A barrier encloses the entire northeast corner of 4-H Park in the area of a gravesite for students and staff at the Albuquerque Indian School. (Photo by Shaun Griswold / Source NM)
The Albuquerque Indian School era lasted nearly 100 years and it’s going to take a community effort to truly understand the scope of the effects it had on the city.
Next week, Albuquerque officials will host a series of public conversations, inviting people who have any connection to the school to speak up and give an account about what they know.
This is not just an issue for Native Americans. Non-Indigenous people worked at the school and lived in the neighborhood, and their perspective could provide insight into what happened during the boarding school era in Albuquerque.
IF YOU GO
Untold Truths: Community Conversations About the Impacts of the Albuquerque Indian School:
- Tuesday, Jan. 11 from 4:30-6:30 p.m. at Los Duranes Community Center
- Wednesday, Jan. 12 from 4:30-6:30 p.m., virtual
- Thursday, Jan.13 from 1:30-3:30 p.m., virtual
- Friday, Jan. 14, 2022 from 9:30-11:30 a.m., virtual
“We’re hoping to document this so that this deliberate erasure of history doesn’t happen again, or that a park isn’t built over a sacred site,” Albuquerque Native American Affairs Coordinator Dawn Begay said. “Every child, every person that was there is a member that didn’t return home. And that’s devastating to any community. And these are stories we, the city, may have never heard before. We want to capture that and have the city own up to its own history because the impacts are lasting impacts.”
Last June, city officials learned that a plaque indicating a gravesite where Albuquerque Indian School students and staff were buried, underneath 4-H Park, had been missing since 2019. This news came around the time the Department of Interior announced an investigation into the federal boarding school era and the uncovering of unmarked graves at school sites in Canada.
Albuquerque’s initial response was led by a committee of local Native American leaders, to reach out to the tribal nations that have relatives buried at the park. With guidance from the tribal representatives, the committee formed an action plan to build resources to educate the public on this corner of the city’s history.
Albuquerque Indian School was first opened by the Presbyterian Church in 1881 before it was transferred to the federal government in 1884. The Bureau of Indian Affairs ran the school under the brutal assimilation policies of the era, forcing children from surrounding tribal communities to attend the school. It was the second largest federally run Indian boarding school in the country.
In 1977, the institution was transferred to the All Pueblo Council of Governors, a coalition of tribal nations in New Mexico and Texas. The group closed the school, transferred property and shifted its academic focus to the Santa Fe Indian School that operates to this day.
Mayor Tim Keller issued an apology in September to the Native American community in Albuquerque. The city council passed a resolution acknowledging the atrocities committed on the school campus.
Further action to protect the sacred site was taken. The portion of the park is now fenced off with signs warning people could face criminal prosecution for trespassing if they enter the area where the gravesite is located.
Last month, the city completed a survey using a company that does ground penetrating radar research to evaluate how many remains exist at 4-H Park.
Begay (Diné) said city officials will share those findings with tribal leaders first, then possibly share that information with the public. The survey could be released in February.
Before the radar work was done at the park, Begay said, the city conducted a ceremony with tribal leaders at the site. The effort was one of the first times in modern history the city of Albuquerque provided support for a traditional ceremony. It was also notable because the tribes that participated did so in their own ways, using their specific practices that are different for each tribe. This included a city representative to ensure the healing ceremonies and prayers were conducted according to the tribal representatives’ needs.
“They were also responsible for making sure that the memorial offerings and items that were there were handled with care and made sure that none of that was removed or displaced while the survey happened,” Begay said.
Researching the history of the school, which operated from 1881 to 1981, has been challenging.
First, there is an issue of consistent and reliable documents. Several fires at main buildings at Albuquerque Indian School destroyed records from the earliest years of operation. There have also been issues with record keeping at the federal level. Paperwork has shifted between agencies, almost all of the records are not digitized and are only available to view at a regional facility in Denver that has been closed to visitors under COVID-19 restrictions.
“I think there is definitely a huge gap in lost or damaged or getting lost or destroyed records,” Begay said. “And with the city, there are not a lot of records on how the city acquired this site, or any surveys that may have been done before.”
Also, the generation that survived the worst of the boarding school era is no longer alive. Many of their stories were not shared or details are scant. Relatives who had discussions about the experiences are often coming from a second- or third-hand account, Begay said.
“That also led to the reason why we’re turning towards community members is they may have a copy of someone’s birth certificate or death certificate or articles or were part of those research studies and want to share it,” Begay said. “So that’s kind of really why we’re expanding and extending it to have these conversations and say, if you have this information, you’re willing to share please do.”
Ahead of the site survey using ground-penetrating radar, the city conducted a ceremony with Native leaders. Tribes have also been invited to do their own. This story was updated to reflect this information on Friday, Jan. 7.
Ahead of the site survey using ground-penetrating radar, the city conducted a ceremony with Native leaders. Tribes have also been invited to do their own.
This story was updated to reflect this information on Friday, Jan. 7.
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