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Looking back at the controversial Phoenix Indian School

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Posted at 6:31 AM, Jun 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 15:20:38-04

TUCSON, Ariz. (KGUN) — Recently in Canada, the remains of more than 200 Native American children were found buried at a former residential school. Here in the United States, hundreds of Native American boarding schools were once open, including here in Arizona.

In 1891, the Phoenix Indian School opened its doors and for nearly 100 years, thousands of students attended.

"These are first graders and this picture was taken in 1951," said Rosalie Talahongva. She is now the curator of the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center and at one time a student.

"When the children came to school here they couldn't practice their religions. They couldn't speak their languages and they couldn't wear their traditional clothing. They couldn't even eat their traditional foods," Talahongva said.

Drastic changes for Native American children like one little boy Talahongva showed me a picture of.

"He's come to school in all his regalia, all his fine clothing that his mother, grandmother made. I'm sure the shells maybe he did something. They were handed down by his grandfather and that's all taken away from him," said Talahongva.

Any signs of where they came from, gone. In its place, a uniform.

"Their haircuts are basically the same. The little girls have the bobs. The little boys have those crew cuts," Talahongva said.

It was a sacred piece of cultural identity for many tribes.

"The only time you cut hair is when someone died. So, imagine being a little child coming to school, your hair is cut and everybody's hair is cut and you're wondering who died?"

Kill the Indian, save the man, an idea founded by Lieutenant Henry Richard Pratt.

"And it was his idea that formed the boarding schools themselves, the federal boarding schools, and his idea was kill the Indian, save the man," Talahongva said.

She tells me when you first started attending school, they guessed how old you were, set your birthday and gave you an age. Then, they'd assign you a Christian name.

"You come down here and you're Joe Smith, but up home you had a traditional name that maybe followed a culture, followed your father's side your mother's side," Talahongva said.

The students could only speak English."If you're caught speaking your language, your beat, your mouth is washed out with soap. Those kind of things were happening to those students," Talahongva said.

She also tells me some children were not able to overcome what was happening inside boarding schools.

"There were children that died here. There were children that ran away and never made it home. They died in route to their homes. There's a real tragic side to the whole Indian boarding school history," Talahongva said.

It was a dark past. Another part of it was recently uncovered in Canada, where the remains of 215 children were found at a former Indian residential school.

"Will we find something similar to Kamploops here in the United States? There's a good possibility that we will," Talahongva said.

"The idea of them being in a mass grave is horrific."

"Those children were ripped out of their parents' arms and told they're not good enough."

That belief left behind scars Native Americans carry to this day.

"How do you live with yesterday's trauma in today's society?"

For Talahongva it starts by looking back. She saw changes take place inside Phoenix Indian School when she came in the late 1970s.

"Then came that whole movement of the American Indian and it's good to be an Indian. So, by the time I came here we did have various clubs."

A much different picture during those years. "We have people in their traditional clothing and we have people not in uniforms anymore. They're not wearing uniforms and if you're looking, you'll see the boys have long hair also. So, those types of things are changing."

Talahongva said one thing that didn't change was the education.

"It wasn't a matter of we're going to teach you so you can be a doctor, a lawyer, an engineer any of those things. We are teaching you to become blue-collar workers basically and that really didn't change throughout the schools time.

But strength, integrity and resilency took over.

"That history needs to be acknowledged."

Remember and never forget, Talahongva hopes to continue to honor those that came before her, paving a way for a better future.

"Today among us we count doctors and lawyers and astronauts and judges. So, we can be part of that and not forget who we are," Talahongva said.

The Phoenix Indian school closed in 1990.

We're digging deeper into Native American boarding schools across the country.

The Native American boarding school healing coalition says more than 350 boarding schools were established across 30 states.

Starting in 1860s, hundreds of thousands of Native American children in the U.S. were removed from their homes and families and placed in schools.

It wasn't until 1978, with the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act that parents gained the legal right to deny their children's placement in these schools.