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Dark chapter of America’s history buried beneath neighborhood park

For more than 100 years, the U.S government forcibly removed hundreds of thousands of Native American children from their parents and placed them in a system of off-reservation boarding schools. Many died and were buried there. The story of what happened is just beginning to emerge as the Department of the Interior continues the investigation it launched last year.
The historic former Native American boarding school system began in the 1870s and included more than 300 boarding schools, often church-run, but funded by taxpayers and found in states from coast to coast. The system’s goal was to assimilate Native American children into White culture – many forcibly.
Albuquerque is one of the first cities actively confronting the history of the Native American boarding school system. That includes trying to figure out what to do about a former school cemetery, where a city park was built on top. Part of that area is now recognized as a sacred site.
The former Native American boarding school cemetery was virtually forgotten until the 1970s. That's when workers installing a sprinkler system, at what had become a city park, came across human remains.
Posted at 11:46 AM, Aug 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-19 13:46:57-04

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On a parcel of land, nestled in a quiet neighborhood, sits 4-H Park.

"4-H Park is a city park," said Terry Sloan, Intergovernmental Tribal Liaison for the City of Albuquerque. "It is a nice park."

It's also something else: a final resting place for children.

"There are many angry Indians out there about this, who will never forgive the government for what they've done," said Michael Lente, who is part of the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

The piece of land, where the park is now located, once belonged to the Albuquerque Indian School, part of a system of off-reservation boarding schools. The system aimed to assimilate Native American children into White culture – many forcibly.

"It's all a military environment. They're dressed in military uniforms. They're taught to speak only English," said Margaret Connell-Szasz, a University of New Mexico history professor.

The system, which began in the 1870s and lasted around a century, included more than 300 boarding schools, often church-run, but funded by taxpayers and found in states from coast to coast. Experts estimate thousands of children, and possibly more, died at the schools from disease, abuse or neglect.

"First of all, the children are taken out of their home environment and this leads to psychological trauma. You know, there's no question about that," said Connell-Szasz, who authored the book, ‘Education and The American Indian.’ "There's the fact that they don't get enough to eat. So, the food is inadequate. They're punished if they misbehave."

Michael Lente, of the Laguna Pueblo, delved into the school's history.

"This is an 1883 roster of the students at the Albuquerque Indian School," Lente said, as he handed over a copy of it, "and it's rather revealing there, because if you go down the list and take your time, there are many entries where it's said, 'died at school.'"

When that happened at the boarding schools located across the U.S., the students were often buried — at school.

In Albuquerque, the former school's cemetery eventually became 4-H park.

"It did over the years, evolve into different parcels of land," said Sloan. "That's where the city erred, when it did take over the property itself, was creating a park over the cemetery."

The cemetery was virtually forgotten until the 1970s when workers installing a sprinkler system at the park came across human remains.

"It's one thing not to know, but once you know, then you must make amends for that," Lente said.

However, it wasn't until the Canadian government apologized for its Indigenous boarding school system, that the U.S. started investigating its own system last year - led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, America’s first Native American cabinet secretary. The first volume of the investigation's findings was released this past May.

"And so that's what brings us here today to address that issue and correct and create the reconciliation that is needed," said Sloan.

Albuquerque is one of the first cities confronting this history, along with trying to figure out what to do about the cemetery in the park, which is now recognized as a sacred site.

Sloan – who is part of the Diné Nation (Navajo) and Hopi tribes and whose own mother attended the school – said more work needs to be done, in consultation with tribal leaders. They are also in the midst of holding community meetings about it.

"Right now, we don't have any idea who's there, where they're located at and where they're buried," said Sloan. "You do what you need to do in the amount of time that it takes to get it done respectfully and get it adequately done."

Lente said he just wants to make sure this part of history is not forgotten.

"There's an interesting saying that the earth is made up of the dust, of the bones of your forebears. And, so, the children have returned to the earth, and they are the ancestors of who we are now,” Lente said. "Somebody has to take responsibility for that. Otherwise, they're lost to history."