Kids Resting in 4-H Park (Kids Resting in 4-H Park) — High Country News – Know the West

The Albuquerque Indian School was a constant in the life of Lester Brown. In 1946, at the age of 4, Brown, originally from Ganado, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, began dating him. His parents worked there, his father as an engineer and football coach, and his mother in the cafeteria and the girls’ dormitory. The family lived in a house on the school grounds, where the grounds seemed open, filled with apple orchards and vineyards that her father tended. The school screened films and held church services in the auditorium. According to Brown’s account, it was a community pillar – but the foundation of the pillar was troubled.

“My mom knew some of those buried there,” Brown said over the phone in February. She never told Lester their names. “She just said (they were) her friends.”

Originally established by the Presbyterian Church, the school soon became part of the American campaign to separate Indigenous children from their families and communities and assimilate them more fully into the mainstream white Christian culture. From 1881 to 1981 he took children, mostly from neighboring Pueblo nations and Diné communities. Like most of these boarding schools, it had the trappings of an educational institution – a cafeteria, dormitories and a hospital. But there was also a cemetery for children who did not survive.

Today, this cemetery sits under the east corner of what is now 4-H Park, just two miles north of downtown Albuquerque. No one knows for sure how many children are buried there, although in a 1973 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, former caretaker Ed Tsyitee, who oversaw the cemetery from 1932 to 1964, estimated that there were around 25 to 30 student burials. Tsyitee’s comments came after city workers discovered children’s bones while digging trenches for the 4-H park. Albuquerque park planners, it seemed, had completely forgotten about the cemetery.

City of Albuquerque

Five decades later, the cemetery still lacks headstones, a fence or a caretaker. She seemed doomed to remain in a kind of vacuum, cut off from affected communities. But in the summer of 2021, on the heels of the discovery of mass graves at the Kamloops boarding school in Canada, the city of Albuquerque finally began to shake off its colonial apathy. As part of an effort to work with Pueblos and tribal nations to address past cruelties, the city is trying to identify buried children and trace their families. Time, fires and floods have devoured many documents that could help identify the graves. But there is hope that the healing can begin if the city tends to the wounds that have been neglected for so long.

“This is an issue that has been brewing for over a hundred years,” said Terry Sloan, Albuquerque’s intergovernmental tribal liaison and leading member of the city’s 4-H Cemetery Task Force.

In August 2021, the city began engaging with leaders from the Navajo Nation, Pueblo de Zuni, Apache Tribes, Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, Hopi, Salt River Pima, and Maricopa Indian Community, as well as other communities in the region. The awareness effort began after a plaque was stolen recognizing the Indigenous students buried at the site. The outreach meetings grew into a community-wide effort, researching stories and oral histories and seeking documents and information on anyone who attended boarding school.

On the left, a memorial at the cemetery site. On the right, Lester Brown sits at his kitchen table flipping through old Albuquerque Indian School yearbooks his mother kept.

Kalen Goodluck/High Country News

The working group has been busy. In January, he hosted a series of virtual community listening sessions, where people shared what they knew about the school. At least two participants, including Sloan, had relatives who attended. The group also consulted with Heidi Todacheene (Diné), senior adviser to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and responsible for its residential school initiative. More recently, the city called in experts to analyze the site using ground-penetrating radar, a non-destructive tool that does not disturb the graves. Their findings have not been made public.


An aerial view of the 4-H park, with cemetery locations and a marked art installation.

Officials like Sloan have insisted on consulting the Pueblo and other tribal nations throughout the process, informing them of their findings before making any public disclosures to honor their ancestry and the privacy of everyone involved. Finding a sacred burial site is tricky business. Some tribes have not responded to the task force, Sloan said, noting that there are cultural reasons why some people don’t want to engage in the process or disrupt the site. Funeral rites are sensitive and respect for the dead is essential.

Documentation of the school’s history is spotty and spread across a range of archives. Theodore “Ted” Jojola (Pueblo of Isleta), a professor in the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Mexico, exhibited photographic history at the Albuquerque Museum. The old black and white images show the growth and decline of the school, marking disease outbreaks as well as changes in the surrounding community as new housing and streets were built and development occurred.

The new group collected information from the First Presbyterian Church and UNM oral history collection, as well as photographs from the National Archives and old yearbooks collected by the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center. John Graham’s highly documented book, Education at the Edge of Empire, describes the health care students received at the school hospital and notes that a dozen deaths, mostly from influenza and measles epidemics, were recorded at the school between 1921 and 1926 Stories of abuse in Indian schools are widespread in the United States and Canada, but it’s unclear whether the teachers’ treatment factored into the student deaths at the Albuquerque school. The conditions there were mostly recorded by government officials and school staff.

Sources (clockwise from top left): Campus map, Albuquerque Indian School Yearbook, courtesy of Lester Brown; Aerial image of 4-H Park, Kalen Goodluck; Memorial in 4-H Park, Kalen Goodluck.

As for health care, “they did their best,” said Joe Sabatini, a retired Bernalillo County librarian who wrote a report on the school while doing research for the archives and the library of the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center in 2012.

Sabatini hopes the group will continue to find new information. But it is also realistic; to this day, most of those who remembered the school are probably deceased. The group left a few stones unturned. “There’s this so-called mythical notebook that has information about plot locations and the names of people who are buried,” Sloan said, but the group believes the notebook, if it existed, was likely lost. due to flood or fire. . Even so, he hastens to add, work still has value. It’s not just about unearthing new information; it’s about acknowledging the damaged relationship between the city and Indigenous communities and providing a sense of closure for everyone involved. “We may never have those answers,” Sloan said. “But we want to come to a process that brings healing and reconciliation to the problem itself.”

In mid-February, Lester Brown visited the old grounds, communing with the ghosts of the past. The football field is now vacant land and the hospital is now a Holiday Inn. A sprawling car park and several shops occupy the site of the former school. And Brown’s childhood home next to the old hospital is now the site of a road separating the hotel from a nearby Starbucks. The house itself, like the past Brown remembers, lives on, but only in his memory.

“They never put up headstones or anything,” Brown said. All these years, tribal citizens have wondered about the lost children – who they were, where their families were, and why they never came home.

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Historic aerial photo of Indian school with arrow to graveyard. Compiled by Joe Sabatini

Kalen Goodluck is a journalist and photographer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who was a former fellow of High Country News. He comes from the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian tribes.

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