Scorched Memories of the Abandoned Albuquerque Indian School

Figure 1. Photo by Richard Press. In “Arson Suspected at Vacant School,” Albuquerque Journal, May 29, 1981.
November 3, 2021

Felicia Bartley is a young Tiwa woman from the Pueblo of Isleta (Shiewip). She is a second-year graduate student in the Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage department and the second-year Native American and Indigenous Studies Initiative Fellow. Her current research focuses on the formative history of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, built upon the former grounds of the Albuquerque Indian School.


The Albuquerque (NM) Indian School—AIS—was founded in 1881 by the Presbyterian Board of Home Missions and transferred to the United States government in 1886. When the AIS was founded, the mission was to encourage Native children, through education, to abandon traditional life ways and assimilate into the dominant American society. In 1981, one hundred years after its opening, the school officially closed. While John R. Gram and Theodore Jojola (Pueblo of Isleta) explore the history of the AIS in their book, Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding Schools (Seattle: University of Washington Press) I have become committed to examining a portion of this narrative that they exclude: what happened to the buildings during their abandonment period, beginning in 1981 and extending up to 1993, when the last fire burned on campus.[1]    

The school experienced over twenty-nine fires during the time after its closing. The first recorded fire occurred on the final day of the school’s existence, on May 28, 1981. It was thought to have started at the top of a stairwell with a can of flammable liquid, an origin that caused the city fire investigator to suspect arson (Figure 1). Five years later, in July of 1986, the school was charred by thirty-foot flames. That fall, on October 20th, firefighters were again dispatched to the former AIS site to control a fire that was started by homeless people who created a fire using old administrative records and other papers, presumably to find respite from the elements. The following month, on November 21st, the school’s recreation hall caught aflame and in the following year, on July 28th of 1987, the same fate befell the school’s gymnasium and auditorium; the gym burned into the next day (Figure 2). All told sixteen fires decimated the school in 1987 alone, creating a total of twenty-nine burnings in a span of just three years. One nearby resident of the school stated that every three months a building went up in flames.

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Figure 2. Photo by Mark Holm. In "Indian School Gym Burns", Albuquerque Journal, July 29, 1987.

The school seems to have experienced a period of reprieve in the years that immediately followed, though this did not stop the deterioration of the buildings. After another fire, in 1992, the Bureau of Indian Affairs took the lead role in deciding to raze the school property, and by the following year there was only one building on the main campus left standing. This structure quickly met its evitable fate on March 19, 1993 when witnesses reported that they saw six adult men leaving the building prior to its engulfment in flames (Figure 3).[2] This date would mark the final time the Albuquerque Fire Department came to the AIS, closing the chapter on their response to a twelve-year streak of violent destruction.

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Figure 3. In "Indian School Fire," Albuquerque Journal, March 19, 1993.

This last fire was recorded as being of “suspicious” origin, a determination based on accounts of seeing persons exiting the structure, but the fire department officials suspected that all the school’s fires were acts of arson, whether witnessed or not.  It is important to realize that the last one was deliberately set when the buildings already were being torn down by the state and federal government. Rather than let the buildings be removed through community consent and collaboration, these individuals decided to intervene and remove the school’s final structure through a forceful act of arson.

With so much fire, destruction, and violence occurring in a short amount of time I began to wonder what the Albuquerque Indian School represented to the people who felt compelled enough to interact with and burn these abandoned buildings. If the multiple fires were indeed the results of arson, we should ask to what degree does burning a former federal Indian boarding school erase or correct of institutional memory, one associated with both trauma and affection. While there are positive recollections associated with the AIS as a school, not all accounts are affirming, as accounts from many former Indian Boarding School survivors from around the country have demonstrated.[3]

Violent acts of destructions directed to a built environment are also an attack on the communities who inhabit the environment. This statement can be interpreted in two different ways. If those culpable were former AIS students, their burning of the buildings suggests an attack upon Albuquerque and the former federal Indian boarding school’s institutional memory. On the other hand, if the arsonists were strangers to the school, their actions indicate violence towards the AIS student population, and more broadly towards the surrounding contemporary Native American population.

Such destruction of cultural property, which in this case involved a site designated as having historic buildings, is an attempt to “change the nature of a community, to erase its existence and/or to prevent the possibility of its existence.”[4] So if former AIS students participated in the destruction of the school then their purpose would have been to erase its existence, as a way to prevent its return. However, if the alternative source of the destruction, as I noted above—persons who were not internal community members— then it indicates an attempt to erase the existence of a larger Native population within Albuquerque, including their history within the city.

Places can become vulnerable to violence when they fail to recognize the differing values they hold for multiple communities.[5] I argue that the abandoned AIS was vulnerable to destruction because it became a symbol for only one portion of the Albuquerque community: those who determined the school was valuable for historic preservation. In declaring such value, the Indigenous community members who were harmed by the school’s administration and curriculum were silenced. There were those who were unaware of the property’s historical significance as meaningful within Native American history, and for them the school represented an unimportant piece of the past.

The violent destruction of the school is a manifestation of hatred towards the other, whether the other is of Euro-American or Indigenous origin. Emmanuel Levinas’s observation that hate is a form of denial, in which hate seeks to “humiliate and crush the other,” applies to the destruction of the school’s buildings.[6] The denial of Native American history through the school’s fiery destruction is a form of murder that forces its victims –the former AIS students and surrounding Albuquerque residents— to bear witness to the hate. Such hate causes suffering towards the people who hold any form of relationship with the Albuquerque Indian School and its buildings, which is most arguably the former student population.

When I began my research into this amnesiac topic and learned about the school’s fires, my immediate assumption was that former students of the AIS were responsible for them as a way to right the wrongs of the school and its staff. Through the course of this research however my questions have begun to shift, raising the possibility that these fires were an act of anti-Indigenous racism. The forceful, non-consensual erasure of the AIS buildings can be understood as an attempt to deny an Indigenous existence within Albuquerque. Both Native and Albuquerque communities were forced to bear witness to these violent acts, ones that exemplified hatred towards them as the other. I cannot, in good conscious, say that the school was destroyed to right the wrongs of the AIS’s past because the record is sparse and itself has become amnesiac in popular memory. A burial plaque that commemorated the children who died at the AIS, stolen from 4H Park, is another example of an attempt to erase Indigenous presences, history, and memory within Albuquerque.[7]

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Figure 4. A memorial at 4-H Park was set up in June 2021 and continues to be maintained. Photo by Shaun Griswold/Source NM. In “City seeks public input on what’s next for the Indian School gravesite at 4-H Park,” Source NM, September 22, 2021. https://sourcenm.com/briefs/city-seeks-public-input-on-whats-next-for-the-indian-school-gravesite-at-4-h-park/

To simplify the history of the school would deny the fullness of its existence. It was not only a site of cultural genocide, but also a place that allowed Native children to be housed and fed during economic depressions, especially for those who had family that could not take care of their youth due to their occupations or loss of family members. This was the case with my family. After the All Indian Pueblo Council (AIPC) took control of the school, in 1977, it became a site of culturally appropriate education, in which student needs were prioritized. Despite these efforts to revitalize the school and correct the negative institutional memory, the school was already in an advanced state of decay and this forced the AIPC to close it. This then allowed the abandoned buildings to take on a new life of their own: an existence then scorched by flames. By documenting this troublesome fate of the school, I hope that I may provide some clarity to my peers who continue to feel the negative effects of the school’s original curriculum, policies of assimilation, and attempted cultural genocide. Perhaps now, that the school that sought to destroy our personhood has been returned to the earth, we can begin to heal our wounds (Figure 4).

(Note to Isleta readers: Isleta Pueblo News has an article by Ted Jojola called “Indian Boarding Schools and Gravesites” in the October issue.)

 

[1] John R. Gram and Theodore Jojola, Education at the Edge of Empire: Negotiating Pueblo Identity in New Mexico’s Indian Boarding Schools (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015).

[2] Only one building from the AIS survived which is now the Native American Community Academy. https://www.nacaschool.org/ The building is located across the road from the school’s main campus and may be the reason why it did not suffer from the fires.

[3] Native American Rights Fund. “Trigger Points: Current State of Research on History, Impacts, and Healing Related to the United States’ Indian Industrial/Boarding School Policy.” Boulder, CO, 2019. https://www.narf.org/nill/documents/trigger-points.pdf. NARF’s report gathers existing research about the purposes and human rights abuses of US American Indian boarding school policies, why they matter still today, and—most importantly—how recovery can and is being accomplished.

[4] Har Samuel Andrew Hardy, “Maintained in Very Good Condition or Virtually Rebuilt? Destruction of Cultural Property and Narration of Violent Histories,” Papers from the Institute of Archaeology 23, no. 1 (September 1, 2013), https://doi.org/10.5334/pia.432.

[5] Hardy, “Maintained in Very Good Condition or Virtually Rebuilt?”, 2.

[6] Roger Burggraeve, “Violence and the Vulnerable Face of the Other: The Vision of Emmanuel Levinas on Moral Evil and Our Responsibility,” Journal of Social Philosophy 30, no. 1 (February 1999): 29–45.

[7] Shaun Griswold “Indigenous communities face choices about Indian School gravesite in Albuquerque.” Source NM, September 75, 2021. https://sourcenm.com/2021/09/27/indigenous-communities-face-choices-about-indian-school-gravesite-in-albuquerque/. Though, it is worth noting that current-day 4-H Park is not the only burial location of Indigenous children who attended AIS. More information forthcoming.