Dark Chapter of American History Buried Beneath a Neighborhood Park

ALBUQUERQUE, NM – On a plot of land in Albuquerque, New Mexico, nestled in a quiet neighborhood, sits 4-H Park.

“The 4-H park is an urban park,” said Terry Sloan, inter-governmental tribal liaison for the city of Albuquerque. “It’s a beautiful park.”

It is also something else: a final resting place for the children.

“There are a lot of Indians angry about this who will never forgive the government for what they have done,” said Michael Lente, who is from the Laguna Pueblo tribe.

The land where the park now stands once belonged to the Albuquerque Indian School, which was part of an off-reserve boarding school system. The system was intended to assimilate Native American children into white culture, often forcibly.

“It’s a military environment. They wear military uniforms. They’re taught to speak only English,” said University of New Mexico history professor Margaret Connell-Szasz.

The system, which began in the 1870s and lasted about a century, included more than 300 boarding schools, often run by the church but funded by taxpayers and found in states from coast to coast. Experts estimate that thousands of children, and possibly more, have died in schools due to disease, abuse or neglect.

“First of all, children are removed from their family environment, which leads to psychological trauma. You know, there’s no question about that,” said Connell-Szasz, author of the book Education and The American Indian. “There is the fact that they don’t have enough to eat. So the food is insufficient. They are punished if they misbehave.”

Lente dove into the history of the school.

“It’s an 1883 list of Albuquerque Indian School students,” Lente said as he handed over a copy, “and it’s kind of telling there, because if you go through the list and take your time , there are many entries where it says, ‘died in school.'”

When this happened in boarding schools located across the United States, students were often buried at school. In Albuquerque, the old school cemetery eventually became the 4-H park.

“It has, over the years, evolved into different plots of land,” Sloan said. “This is where the city went wrong, when it took over the property itself, creating a park above the cemetery.”

The cemetery was all but forgotten until the 1970s when workers installing a sprinkler system in the park came across human remains.

“It’s one thing not to know, but once you know, you have to redeem yourself,” Lente said.

However, it wasn’t until the Canadian government apologized for its Indigenous boarding school system that the US began investigating its own system last year – led by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland , the first Native American cabinet secretary in the United States. The first volume of the findings of the investigation was published last May.

“That’s what brings us here today – to address this issue and fix and create the reconciliation needed,” Sloan said.

Albuquerque is one of the first cities to grapple with this story, while trying to figure out what to do with the cemetery in the park, which is now recognized as a sacred site.

Sloan – who is from the Diné Nation (Navajo) and Hopi tribes and whose own mother attended school – said more work needed to be done in consultation with tribal leaders. They are also holding community meetings about it.

“At this time, we have no idea who is there, where they are and where they are buried,” Sloan said. “You do what you need to do in the time it takes to do it with respect and do it right.”

Lente said he just wanted to make sure that part of the story isn’t forgotten.

“There is an interesting saying that the Earth is made up of the dust, the bones of your ancestors. And so the children came back to the earth, and they are the ancestors of what we are now,” said Slow said. “Someone has to take responsibility for them. Otherwise, they are lost to history.”