Saturday, November 29, 2014

Rebecca and Elena Visit Steele Indian School Park (Native American Heritage Month)

Elena Rodriguez and Rebecca Esennath Chavez take a look into the past.

The past is a little grimy.
The gals are at Steele Indian School Park, site of the former Phoenix Indian School, at Indian School Road and Central Avenue. Back when D7ana had announced that November themes include Native American Heritage Month, I'd made noises about doing this photo-shoot. I have since reached the conclusion that I need 45-day months and 750-day years in order to get anything done; but on the verge of running out of November, I hit a couple of hours in which the light, temperature, and energy of the photographer were as ideal as they were going to get, so off we go.

The building Elena and Rebecca are peering into is the dining hall, built in 1901 in the Mission Revival Style.

Short, stubby little mission.
This actually isn't an historic regional style, since missions came no further north than Tucson (115 miles south of Phoenix); but by the turn of the twentieth century, Phoenix had shifted from seeing itself as the west coast of Ohio and was working on being the east coast of California. Not at all coincidentally, Mission Revival became the hot new style as actual California missions were crumbling to rubble, thus achieving romanticism's safe distance from history. The Dining Hall is believed to be the first Mission Revival building in Arizona.

Elena is delighted with this style because, in her post-spa identity, she believes she's descended from Ramona, of the famous novel and pageant -- which makes her background Scots, Californio Hispanic, and probably Luiseño. (Before her visit to the spa, she was Puerto Rican.) Rebecca, whose Tohono O'odham great-grandmothers both attended the Phoenix Indian School, is bemused at adopting the architecture of one "let's assimilate the natives, whether they like it or not" movement for a much later "let's assimilate the natives, whether they like it or not" project.

To the left... to the left...
Since the site's revival, in the early 2000s, as a neighborhood park and historic site, the three remaining buildings are surrounded by a circular trail dotted with ramadas and with pillars that tell a bit about each spot. This pillar had lost its interpretive signs, alas.

Let's get oriented with a map.

Source: Map of Play
We've come in the Central Avenue entrance. The direction sign is at the first ramada on the western edge of the Circle of Life, and then the dining hall is the long building just inside the circle (so the first two photos are out of order for dramatic effect). Here's the view to the southwest from inside the park.

Do ya think my tractor's sexy?
Tractors are not an ordinary feature of the Central Avenue Corridor, but the land labeled Barron Collier Development is currently the Native Health Community Garden, a nifty project that I've only peered at from the safe distance of the light rail platform, as growing vegetables alarm me. Barron Collier is a name more familiar in southwest Florida, but if you're going to branch out from swampland in Florida, Phoenix is the obvious next stop.

The Barron Collier company apparently got this land -- plus some more in downtown Phoenix -- as a wetlands preservation swap with the federal government. The page with the explanation shows an aerial view of the park as one of its two rotating images; the other is Collier Center downtown, a.k.a. "I didn't know the building with the Hard Rock Cafe had a name." Well, it does. Its friends call it CollCen, no doubt.

Such nice cool water in the long water feature east of the dining hall.
Don't lean too hard, Elena, or you'll push Rebecca in!
Those are rose trees along either side of the fountain: we're in the first half of our brief temperate season when things bloom. The second half will take place from February to May.

We mark the passage of the seasons by the shadow of the palm trees.
The Phoenix Indian School was founded in 1891. Much is made on its Wikipedia page of its being in the heart of Phoenix -- and it is now. But in 1891, it was way, way out in the boonies. A map from 1939 will help illustrate this, so take a second to open this map link in a separate tab, pretty please!

Got it? Okay, the original town site of Phoenix is the tight grid at bottom center, from the railroad tracks just south of Jackson Street up to Van Buren Street (the thick east-west line). By 1891, civilization was just stretching out its fingertips to Roosevelt Street, the next thick line at the top of the tight grid, about a mile north of Van Buren.

So where's Indian School Road? Well, if you go north another mile, you hit McDowell Road. The next mile beyond that is roughly Encanto Boulevard, and then the final mile takes you to Thomas Road at the top of the map. Indian School Road is another 1.1 miles north of that, so almost 50 years after the founding of the Phoenix Indian School, it was still too far out to really count as part of Phoenix that you had to know about, though every now and again, some land developer would speculatively plant a few houses out here, and Jesuit-run Brophy College Preparatory School had already been built in 1928, just up Central Avenue.

Most of this area was farmland. Arizona used to be known for cotton and citrus, and the Indian School was just south of the Grand Canal. If you're asking yourself "did the students get exploited as cheap farm labor?" the answer would be a resounding "yes." Mindless brute labor proved less powerful as a force of assimilation than the organizers had convinced itself that it would, and in 1897, there was a leadership shake-up that involved putting greater stress on academics (in the sense of "actually having some").

Now that's what I call a mission.
This is Memorial Hall, built in 1922. The Dining Hall, already seen, is the oldest building remaining. Although the park looks empty and peaceful now, this was a bustling campus with a dozen or more buildings and hundreds of resident students.

Elena and Rebecca examine the plaque that describes the school's mission of assimilating the native peoples.
He was against dancing, too.
While I can neither squint out nor find online the exact quotation on the plaque, if it's from Charles H. Burke, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the 1920s, it's something about the necessity to assimilate and "civilize" the local peoples. Burke's goal was to stamp out indigenous cultures, and he particularly disliked native dancing as a symbol of everything "different," non-Christian, and recalcitrant.

The plaque is attached to the War Memorial statue, which honors Native American veterans from World War I (later updated to include World War II). It's useful to note that in 1917, when the U.S. joined World War I, the indigenous tribal peoples weren't citizens -- the Indian Citizenship Act didn't happen until 1924, partly in recognition of Native Americans who served in WWI and partly as push-back by reformers who were incensed by the Burke's policies. (Graduates of Phoenix Indian School also formed the first all-native National Guard company in the U.S.)

Thinking of a gallant multitude, which all now withering lay...
The garden maze to the south of the buildings is planted in native vegetation. I think the plant Rebecca perched on is a creosote bush. Its use for treating everything from tuberculosis to snakebite was doubtless one of the practices that Burke wanted to stamp out.

A yellow bird among the green leaves, singing sweetly.
In the late 1890s, the Phoenix Indian School had 700 students, which seems no more than moderate-sized compared to a modern urban high school, but looks enormous when compared to Arizona State University (founded in 1885 as the state "normal school" for teacher training), which about this period had... 131 students.

The University of Arizona, founded in 1891, wasn't necessarily doing better, and most of its student body weren't even properly college students, as... Arizona had no high schools. None. Tucson High claims to be the oldest in the state, established in 1906, when the territorial legislature demanded the formation of high schools, though Phoenix Union High claims to have opened in 1895, and in a fight for historical primacy between Phoenix and Tucson, I'm... ducking under the table.

Phoenix Indian School's numbers are larger because it included primary grades -- yes, as a boarding school (gulp). In any case, the complaint that the Phoenix Indian School didn't grant any diplomas until 1901 looks less bad in the context of lack-of-secondary-education in the Arizona Territory. It also starts looking like "assimilating" the native peoples was a really serious priority for the federal government.

With the added glamour of time, a pond, and palm trees, it looks like a resort. It wasn't.
During the first decades of the twentieth century, students were organized into military-style companies and marched hither and thither. Schooling emphasized trade skills. And, of course, all communication was to be in English, and mainstream U.S. values and culture were strongly stressed.

After the huge blow-up in the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1929 -- leading to Burke's replacement with John Collier, who doesn't seem to be related to Barron Collier, and to the reorganization of the school in 1931 -- new policies changed the focus of the Phoenix Indian School a bit. The emphasis was still on vocational skills -- with new weight given to agriculture, since the Depression depressed urban employment opportunities -- but the military discipline was relaxed.

The primary school was also discontinued in the mid-1930s, leaving a grade 7-12 school and thus cutting enrollment by about half. (Remember the 1939 map? After all this chaos and change, which took long enough that new students could be the grandchildren of the first students, the school is still out in the hinterlands, amidst scattered development on the way to Glendale.)

I hope that's not a vulture in the upper branches of this mesquite.
In the present day, the park is a popular setting for formal quince photos: there were two distinct quince parties out with their photographers when I was there, as well as a visibly Native American family that seemed to be taking pictures for their holiday cards.

This little Art Moderne building was a popular backdrop.

The Band Building, originally the grammar school, from 1931.
The construction visible through the doors is part of turning this building into a Native American history and culture center.

We are full of possibilities... also of girders.
The city grew to surround the school immediately after World War II -- I've researched titles on houses built "on spec" just east of it in 1946. At about that time, the curriculum shifted toward more "urbanized" skills -- training the girls to be secretaries and beauticians, and the boys to take non-laboring jobs. The federal government was withdrawing from the reservations and loosening its grip on the assimilation project.

In 1960, the school was accredited as a high school, under the name Phoenix Indian High School. It was in the odd position of being right next to Phoenix Central High School, the non-boarding mainstream high school. The public art on the light rail platform at the Indian School stop includes some accounts from this period -- despite the vocational emphasis of the school, nursing was seen as too ambitious a career choice, and students had to agitate to get proper training to pursue that vocation. Some of the graduates took jobs at the Veterans Administration Hospital on the east side of the school (we're now into an era where I've talked with some of the actual people while waiting for a bus).

As with a lot of race-slash-culture issues, the 1970s was an era of change and questioning the need for the school's existence (and it's surprisingly difficult to find much information -- maybe it's still too recent to have been digested). 

Once all of the reservations had access to their own local high schools in 1990, the Phoenix Indian School was closed. 


  1. WOW Smaller Places, what a great post! I love all the pictures and info!

    1. Thanks! I may try taking some of the gals out for more neighborhood jaunts...

  2. What a great post. Very informative and some really nice pictures!

  3. Cool post! I love how your dolls travel. I have never been to Arizona; nice to see it here. The sky is gorgeous blue, and I like the salmon-pink colors in the architecture,

    I think it's cool that they turning the Indian School are building into a Native American history and culture center.

    Thanks for sharing this aspect of Native American history: it's been an entertaining read ;-)

  4. Great post, interesting information and pictures!

  5. @Phyllis, @D7ana, @Night Owl -- Thanks! I was feeling a little guilty for not doing something with what remains of regional Native American culture, but that's not as friendly to having dolls all over it (and I'm all for respect and historic preservation)... there may be more later.