continue to follow direct tribal consultation. 

“This process is being led by Native Americans,” Sloan said. “So we’re making sure that that voice is definitely being heard in this process that we’re working to create.”

Eunice Dewakuku, 65, listens to Native American Affairs Coordinator Dawn Begay during the healing reflection and memorial for the Albuquerque Indian School cemetery. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

A ground-penetrating radar will scan the site in an effort to determine how many remains are buried at the park so city and tribal officials can determine what, if anything, they will do next. 

Keller said the community will decide what happens. “Most importantly, with respect to the family members — because I have already heard from a lot of family members who think those remains should stay — but no one’s gonna make that decision,” he said. “We’re gonna follow the tribal and Native American lead on that.”

The city is close to identifying a company with experience working at ancestral sites and is following advice from archeologists and a coalition of Native American scholars on how to respectfully evaluate the location. 

Keller gave Source New Mexico a copy of the recommendations titled, “Native American and Indigenous Protocols For Surveying Indian Boarding School Burial Sites.” The authors Marsha Small (Blue Tipi Woman of the Northern Cheyenne/Tsististah) Farina King (Diné) and Preston McBride bring expertise from their research on boarding schools that also includes returning remains buried on these sites back to their tribal homes. 

“In my work, I address how Diné identity has changed among boarding school students through the 20th century, and I trace the physical affronts, illness, abuse, and punishment, as well as survivor skills and creativity that students used to overcome their challenges at boarding schools,” King writes on her website.

The group’s advice is direct and specific to understanding cultural practices around burial sites. 

What’s next

The City of Albuquerque will host a community stakeholder discussion seeking public input on what to do with the burial site at 4-H Park

Friday, Oct. 8

1:30 p.m.- 3:30 p.m.

Virtual meeting, register here

Additional information

First, they advise that a Native American should be present during every part of the survey. They say the respect for all tribal nations represented is imperative because “there are Nations that do not believe in the disinterment of their relatives,” the report states. “Protocols addressed by the community should be adhered to with the majority voice with consensus prevailing, if exhumation is the goal.”

The group suggests specific equipment that can best leave the site as undisturbed as possible, which does include the radar system the city is working to use on the site. “It is imperative that the survey consists of at least two instrument types, ground-penetrating radar and at least one other instrument, such as magnetometry or electromagnetic conductivity. It is the general consensus of cemetery survey experts that using two different types of instruments is the key to survey success.” 

Also, the group suggests that information and records collected by the survey remain with tribal nations, who can control and release information as they seem fit, Begay said. 

The City of Albuquerque echoed the sentiment that the opinion from communities with relatives in the ground under 4-H Park are priority for anything that happens next.

“The plaque going missing was a catalyst to awaken the city to this site and push us to do more to honor those who relate to us,” Begay said. “As we continue our conversations and continue to seek guidance to reveal the truth, learn from past mistakes, heal together and make decisions for the benefit of our current future generations.”

Terry Sloan makes a speech during the healing reflection and memorial for Albuquerque Indian School cemetery Saturday, Sept. 25, 2021 at Native American Community Academy. (Photo by Sharon Chischilly for Source NM)

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.