One meaning of “legacy” includes a description of birthright, tradition and the action of handing something down from the past, as from an ancestor or predecessor. For many Native Americans from Arizona and the Southwest, including tribal members of the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, the Phoenix Indian School is a part of their personal legacy. The people who attended the Indian boarding school, the people who worked at the school as staff members, and those who learned that their relatives had attended Phoenix Indian School have been profoundly affected by the experience.
The Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project is a community-development endeavor that is a working partnership between Native American Connections, Inc., the Phoenix Indian Center, Inc., the City of Phoenix and Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Phoenix. They are involved in efforts to renovate the Band Building, one of three historic buildings that once were part of the Phoenix Indian School property and are on the National Register of Historic Places.
Native American Connections President/CEO Diana Yazzie-Devine stated, “We are a community-development organization. Why are we not thinking about preserving that cultural context that so many Native Americans have of the Phoenix Indian School area, which [actually] began even before Arizona became a state?” This focus was the impetus of why Native American Connections and the Phoenix Indian Center partnered together to develop the Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project.
Over the last 23 years, there have been a number of efforts by different organizations to preserve, recognize or redevelop the buildings and site, as well as the other acreage owned by the City of Phoenix that once was the location of Phoenix Indian School. Yazzie-Devine added, “The Indian School Road/Central Avenue area was a gathering place for Native American communities, and it is still a gathering place. From the Phoenix Indian Medical Center to the Phoenix Indian Center, and neighborhoods near and along Indian School Road, … as we watched the area grow, the area became a central cultural corridor for Native American communities.”
Phoenix Indian Center CEO Patricia Hibbeler stated, “When the City of Phoenix purchased the property and turned it into Steele Indian School Park, … [o]ne of the [positive steps] the city took when they were creating the park was they wanted to create some sort of connection and vision to youth. They [conducted] a number of focus groups with Native youth from the Phoenix Union High School District. … The youth provided input and direction that helped create different features at the park, including the Circle of Life.”
The Circle of Life lies at the heart of the 75-acre park. It includes a wide circular walkway that encompasses the three historic buildings that remain from the old Phoenix Indian School campus. Etched into the concrete around the center fountain is a poem that explains the Native American design theme of the park. The Circle of Life is 600 feet in diameter and features 24 interpretive columns depicting the history of the Phoenix Indian School.
One column reflects a message from elders to their children as they left to attend boarding school; it reads in part: “Boarding school students were nurtured on stories and legends. Do not forget your people. Do not forget our stories.”
In 2013, the SRPMIC understood the impacts and influences that Phoenix Indian School has had upon its people, so by motion the Tribal Council approved a letter of support for the Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project at the May 29, 2013, regular Council meeting. The list of Community members who either attended the school or worked there as staff members is a long one. Many of these Community members have fond and lasting memories of their experience.
Yazzie-Devine stated, “The SRPMIC was very supportive; they saw the value of bringing the understanding of the [Phoenix Indian School] back to Native American communities so kids can learn and remember the boarding-school experience [that many of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents experienced].”
What Is the Phoenix Indian School?
Phoenix Indian School was established in 1891 as the United States Industrial Indian School at Phoenix. Later it became known as Phoenix Indian School. By 1900 the school grounds had grown to a 160-acre property located north of the city of Phoenix and the school enrolled close to 700 students from 23 different tribes in Arizona, New Mexico, California, Nevada and Oregon. The original school property encompassed more than 30 different structures, including classrooms, student dormitories, staff living quarters, the dining hall, vocational training areas, and an additional 260 acres of farm fields to grow alfalfa and garden crops and house horses, cattle, pigs, chickens and other farm animals. The school was mostly self-sufficient, as it included its own water and sewer system.
The initial establishment of the school was part of the federal government’s “Indian policy” of forcing assimilation of Indian children by “civilizing” them with European-American cultural values and practices. This policy ended around the 1920s; thereafter, Native Americans elected or were selected to attend Phoenix Indian School because the school offered students access to educational and vocational opportunities—it thrived. Native American students, including children from the SRPMIC, attended the school to get an education. Yazzie-Devine stated, “[Students] came from all over Arizona and the Southwest. They did not have a common language; but music, the band and sports brought Native Americans together as tribal people.”
Yazzie-Devine continued, “Because many of the students marched in the band, they played for the Rose Bowl and they played [during the festivities in 1912] when Arizona became a state. It was something the Native American students excelled in and that they were proud of it. Sports was the same way—these two things were the common denominator for the tribal communities at the school.”
As the federal government built more schools within tribal lands, and as the value of the Phoenix Indian School property, located at the northeast corner of Central Avenue and Indian School Road in the heart of Phoenix, increased, the government felt the value of the land outweighed the benefits of operating the school. The Phoenix Indian School was closed in 1990.
As years went by, it became evident to many people the importance of this property to Native Americans and tribal communities. The intrinsic value of the property to tribal communities was very evident. A common theme was that the “gathering place” for tribal communities in the Phoenix metro area had to be preserved and maintained.
What Is the Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project?
The Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project coordinator, Patty Talahongva, and the team approached the Inter Tribal Council of Arizona and all the tribes in Arizona to let them know about the project to preserve the Phoenix Indian School site. In addition, said Yazzie-Devine, “[As part of the process], we conducted [meetings] and held community gatherings with different groups; we held a visioning session to gather information on what the building should look like.”<.p>
A general summary of the input obtained from various Native American shareholders included the following concepts: a business center for tribal leaders to provide space to conduct business activities while visiting Phoenix and to hold meetings, which would include a conference room and small business center; a gallery that will document the history of the Phoenix Indian School experience; a “reflection room,” because for some students (older alumni) the experience was not a great boarding-school experience, as opposed to later students who elected to attend the school and had a more positive experience; a 120-seat conference room/gathering space to hold functions and entertainment activities like dances or comedy shows; and much more.
The renovated building will also include a commercial kitchen that could be used by Native American food vendors who voiced that they cannot sell their foods in public markets without preparing them in a commercial kitchen; classroom space near the kitchen area is proposed for demonstrations on how to prepare healthy Native foods focused on wellness.
The renovation of the Band Building is moving forward as funding is continuing to be secured. Yazzie-Devine added, “Today, I believe we are about midway in the development process. We are estimating it will take about eight months of construction, which is [estimated to] start sometime in the spring of 2016; therefore, we anticipate the building will be open in about a year and half.”
In summary, Hibbeler emphasized the importance to tribal youth of knowing about the legacy of the Phoenix Indian School. “It is important to learn and understand one’s past [and that of your people]; … it is a foundation needed to move forward.” The hope is that the legacy of the Phoenix Indian School will continue.
To learn more about the Phoenix Indian School Legacy Project, visit www.NativeConnections.org. To get more information on the Steele Indian School Park, visit www.phoenix.gov/parks/parks/alphabetical/s-parks/steele-indian-school.