Boarding school history underpins Yazzie Martinez findings on Native education

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Marjorie Childress

A sign demands a city council investigation of the circumstances of an unmarked gravesite for Zuni, Navajo, and Apache children who attended the Albuquerque Indian School in the early 20th century. The sign is at a community-built memorial near a burial ground at Albuquerque's 4-H park.

On an afternoon in June, neighbors walked the grass loop of Albuquerque’s 4-H park as kids chased underneath a metal sculpture and stepped on a marker that hints of the unmarked grave site below for students at the old Albuquerque Indian School who died more than 100 years ago.

Draped on a solitary tree nearby were orange tapestries, part of a community-built memorial dedicated to the gravesite near the former site of the Albuquerque Indian School. It went up after someone noticed a plaque missing that commemorated the cemetery for Zuni, Navajo and Apache students buried there between 1882 and 1933.

How the plaque went missing is a mystery, and its absence might have escaped notice a few years ago. 

But a discovery in May of 215 unmarked graves at an Indian boarding school in southern British Columbia has sparked heightened awareness of the history and legacy of boarding schools in the United States. 

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced in late June the agency would investigate the extent to which there was loss of human life in this country and the lasting consequences of boarding schools. The federal government, beginning in the late 1800s, took Indian children from their families in an effort to strip them of their cultures and language. It’s unknown how many Native children were affected over the decades, but, at a minimum, the numbers are into the tens of thousands

In her announcement, Haaland described boarding school legacies of intergenerational trauma, cycles of violence and abuse, and disappearance and premature deaths. 


Courtesy of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center


This plaque, now missing, designated the site of unmarked graves of Zuni, Navajo and Apache students at the Albuquerque Indian School.

Shaun Griswold

Community members erected a memorial at 4-H park, and an alter where there was once a plaque that had noted the unmarked gravesite.

What Haaland didn’t include was that the government never returned the right to educate their children back to tribes. Or that Native students continue to lag their peers in educational outcomes.

While the era of boarding schools eventually waned, Native students were largely shifted to state public schools, where tribes didn’t create the curriculum or oversee what their children learned in the classroom.

But in recent years tribes and Native American experts in Haaland’s home state have been demanding more control, saying they know best how to educate their children. They’re supported by the 2018 Yazzie/Martinez v. State of New Mexico court ruling that referenced the Indian boarding school system as an underlying factor in poor educational outcomes among Native students.

In 2018, then-chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, Edward Paul Torres, bluntly described the importance of the moment to a joint session of the New Mexico Legislature. 

Calling Yazzie/Martinez a “landmark decision of monumental proportions,” Torres said, “Not since 1890 when the first Indian education policy was unveiled focused on assimilation have we had such an opportunity as we have today to redefine education that does not destroy who we are as a people.”

Excavating History 

Haaland announced the Interior Department boarding school initiative during the National Congress of American Indians Summit during which Chairman Wilfred Herrera (Laguna) described in detail how the schools “ripped our Pueblo children – some as young as four years old – from the arms of their mothers, stripping them of tender parental care and compassion; many unable to return home until the completion of their studies.” 

A member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico whose own grandparents were subjected to the U.S. residential boarding school system, Haaland, is well-versed in the history and legacy of boarding schools.

But for anyone who wanted to know, that history is well documented. The federal government opened the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania in 1879, the first of many boarding schools that became home to Indian children taken from their families. Two years later, the Presbyterian Church opened the Albuquerque Indian School for Navajo, Pueblo and Apache students, transferring control to the federal government in 1884. It was one of many boarding schools that would open in New Mexico.

The goal was to force Native people to shed their cultural identities, language, and spiritual traditions.


Benjamin Thomas, Mary Perry, and John Menaul of Laguna Pueblo in “before” and “after” photographs, included in an extensive repository of images and documents related to students who attended Carlisle Indian School.

Over the past century government reports sounded the alarm about boarding schools. The Meriam Report of 1928 criticized their inadequate facilities and the removal of children from their homes, stressing repeatedly the need for relevant curriculum adapted to the culture of the children.

Over the following decade, the federal government mostly shifted responsibility for educating Native children to state public schools. 

But that didn’t herald an embrace of Indian culture 

“There is not one Indian child who has not come home in shame and tears after one of those sessions in which he is taught that his people were dirty, animal-like, something less than a human being,” the then-president of the American Indian Historical Society said of public schools when speaking before the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Indian Education that produced the Kennedy Report of 1969.   

Nor did public schools empower tribes to share control of education, despite precedents of successful tribal programs in the 1800s. 

The Choctaw of Mississippi and Oklahoma operated about 200 schools and academies, sending numerous graduates to eastern colleges, the Kennedy Report noted. And during the same period, the Cherokee tribe controlled a school system that produced 100% literacy. “Anthropologists have determined that as a result of this school system, the literacy level in English of western Oklahoma Cherokees was higher than the white populations of either Texas or Arkansas,” the authors of the reports observed. But those Cherokee and Choctaw school systems were abolished in 1906 when Oklahoma became a state.     

More recently, the late state Judge Sarah Singleton cited boarding school history in the Yazzie/Martinez court decision. And the 608 pages of facts and findings undergirding the Yazzie/Martinez decision implicate them as a key factor in poor educational outcomes today. 

The document describes a sufficient education as one in which Native students are able to effectively participate in both their tribal cultures as well as non-Native settings. Essential to that is language.

“Language is the necessary means that provides for the full understanding of the indigenous customs and laws of the Pueblo people,” the document states, drawing from testimony of Regis Pecos, a former governor of Cochiti Pueblo and co-director of the Santa Fe Leadership Institute at the Santa Fe Indian School.

The current public school system is a continued effort at assimilation, one that makes for a fragile existence for tribes today, Pecos said in an interview. 

“… our identity, that comes with language and culture and the knowledge of our history and governance and our music, our connections to since the time of origin or creation or emergence, you know, those are all fragile today because of the intentionality of the policies and laws, conceived to assimilate us, to disconnect us from our homelands,” he said. 

Today, New Mexico’s Indigenous students, who make up about 34,000, or 11% of New Mexico’s K-12 student population, lag behind their New Mexico peers in reading, math, high school graduation and college enrollment. The Yazzie/Martinez decision suggests those outcomes mostly stem from decades of underspending and neglect by New Mexico, shattering the perception that blame rests on children and their families and instead on a systemic failure.

 
The ruling “exposed that Native children attend systemically under-resourced schools that fail to provide essential educational programs and services and ignore students’ diverse strengths and needs,” noted the authors of the December 2020 report Pathways to Education Sovereignty: Taking a Stand for Native Children.

A way forward

The Yazzie/Martinez decision has brought into sharp focus a long simmering debate about how best to educate Native American children.

New Mexico has passed laws since the 1970s intent on providing culturally relevant education and language programs to Native children, most notably the Bilingual Multicultural Education Act of 1973, and the Indian Education Act of 2003. It’s these laws that Singleton pointed to as an existing state blueprint for adequate education, if only they were followed.

The decision described as ideal an educational framework that draws on decades of Native scholarship about the needs of Indigenous students: a culturally relevant curriculum that centers the knowledge, perspectives, and lived realities of a student’s ethnic or racial group; Native language instruction; recruitment of Native educators and a collaborative relationship between state and tribal governments.  

Native leaders would go a step further, urging that tribes be empowered to control the education of Native students. 

“…there is still the need for that change of mind, and that is to give deference to the Indian leaders,” Pecos said, “… who have built their own programs and systems based on what they know to be in their best interest of their children and their people.”

Models for successful Native-led education exist, Pecos said, like the Keres Children’s Learning Center, which teaches traditional language courses to kids in Cochiti Pueblo; college readiness programs for Native Americans such as the Summer Policy Institute; and K-12 schools such as the Santa Fe Indian School, which under Pueblo leadership was established when the Albuquerque Indian School was closed in the 1980s.

“These are all Indigenous knowledge-based programs, not built by the universities but built by our own Native faculty,” Pecos said. 

The Tribal Remedy Framework has been offered up by Native American leaders and endorsed by tribes as a blueprint on how to move the state into compliance with the Yazzie/Martinez court order. The blueprint calls for increased tribal control and consultation over education, community-based education created by tribal communities, commitment to culturally relevant and Native language education, and development of a Native teacher pipeline. And it calls for permanent, year-over-year funding for Native students, language programs and tribal education. 

Native leaders say the framework is a long-overdue comprehensive approach, but so far, state leaders continue a practice of piecemeal reform, at most. 

At the advent of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration, the Legislature in 2019 took up how to respond to the Yazzie/Martinez court order that the state rectify the poor education provided to so many of its kids. Lawmakers pumped enormous amounts of new funds into education. But gave short shrift to legislation that would shift resources to Native-led education.

Then, just a year later, in March 2020 just as the COVID-19 pandemic roared to life, the state unsuccessfully petitioned the court to agree the problem had been remedied, a move roundly condemned by the plaintiffs in the case, who say there’s still a long way to go. 

The change of mind Pecos and others speak of — echoing language from the Meriam Report of 1928 — is made more likely when powerful people show proper respect to the country’s history, starting with investigating boarding schools and their legacy in tribal communities. That pushes those stories into the public’s consciousness. Like Haaland’s high-profile initiative to identify isolated and forgotten burial grounds for children, which has already spurred the City of Albuquerque to action. 

In the wake of renewed scrutiny of the 4-H park, Albuquerque’s volunteer Commission on American Indian and Alaska Native Affairs launched an investigation into the history of the park and what should be done today to care for the burial ground. 

City officials are reaching out to tribal communities to gather their input and make recommendations.

While the gravesite was discovered in the course of building the park, its existence wasn’t a secret. 


Marjorie Childress

A community built memorial at Albuquerque’s 4-H Park near the location of a missing plaque that had designated unmarked graves of students who attended the Albuquerque Indian School.

Marjorie Childress

A 1995 plaque dedicates a nearby public art sculpture in 4-H park to “former Albuquerque Indian School students interred in the burial ground nearby.”

When the Albuquerque Journal reported a baby’s skull had been found during construction of the park, an area resident, Rudy Martinez, told the Journal he’d found bones there when he was a kid in the early 1950s. The newspaper ran a large photograph of Martinez examining bones.

And Ed Tsyitee told the Journal he’d been the caretaker for the cemetery for thirty years, until he retired in 1964. Tsyitee, a member of Zuni Pueblo who lived in Albuquerque, said the burials would have been made because “there was no way to take them home in those days.” Most would have been students, he believed, buried in military style clothing. 

The newspaper later reported plans of the Albuquerque Indian School to put a fence around the burial ground. 

Why that didn’t occur is unknown. A plaque was laid in the ground instead.

Now that plaque is missing. A separate marker at a nearby public art sculpture, laid in 1995, and tapestries hung in a tree are the only evidence of a little-known burial ground.

Commissioner Lorenzo Jim (Dine/Navajo) would like to see a designation for the site that could potentially limit access to honor its history. Jim said at a commission meeting on July 16 that the task requires care. “It’s a piece of land, and again, involving our children, so making it sacred is important.”

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