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City holds community conversations about Albuquerque Indian School burial site

4-H Park Memorial
Shaun Griswold
Source New Mexico
A memorial at 4-H Park, Sept. 2, 2021

The city of Albuquerque this week is inviting the public to share any information or stories they have about the Albuquerque Indian School burial site at 4-H park. The series of community conversations is part of a broader effort to uncover the site’s history, understand its impact, and determine its future. Shaun Griswold (Laguna Pueblo), a reporter with Source New Mexico, has been following this continuing story and spoke with KUNM about this next phase of the city’s work, what’s been done so far, and how it all got started.

SHAUN GRISWOLD: During construction of the park, they actually discovered bones of children. In the 90s, there was a plaque that was put at the park that said that the area was an unmarked grave site for students from the Albuquerque Indian School era between the 1880s, when the school opened, to the period of 1933. That plaque said that these were students from Zuni, Apache and Navajo Nations. But, we also learned later on through further research, that some staff members from the school were also buried there, and also some children from the Albuquerque Indian Hospital. The plaque was noted missing June 2021. That's led into an overall investigation into what the Albuquerque boarding school history is.

KUNM: Who's involved in the work being done to learn more about the site and make plans around its future?

GRISWOLD: The city is actually the one who is directing a lot of the efforts to get information on that through the Office of the Native American Affairs. And the city's focus is, 'Sure we're going to run this effort to try and find as much research as we can, but we really want to take the advice and the consultations from the tribes directly. First, understanding the history of the site and second, preserving the sacredness of the site.' There's a particular element that comes with how we, as Native American people, respect the ones who have passed and how we treat burial sites. And in fact, it's different between all of those different communities that are being brought in. The city told me that before they did ground penetrating research on the site to try to understand exactly how many remains are in that park location, they provided tribal communities an opportunity to conduct their own ceremonies. So, the city has been incredibly responsive.

KUNM: What's included in what they're referring to as their "action plan"?

GRISWOLD: First, evaluate what the issue is, understanding how that process went through at the time. And, right now, they're in this second phase that's considered research. Really, they want to understand how many remains are there, where these people are from. And then from there – back to that tribal consultation – they want to give that information first to the tribes. It's a concept of data sovereignty, where the tribes can determine if they really even want to release this information to the public.

KUNM: You've been reporting on the story since it broke over the summer. What work has been done so far? You mentioned the ground-penetrating radar scan. What else has the city already accomplished in terms of this action plan?

GRISWOLD: The city also fenced-off the portion of the park. There's a sign that says that if anybody were to jump over, it's trespassing. The city has hosted already several listening sessions. And on top of that, too, you see like administrative action. Like the City Council passed a resolution acknowledging Albuquerque's role in the federal boarding school era. And then the mayor of Albuquerque also apologized to Native Americans for the city's role in not only the boarding school era, but how the boarding school era affected Native Americans to this day. The city is trying to form a model that other communities in the country could use when it comes to understanding their own history with federal boarding schools, because these schools existed all across the country.

KUNM: And another step in the process begins this week. Can you tell us about that?

GRISWOLD: So, the city is going to be hosting several public meetings. They're inviting community members who are indigenous and non-Indigenous to come and speak about anything they might know or any connections they might have to the Albuquerque Indian School. The first session is going to be Tuesday, Jan. 11, at 4:30 p.m. It's going to be at Los Duranes Community Center. And then the other ones are going to be Wednesday (4:30 p.m.), Thursday (1:30 p.m.) and Friday (9:30 a.m). And those are going to be done on Zoom.

UPDATE, Jan 10, 3:40 p.m.: The city announced late Monday that the first meeting has been switched to virtual only. Login information will be sent to those who registered. Registration remains open.

KUNM: And Shaun, you just came out with a story at Source New Mexico where you talked with a number of community members and tribal leaders. What did you hear about what they want to see come out of these community conversations?

GRISWOLD: Number one, people want this location of the grave site to no longer be recreational. They want it to be a memorial. They want to create something that can be an educational tool, not only for the city itself, but for anybody who visits to understand this is our history and this is how we're connected – even to this day – to this era of the federal boarding school issues.

Registration is required for this week’s events. Those who can’t attend but would still like to provide input can email the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion at oei@cabq.gov.

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays, 5-7 p.m.). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.