Sneak peek: Phoenix Indian School Park visitors center revives history

Friday, 13 October 2017, 07:56:14 PM. A new visitors center at Steele Indian School Park aims to educate Arizonans about the Native American boarding school that operated for 99 years.

For 99 years, Phoenix Indian School housed and educated Native American children — initially by forced removal from their reservations — on 160 acres of land in what is now central Phoenix.

Today, nearly 30 years after the campus shuttered, all that remains are three historic brick buildings in the middle of Phoenix's Steele Indian School Park. 

"(The school is) a huge historical piece for American Indians that since the school closed people don't talk about. They don't know. They drive down Indian School (Road) but they probably never even wonder, 'Why is the road called that?' " Phoenix Indian Center CEO Patti Hibbeler said.

Phoenix Indian Center, Native American Connections and the city of Phoenix are aiming to answer that question.

On Saturday, a $1.5 million-plus Phoenix Indian School Visitors Center will open, housed in one of the historic buildings at the park.

When the building first opened in the 1930s, the government forcibly removed elementary school-aged Native American children from their families and sent them to the Phoenix boarding school. The building also was used for an immersion program for older Navajo children.

Later, when the government ended forced assimilation, the boarding school became a high school for children from many Arizona tribes. The newly renovated building was then used for the school's music program and housed an award-winning marching band. It closed in 1990.

The city obtained a portion of the campus and turned it into a park in the 1990s. The city renovated Memorial Hall, which is to the east of the music building, about 10 years ago. The other building has not been restored.

"When people come to the park, they really have no idea about the history of the park. They don't know what was here for 99 years. So this space will tell that story," visitors center project manager Patty Talahongva said.

What's inside

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Phoenix Indian School Visitors Center project manager Patty Talahongva holds a trophy that will be on display in the gallery at the new visitors center. (Photo: Mark Henle/The Republic)

The new visitors center features a gallery, conference room, board room, classroom and commercial kitchen. 

The initial display in the gallery, which will be free to the public to visit, features an assemblage of trophies won by Phoenix Indian School students as far back as the 1950s. 

Alumni also have donated other memorabilia, such as letterman jackets and cheerleader uniforms, which will be on display. 

Talahongva said her team is still fundraising so that they can eventually transform the gallery into a historical digital journey. They plan to show video interviews with alumni on large screens and showcase digital copies of yearbooks and newspaper clippings about the school. 

A small conference room is across from the gallery space. Talahongva said tribal members can reserve the room for free when they travel to Phoenix for meetings.

"We understand that a lot of tribal leaders, if they didn't come to this boarding school, they went to another boarding school. So we want to make them feel welcome," she said.

The public can rent the center's conference room — which holds up to 120 people — and the adjacent classroom and commercial kitchen. All of the proceeds will go to building operations, Talahongva said.

"This can actually work in tandem. We might have a conference here that may want to use an indigenous chef and indigenous foods, so they can rent the kitchen, they can prepare the meal there and cater the event. They can have maybe cooking classes or teach people about indigenous foods in the classroom," Native American Connections CEO Dede Devine said.

The city paid for the $1.5 million historic renovation, while both non-profits fundraised for some of the additional features, such as the kitchen equipment.

The city and the non-profits chose to leave some historic architectural elements visible. The original ceiling beams throughout the majority of the building and a section of brick wall were left exposed.

The design team also covered one wall with the original floorboards, juxtaposed against the new board room.

"This shows the past with the present and how we're going to go into the future with telling the story (of the school)," Talahongva said.

She attended Phoenix Indian School in the 1970s. Her sister played in the marching band in the newly renovated building.

"It's been really amazing to come back. For those of us who went to school here, it's not just a school. And we never see the park. We see our home," Talahongva said.

She pointed toward the old dining hall and the place where the football and baseball fields once sat.

"This is our neighborhood. This is our home," she said.

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Native American children in front of the elementary school in this historical photo from the Phoenix Indian School Collection in the Billie Jane Baguley Library and Archives at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. (Photo: Heard Museum)

Grand opening

The visitor center's grand opening will follow the Native American Connections Parade, which will end at Steele Indian School Park about 11 a.m. on Saturday. The parade begins at Third and Oak streets at 9 a.m.

The event will feature Chicken Scratch music, assorted food trucks, traditional foods and a first look at the gallery and renovations. Several alumni and former teachers from the school are expected to attend. 

The formal program will begin at noon with a traditional blessing.

 

 

 

 

 

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Article Sneak peek: Phoenix Indian School Park visitors center revives history compiled by www.azcentral.com