Only a bronze plaque planted flat in the ground noted that bodies of children from the old Albuquerque Indian School lay beneath, and the plaque disappeared two years ago.
The city of Albuquerque now seeks, with the help of Native American groups, to sensitively honor the presence of the children who died while at the defunct federal boarding school and are buried in 4-H Park.
Mayor Tim Keller said in a news release there is a global awakening of “how damaging these efforts were to remove Native American children from their families to be assimilated at boarding schools. In the years that followed that tragic era, the city should have done better in honoring the significance of this site in step with the Native American community.”
The situation points to the attention hidden gravesites from Native boarding schools have received this year. After the discovery of many such graves in Canada, federal Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo, vowed in June to review the situation in the United States.
Haaland said her department would “address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.”
At issue are unmarked graves, as well as a broader consideration of the complicated history of Native boarding schools. Although the practice of taking children to “humanize” or “Americanize” them now seems barbaric, some of the schools transformed into solid institutions that valued Native cultures and continue to enroll students today.
Santa Fe has a long history with boarding schools. Santa Fe Indian School on Cerrillos Road continues to thrive. Two others — Ramona Indian School and St. Catherine Indian School — are long defunct.
Some have speculated bodies of children could be buried on school campuses in Santa Fe, but to date, no evidence has been presented either by historians or investigators. The suggestion perplexes some who attended Native schools in Santa Fe and recall their time with affection.
Chris Humetewa, a freshman at Haskell Indian Nations University in Kansas, said he loved his years at Santa Fe Indian School.
Humetewa, of Kewa Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo descent, ran track and cross country there, studied his native language, researched the history of the school and his people, and enjoyed traditional food and celebrations.
He said the school, which started as a federal boarding school in 1890 and now is run by the 19 pueblos of New Mexico, “flipped the tables” and became a place where the goal was not to “assimilate” children but to help them view themselves and their Native past with pride.
“It was a very positive experience for me,” he said last week. “It was really awesome.”
Nevertheless, he said, there may well be an unmarked gravesite there. “It almost has to exist,” he said. “I’ve heard rumors, yes.”
Gary Lujan, the school’s director of trust land management, said in an email that when tribal leaders took control of the school, they “began the healing process privately in a way that was culturally appropriate for our communities.” He said the school backs Haaland’s efforts but declined to comment further.
Danny Suazo, who graduated from Santa Fe Indian School in 1985, said his father and grandfather also went to the school. Suazo, who is from Taos Pueblo and now is an academic adviser at Santa Fe Community College, said he never heard anything about unmarked graves.
Suazo said it would be hard to hide graves there because of all the construction that has been done at the school through the years.
A little cemetery for nuns at the defunct St. Catherine Indian School also raises questions about whether children are buried somewhere on the campus.
Ed Romero, whose Santa Fe Civic Housing Authority now owns the site, said he has heard of no unmarked graves there.
Still, others have suspicions.
Jean Marquardt, who was president of St. Catherine — a fundraising position — for two years in the mid-1990s, said she thinks there are bodies of children there.
“I just suspect it,” said Marquardt, who now lives in California. “We just don’t know who and we don’t know where.”
Marquardt added: “The Catholic Church has a history of covering things up, and the nuns were a part of it.”
A 1980 article in Pueblo News quoted Sister Adele Snyder of St. Catherine as saying that in the old days, there “would be an epidemic or outbreak of disease and we lost some of our students. The sisters used to preserve their bodies in vaults underneath one of the buildings … to show the parents proof they had really died and that they weren’t being hidden from them.”
But Sister Patrick Marie Dempsey, who worked at St. Catherine for 23 years, said she doesn’t know what Snyder was talking about and she knows nothing about bodies.
“I never heard anything like that,” Dempsey, 86, said of both assertions. “I have no inside knowledge.” She added she had no idea why Marquardt would make such comments.
Mary Sarracino of Laguna Pueblo attended and lived at St. Catherine in the late 1960s and early 1970s but left when her boyfriend got kicked out for fighting on her behalf.
Sarracino said she enjoyed going to school with kids from many different pueblos and found it to be a good academic environment. But the nuns there were strict.
“Everything was a sin,” she said. “That’s how they kept you under control.”
She said Haaland’s initiative is important, but she knows of no children buried on the 18-acre campus. Students went home if they were seriously ill, she said.
Sarracino earned a master’s degree in social work, worked for the Albuquerque Public Schools and now is retired.
She said she was discouraged from learning her people’s language, “and our beliefs were always put down. … It makes you feel bad about yourself.”
The third school in the Santa Fe area, Ramona Indian School, existed for about 10 years in the late 1800s and had buildings near Don Gaspar Avenue and Coronado Road. There is no sign of the school now, and most residents of the neighborhood have never heard of it.
One resident, Steven Trujillo, said he has lived in the neighborhood about 50 years and was aware a school had been there. As for bodies beneath, Trujillo said, “I’ve never heard that as a legend.”
Santa Fe archaeologist Alysia Abbott, who researches unmarked and forgotten gravesites in the area, called Ramona “sort of the lost Indian school of Santa Fe.” A brainchild of an easterner named Horatio Ladd, the school had a brief run.
“It was raw hills,” Abbott said of the school site in the late 1800s. “They were well outside of town.”
Abbott looked down the block on Coronado Road and said of bodies: “They’re somewhere around here.” She added, however, that if they ever were there, they might have been removed at some point.
A quarterly publication put out at the time by the Ramona school said “girls of these heathen tribes are taken … and, by written contract with their parents … kept from three to five years, or longer, from all the degrading impressions and evils of the Reservation.”
The harsh treatment of Native American children nationally was challenged in a 1928 federal investigation called the Meriam Report. The report found the care of Indian children in boarding schools “grossly inadequate.”
It cited generally poor nutrition, rigid discipline, overcrowding in dormitories, unsatisfactory medical care, unfair use of student labor and weak vocational education leading to few opportunities.
Scholars cite the Meriam Report as a key element in slowly transitioning the boarding schools into institutions designed for more than coercing and bullying Native ways out of children.
In Albuquerque, the tribal liaison for city government said he has been in touch with Haaland’s team as recently as last week. Terry Sloan said he didn’t know if that team will perform site visits, but it intends to give a report to Haaland next spring and continue work after that.
Sloan, who is Hopi and Navajo, called Haaland a friend and said he hoped to meet with the team, perhaps by Zoom, in December.
He said Haaland’s staffers on the initiative want to gather “as much detail and analysis as possible” on hidden gravesites and on Indian boarding schools in general.
The city of Albuquerque didn’t control the school that went out of business in the early 1980s. But it does own 4-H Park, in which the children are buried. The city aims to treat the hidden graveyard as a sacred site, Sloan said.
He said there may be 75 to 100 bodies there, but ground-penetrating radar technology hasn’t been used yet to ascertain the number. Some are probably school staffers, he said, and some might be from a hospital that functioned nearby at one time.
The city wants to pay proper tribute to those buried there, he said, and it has heard from four tribes. “And it’s going to be very touchy and delicate” work, he said, because some Native cultures don’t want to bother gravesites and others might want to move the bodies.
“It varies, and it’s going to vary by the tribe and culture, of what they want,” he said.
Sarracino, who lives in Paguate on the Laguna reservation, said her father went to the famous Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and he didn’t want her speaking the Laguna language. He reasoned that it didn’t have value in the culture that had taken over and would only bring her trouble.
When you are “programmed” against your own culture, “it takes a lot away from you,” she said. This society requires Native Americans “to be the beggars all the time. But it’s not that we’re beggars. It’s that they left us with nothing.”
Sarracino is trying to claim some of what she lost or never had. She’s learning the Laguna language.