Erasing Bad Memories at Phoenix Indian School

Heard Museum General Archives Collection Indian boys and girls leave the Phoenix Indian School dining hall building through separate doorways wearing their uniforms; the female students are wear dresses with stockings, and the male students wear pants with long-sleeved shirts. Many trees surround the buildings when this was taken in 1929.

Mentioning Phoenix Indian School brings back memories for a lot of people, most of them bad.

When Phoenix Indian School was established in 1891, it quickly became a prominent part of the federal government’s policy of forced assimilation. Native American children were to be transformed into “Americans along Anglo-Saxon lines”—assimilating Indian children through education while achieving Anglo-conformity through an abrupt detachment of tribal cultural patterns, according to the Archaeological Institute of America.

Unbelievably, according to the Institute’s archives, the Indian Commissioner at that time said: “It’s cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them.”

Bad memories can’t be erased, but good memories can be built on the past, and two projects are underway to do so.

Heard Museum General Archives Collection Female students are served food at the dining table by two other female students at Phoenix Indian High School around 1931.

The Phoenix Indian Center and Native American Connections signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the City of Phoenix last year to renovate the band building at what is now referred to as Steele Indian School Park. Once the only non-reservation Bureau of Indian Affairs school in the state, the 160-acre campus complex has sat vacant since 1990 when the school closed at the order of the federal government.

“We are pleased… to bring the band building back to life and create an environment where American Indians can meet and share their culture in a variety of ways,” said Diana Yazzie Devine, Native American Connections CEO, in a news release. By renovating the building, the partners hope to restore the spirit demonstrated in the 6,000-square-foot facility at the height of its use—a time when students from different tribal backgrounds, speaking different languages, used music as a way to communicate and work as a team.

Referred to as “The Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project,” the band building is considered a key to preserving the school’s legacy. “It’s restoration and cultural programming will be a gift to Phoenix residents for generations to come,” said Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department Director James Burke. According to the release, the building will be used as a cultural gathering place where the community can learn about the school’s history, hold meetings, experience Native foods, sporting events, culture, and music.

Lee Allen /This image shows the former elementary school/music building, which is being renovated.

On a separate front, the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association (AAITA) is also working to clarify some of the history by developing the original dining hall into an American Indian Cultural Center, which would make it the first in the state.

“We still have a ways to go,” said Dawn Melvin, Navajo, Tribal Tourism Relations Manager for the Arizona Office of Tourism, “but a previously-negotiated Memorandum of Understanding signed in March 2011 is being updated and extended to move the project forward.”

“Our objective is to develop the 14,000-square-foot dining hall into a cultural center that will offer diversity training as well as promoting travel and tourism in Indian country,” said AAITA coordinator Raphael Bear, Yavapai. “The building was once slated for demolition, but we thought it important to save the structure for the benefit of all tribes.”

Although early in the process, conceptual floor plans are being discussed to convert the structure into several galleries, classrooms, conference rooms, and a kitchen/dining area. “It’s still early on, and we don’t have all the components identified, but there may also be room for a gift shop,” added Bear.

“We need to focus our energies on getting this accomplished for the simple reason that a lot of work has already been done on planning a site to promote Native Americans—who we are, what we enjoy, and what we do. Using a property that at one point was designed to regimentalize and culturally exterminate Indians and turning it into something to promote the betterment of the Indian people is a positive step forward.”

“AAITA celebrates any opportunity to educate and network Native life. One of our standing goals has centered around the historic school’s dining hall,” said Donovan Hanley, Navajo, AAITA president. “By creating a meeting point for all our Native Arizona tribal communities in the Phoenix area, this building would be a pivotal point to guide visitors to tribal destinations—a Visitor Center that would honor past legacies left there.”

Rough cost estimates are in the $1 million to $2 million range.

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