Authorities plan to search for bodies at former Indian school in New Mexico

The defunct Alburquerque Indian School operated from 1881 to the 1980s, and the grounds may hold 75 to 100 bodies.

Albuquerque Museum, gift from the Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New MexicoStudents stand in front of the Albuquerque Indian School circa 1880.

Throughout the summer of 2021, indigenous peoples across Canada used ground-penetrating radar on former ‘Indian’ schools to discover the bodies of hundreds of missing students. Today, the city of Albuquerque is determined to do the same on the grounds of the defunct Albuquerque Indian School.

“It’s important because we have the opportunity to learn and understand our collective history and make meaningful changes,” said Rebecca Riley, a member of the Albuquerque Commission on Native American and Alaska Native Affairs.

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“We deserve to understand the truth, to determine our steps forward and we owe it to the Indigenous children and staff who never returned home to do better.”

Listen to the History Uncovered podcast, Episode 34: Residential Schools above, also available on iTunes and Spotify.

Unlike the Indian residential schools in Canada, where the existence of bodies was initially just a rumor, Albuquerque city officials have long known about the existence of skeletons on the grounds of the Albuquerque Indian School.

A bronze plaque even marked the old Albuquerque 4-H Park Cemetery. But it wasn’t until the plaque disappeared in July 2021 that indigenous peoples’ advocates renewed attention at the cemetery.

They built a makeshift memorial with flowers and orange flags — the color of which represents the residential school review movement — and demanded answers about what happened to Native American children in Albuquerque.

Bronze Plate 4 H Park

redditThe plaque was stolen earlier this year, bringing the site back to the fore.

As a result, the City of Albuquerque has issued a formal apology and will use ground radar to further investigate the site.

The city’s mayor, Tim Keller, also acknowledged “how damaging were these efforts to remove Native American children from their families and put them in boarding schools.”

He added: “In the years since this tragic time, the city should have better respected the importance of this site in accordance with the Native American community.”

The Albuquerque Indian School was founded in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church. Like schools in the United States and Canada, the intent was to “kill the Indian, save the man” by forcibly assimilating Native American children. The federal government took over the school in 1886 and oversaw its operations until the 1980s.

“The purpose of boarding schools was to forcibly remove children from their families and communities and move them to remote homes. In an effort to deliberately eradicate language, beliefs, culture and identities,” explains Dawn Begay, Native American Affairs Coordinator for the City of Albuquerque.

Albuquerque School Pueblo Tribe Tour

National ArchivesMembers of the Pueblo tribe who attended the Albuquerque Indian School circa 1912.

Meanwhile, dozens of children from the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo, and Apache tribes died in school. Many succumbed to illnesses such as flu, scarlet fever and measles and were buried on school grounds.

Over time, local building projects have regularly yielded bones and artifacts, including the bones of children and a baby in 1973. Few have questioned this. “The police just told us to hand over the bones and jewelry,” Albuquerque resident Rudy Martinez recalled.

The city recognized the cemetery with a plaque in 1995. But it wasn’t until the plaque disappeared that activists began to focus on the site again.

Now the city plans to work with an archaeologist to systematically identify the bodies in the park. Who were the children and how did they die? For Native American families across the state — all of North America, in fact — these are extremely painful questions.

“These atrocities — people talk about them like they’re in the past,” said Jovita Belgarde, a member of the Coalition to End Violence Against Indigenous Women, a group that has urged the city to investigate the cemetery.

“It is not a distant past. These actions have left deep scars on many of our elders, families, friends… and many people did not receive support to heal from this trauma and had to live with this pain and silence for generations.

Hopefully, the recovery and recognition of the bodies of the Albuquerque Indian School will help end New Mexico’s Native American families.

After reading about finding answers at the Albuquerque Indian School in New Mexico, learn about the indigenous remains found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in Canada. Or learn the shocking story of how Indigenous activists recovered hundreds of bodies at Marieval School in Canada.

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