On Tuesday evening, members of the community gathered for the first of four scheduled community conversations surrounding the Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) Cemetery located at 4H park.
The east end of park 4H is a known burial site for some students and staff who attended the Albuquerque Indian School from 1882-1933.
Nearly 80 people attended the first meeting and were split into two different groups, each moderated by city officials.
In these groups, the community members were encouraged to share their personal experiences and connections to the Albuquerque Indian School, and the impact it had.
But as the conversation progressed, the topics were not just limited to the AIS, but to the border impact of Indian boarding schools across the country.
Gerilyn Tolino, who was born on the Navajo Nation and has lived in Albuquerque since 1999 told the group the story of her great-grandfather Tom Tolino
“He is Navajo, from Coyote Canyon, New Mexico. He was one of the 12 Navajos who were originally sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.”
Tolino’s (Diné) great-grandfather attended the Carlisle Indian School with two fellow tribe members, the sons of Chief Manuelito.
Tolino’s (Diné) great-grandfather was the only surviving member of the three. One of the Chief’s sons died at the Carlisle school, and the other passed not long after returning home.
Tolino (Diné) recalled hearing bits and pieces of her great-grandfather's history as a child, but took it upon herself in the past five years to conduct research into her family's past.
In her research, Tolino (Diné) discovered that her great-grandfather's photo and likeness had become an iconic image of an Indigenous individual.
“(This is) particularly important because his image is one that is very iconic in that it's used consistently, especially in talking about the Indian boarding schools.”
Tolino (Diné) then showed the group the cover of “An Illustrated History of New Mexico”, which featured her great-grandfather’s photo on the cover.
In finishing her great-grandfather’s story, Tolino (Diné) acknowledged the importance of recognizing and sharing the stories of their descendants, and how it helps keep the memory of them alive.
“And I just wanted to share that story because I think a lot of times when those black and white pictures are looked at, some people have the impression that “oh, those people are gone”. Especially if they’re Native American in their traditional attire, their clothing. Some people see something that’s passed and no longer there. But really, we continue because my grandfather survived, and I’m here because he survived.”
Tyson King, a Navajo veteran who was born in Gallup, spoke about how the burial site at 4H park had been weighing heavily on his mind, given the recent news he had been seeing about similar burial sites found in Canada.
“It’s been weighing heavily on my mind, after hearing everything in Canada, and everything from the different cemeteries. Me being Native American and having close ties to the land, like was spoken before. It does weigh heavily on the family and as a person.”
King (Diné), shared a story about his grandmother, and her affinity for tap dancing and playing the harmonica. A sight he said that was not common in a Native community.
“She had quite a bit of talent growing up. It was kind of not odd, but different. She was a very active tap dancer, she had her favorite tap dancing shoes, she brought them out on special occasions, and she was very good at it. She also played the harmonica. But no one really questioned why she used to do that. A Native woman tap dancing on the reservation and playing the harmonica was unique.”
One day, King (Diné) asked his grandmother where she had learned these unique talents from. She disclosed to him that she had attended the Albuquerque Indian School.
His grandmother then told him stories of her travels, back and forth from school. Going to school with her cousins and friends. King (Diné) also spoke about his aunt who lived near the space where the school once stood.
King (Diné) recalled one memory, where he noticed the plaque denoting the burial site while visiting the park.
But said no further conversations about the plaque or the history of the location took place.
“As Navajo, as Diné, we don’t talk about death. We don’t talk about that part of our lives. So, there wasn’t much talk about what went on in the area.”
The unknown is the issue of the brothers King (Diné). The unknown being if they have family members who are among those buried at 4H park.
“I think the biggest thing that bothers us as natives is knowing the mistreatment that could’ve gone on there if they did die of diseases and such, the treatment that they received. As far (as we know), we just want the comfort of knowing if there is someone who is buried there, and the comfort of knowing if we don’t have someone buried there.”
King said he wants to help in any way possible with the effort to gather information about those buried at this site. Given the fact his grandmother attended the school herself, King (Diné) emotionally said he was thankful for her survival.
Ron Solimon (Laguna), the chair of the Laguna Colony of Albuquerque shared a story about his two grandmothers, who attended the Albuquerque Indian School together and graduated in the same class.
“My two grandmothers, on the material and paternal grandmothers, they were classmates, the only two women that graduated in cerca 1917.”
Solimon (Laguna) said he came across a class photo with both his grandmothers and one of his grandfathers. Noting how unusual it was for women to graduate from college in the early 1900’s.
His father also attended the Albuquerque Indian School, and went on to serve in the Korean war.
Solimon (Laguna) said the entire community has to rally around the fact that individuals are buried in 4H park.
“Anytime somebody signals that there’s a cemetery and some people might be buried there, we all have to rally around that and be protective of that. It’s our obligation as decentences of individuals that are there, or maybe their family, it could be blood relatives, clan relatives, you just really don’t know. That’s the protective nature of those of us that have responsible roles or even feelings among our people to really protect that particular area and to ensure that things are handled in an appropriate way.”
At the time of the publication of this story, two more community conversations are scheduled. The City of Albuquerque is encouraging any and all community members to share stories about family members, neighbors, teachers, staff and loved ones who were part of the Albuquerque Indian School.
To register for the community conversations, visit this link for the City of Albuquerque’s website.