When a girl from Laguna traveled from her pueblo to attend Albuquerque Indian School back in the ’40s, she felt she was robbed her of her identity.
“In five years the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the school had successfully Americanized me (to) the English language and the ways of white-America as it tried to strip me of my own language, my heritage, my culture and my dress,” reads the typed journal she has saved since then in a plastic binder.
The controversial school, part of a system of 60 schools with approximately 6,200 Indian students created by the federal government to assimilate Native American students, closed in the ’80s.
But it’s about to experience a resurgence when, this coming week – more than three decades later – it reopens with about 380 Native American students of a free charter school restarting the learning process in Building 232, the school’s only remaining structure.
Officials at the Native American Community Academy, which will take over the building near 12th and Indian School on Monday, say that starting afresh on those grounds represents a chance for transformation.
“There’s a horrible history of boarding schools, and Albuquerque Indian School in some parts represents that legacy,” said Duta Flying Earth, associate director of NACA, which teaches students grades 6 to 12 and had been housed in trailers at Wilson Middle School near San Pedro and Zuni since it opened in 2006.
“We could focus on that legacy, or we can flip it to, ‘What can we do to move forward?’ ”
Teachers and administrators will get set up Monday morning, and classes for students, all of them Native American with ties to between 40 and 50 pueblos and tribes, will start classes on Wednesday, which marks the beginning of NACA’s 40-year lease.
Kara Bobroff, NACA’s principal, sees positive synergy between the campus’s past and future.
“If you are able to understand those things and take them and do something positive and transformative,
that’s the best change you can hope to have,” she said in an interview Thursday.
NACA students will learn American and global indigenous policies, and Navajo, Lakota and Tiwa languages. Every two years, high schoolers will visit their sister urban charter school in Hamilton, New Zealand, to form relationships with Maoris, Bobroff and Flying Earth said.
An on-site health facility will offer a dental clinic and pharmacy, and eventually the school will add elementary grades and have dual enrollment classes with the University of New Mexico and Central New Mexico Community College, they said.
Some students will be shuttled or bused in from around Albuquerque and others will commute from neighboring pueblos; all will have access to exhibits and historical archives at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center across the street, whose resources will be included in the curriculum, they said.
That’s different from what was going on at Albuquerque Indian School when it opened in 1881. Like other day and boarding schools established for Indian students by the BIA, “the goal was to eradicate all vestiges of Indian culture,” according to an article about the history and culture of the Indian boarding school system on the American Indian Relief Council’s website.
Students, many forced against their family’s wishes to enroll, faced corporal punishment and food restrictions as discipline for running away and other infractions. They couldn’t speak their native languages and were forced to convert to Christianity, the article says. Old photos of AIS show students marching around the plaza of the campus in military formation.
Building 232 wasn’t previously a site where students had classes, Bobroff said. Erected after the school had been around for 50 years in 1931, Building 232 was two stories high and about 35,700 square feet, one of 48 structures on campus. It was designed by Isleta Pueblo enrollee Joe Padilla, whose students drafted plans and provided labor to build the flooring and foundation. It served as living space for faculty, and its dining room was used for social gatherings like graduations and proms, according to documents.
Albuquerque Indian School left the site and relocated for a time to Santa Fe Indian School in the 1980s, when most structures at the Albuquerque site were torn down. Grounds became a haven for vandalism and a refuge for homeless people.
Building 232, however, was left standing, because it was continually occupied by the BIA’s Southern Pueblo Agency. It was placed on New Mexico’s Historic Registry in 1981 and the National Historic Registry a year later.
The structure was supposed to be razed in advance of the property being transferred from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to the All Pueblos Council, which now is responsible for it, but the Society for the Preservation of American Indian Culture fought to save it, asking in a comment paper dated July 29, 2011, that it not be razed because “demolition of the building is not necessary in order to effectuate the transfer of land.”
“To many, this building is the last vestige of pride and identity,” the Society wrote; “its destruction would be devastating to the pueblo community.”
Once it was saved, Albuquerque-based Enterprise Builders Corp. won a $2 million bid to renovate Building 232, and got started in December. NACA got funding from state and federal sources to cover part of the project, which will cost about $2.6 million, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s for-profit arm secured additional financing from Bank of America, according to Michael Canfield, CEO of Indian Pueblos Marketing Inc.
When Enterprise Builders Corp.’s project superintendant Charles Vigil and his crew of 69 got started, they uncovered some surprise relics: an Albuquerque Tribune issue dated May 19, 1944, coins and tokens from the 1930s, a stack of old photos. They also came across 9-inch by 9-inch tiles – telltale signs of asbestos – which were removed along with some lead paint, slowing down the job and making it cost more than expected.
Last week the building was getting finishing touches that will continue for a few weeks after it reopens. All of the exterior walls were preserved, but low-bearing walls have been replaced to make larger classrooms, and new electrical wiring brought it up to code. Motion-activated fluorescent lighting, ramps and an elevator have been added, along with new heating, cooling, sprinkler and alarm systems, energy-efficient arched windows, Italian tiles, a three-inch core of insulation and a new overlay of asphalt in the parking lot, all of which looked new and user-friendly on a facility tour last Tuesday.
“We’re jumping through hoops to get it done,” Vigil said, adding that some workers are putting in unpaid overtime. “They’re helping out, for the kids, which I think is awesome.”
A ribbon cutting Thursday, involving a spoken blessing, drumming and dancing, as well as an exhibit about Albuquerque Indian School, will bring the AIS NACA transition full circle. The exhibit is based on collected memorabilia, such as the Laguna woman’s typed journal opens in October at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center and will be up for two years.
Said Canfield, whose grandparents years ago taught English and auto mechanics at Albuquerque Indian School: “Bringing NACA in allows us to bring education back on our property, and educate our native kids.”