Indigenous group questions plaque removal »Albuquerque Journal

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A makeshift memorial to the dozens of Indigenous children who died over a century ago while attending a boarding school that was once located nearby grows under a tree in a public park in Albuquerque, New Mexico on Thursday July 1, 2021. Indigenous activists are concerned that a plaque indicating the location of the cemetery has been removed in recent days. (AP Photo / Susan Montoya Bryan)

A historic plaque commemorating the dozens of Native American children who died while attending residential school in New Mexico more than a century ago has disappeared, raising concern among Native activists.

Members of the Coalition to End Violence Against Indigenous Women are among those pushing the city of Albuquerque to investigate. The small plaque was in 4-H Park near the Pueblo Indian Cultural Center and the original site of the Albuquerque Indian School.

The plaque mentioned the location of a cemetery for students who attended school between 1882 and 1933. They included children from the Navajo Nation, Zuni Pueblo and Apache tribes.

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The removal of the plaque comes as the U.S. government embarks on a nationwide inquiry to uncover the troubling history of residential schools that sought to assimilate Indigenous youth into white society for many decades. US Home Secretary Deb Haaland announced the massive undertaking last month, speaking to tribal leaders across the country.

Advocacy groups have hailed the effort as a first step towards recognizing what many have called a “dark history.”

Coalition member Jovita Belgarde – who is Isleta, Ohkay Owingeh and Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa – said the discovery of the missing plaque added insult to injury. Many Indigenous families have been in shock since hearing about the bodies of hundreds of children found at boarding school sites across Canada. The launch of the Home Office investigation also sparked unresolved feelings in the United States.

Belgarde sees the recent taking of the plaque as a continuation of efforts to silence Indigenous voices and the perpetuation of violence against Indigenous peoples.

“These atrocities – people talk about them like they’re a thing of the past. It’s not a distant past, ”she told The Associated Press. “These actions have left deep scars on many of our elders, families, friends… and many people have had no support to heal this trauma and have had to live with this pain and silence for generations.”

Albuquerque officials said Thursday they are working with tribal leaders, history experts and others to determine next steps regarding the missing plaque. They also noted that a public artwork and a second plaque referencing the history of the site are still in the park.

“As we continue to work with respective leaders on this issue, we urge the public to respect the cultural and spiritual significance of this site,” city parks director Dave Simon said in a statement.

With more light on old residential school policies, New Mexico’s tribal governors have argued for accountability and justice.

All Pueblo Board of Governors Chairman Wilfred Herrera Jr., from Laguna Pueblo, said sharing what Pueblo parents and children went through was painful.

“While some of our children have endured years of abuse for speaking our languages, practicing our cultures and maintaining our traditions, the unbearable truth is that many of our young people have never returned to their home Pueblo country,” he said in a statement.

The Albuquerque Indian School was founded in 1881 by the Presbyterian Church. It came under federal control a few years later and was one of hundreds of known boarding schools across the country. The school closed in the 1980s and ownership was turned over to the 19 pueblos of New Mexico. The buildings were eventually demolished and a tribal development company is working to turn it into a shopping center.

In addition to determining the fate of the missing plaque, Belgarde said defenders wanted a site-wide investigation in the hopes of finding more information on the exact number of children who may have been buried there. She said the site demands more respect and that city officials need to be transparent about how they are proceeding.


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