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Rundown Indian school may get second chance

Posted: Wednesday, October 06, 2004

 

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  Ceiling tiles litter the interior of a music rehersal room in the Band building, one of three historic buildings left out of as many as 100 that once made up the Phoenix Indian School which opened in 1891 and run by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs are shown Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, in Phoenix. The city hopes to renovate the three remaining buildings which are considered the most historically significant. AP Photo/Paul Connors

The Band building ,left, and Memorial Hall, right, are two of three historic buildings left out of as many as 100 that once made up the Phoenix Indian School which opened in 1891 and run by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs are shown Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, in Phoenix. The city hopes to renovate the three remaining buildings which are considered the most historically significant.

AP Photo/Paul Connors

PHOENIX -- The pale red brick building with the mission-style roof line saw nearly 70 years worth of American Indian students.

Once the site of performances and proms, the Memorial Hall of the old Phoenix Indian School is now boarded up to keep rock throwers and vagrants away; musty air and layers of peeling paint are locked inside.

Just three buildings, the ones most prized for their historic value, remain from the school that closed in 1990 but once covered 160 acres and had as many as 100 buildings. The city hopes to preserve and renovate what's left.

''You don't get an impression of what it was like'' by looking at what remains, said Robert Trennert, a retired Arizona State University professor who wrote a book about the Phoenix Indian School. ''What's left of it is very small, really. But nevertheless, they're worth saving.''

The city is still prioritizing preservation projects and looking for funding, but it hopes first to fix up Memorial Hall, which Trennert said is the most significant of the buildings.

A memorial to students who fought in World War I sits out front, and many of the building's bricks within reach bear messages etched by students to proclaim their love, their tribe or their name starting around the 1940s.

''Two Apaches,'' reads one brick near the doors. ''L. Eagleman June 3, '42,'' reads another. Later additions include the lightning split logo of the rock band AC/DC.

''At the time, it was probably considered graffiti. Now, it's historical,'' said Trennert, laughing.

Keeping irrigation and sprinkler water off those bricks is part of the preservation plan, said Bill Jacobson, a city historic preservation planner.

In addition to renovating Memorial Hall, officials also plan to shore up the century-old dining hall, which suffers from water leaks and structural woes but has been suggested as a site for a tribal museum, Jacobson said. The band building, the smallest of the three and the one sandwiched in the middle, is envisioned as a veterans museum but funding hasn't been secured yet, said Bill Scheel, senior assistant to the mayor.

The Indian school, operated by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, opened in 1891 on a piece of land purchased with money donated by Phoenix residents, Jacobson said.

BIA boarding schools were designed to ''civilize'' American Indians by pulling them from reservations, dressing them in uniforms and forcing them to speak English, Trennert said. The Phoenix school was among the nation's largest.

''The purpose of this school is to introduce Indian youth to the opportunities and responsibilities of civilization and to acquaint his Caucasian brother with the sterling qualities of the Native American,'' reads a plaque on the WWI memorial.

 

Ceiling tiles litter the interior of a music rehersal room in the Band building, one of three historic buildings left out of as many as 100 that once made up the Phoenix Indian School which opened in 1891 and run by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs are shown Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2004, in Phoenix. The city hopes to renovate the three remaining buildings which are considered the most historically significant.

AP Photo/Paul Connors

The education at the schools included vocational skills and mandatory work, on campus and elsewhere.

Schools like the Phoenix Indian School, located far from most Arizona reservations, were considered top tier schools because students were so far removed from their native culture, Trennert said.

Most of the off-reservation Indian schools opened around the turn of the 20th century, with heavy emphasis on ''civilization.'' But by the 1930s, attitudes had begun to change, Trennert said. Some native languages and arts and crafts were allowed.

After World War II, the federal government began building more on-reservation schools, leading to the eventual decline of the boarding school system.

After the Phoenix Indian School's closure in 1990, the federal government planned to trade the land for a piece of environmentally sensitive land in another state, Jacobson said.

Tribal leaders protested, saying the land should go to Indians. The city wanted the property, now a prime piece of central Phoenix real estate, for a park, and drawn-out negotiations resulted in a compromise, Jacobson said.

Ultimately, the city got about half the land -- including the historic buildings -- for a park. Another portion went to the neighboring Veterans Administration hospital and a smaller portion to a developer, who gave land to the federal government for a portion of the Indian school property and a downtown block.

Steele Indian School Park opened three years ago, with sweeping grassy areas, pathways and elements designed to draw on Indian history and culture.

But the buildings await significant work.

The Memorial Hall is envisioned as a small performance venue to take advantage of its stage and a suspended balcony that lines three walls and has fold-down wooden seating.

The dining hall, a vast building with pressed metal ceilings now suffering from rust damage, has been targeted as an Indian cultural center by Indian tourism officials.

The city has landed several grants for the preservation effort from the state and federal government, but it still must find more money, Jacobson said.

Gloria Lomahaftewa, a former Phoenix Indian School student whose siblings and parents also attended the school, said although she had hoped the property would revert to tribal control, she's grateful the city was able to preserve what was saved.

Lomahaftewa, who attended the school in 1961-62, recalls Memorial Hall being the center of social activity -- the site of assemblies, the prom and concerts. As a student, she performed on the hall's stage in the Christmas nativity program.

''I wish they would have saved more,'' she said.



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