Phoenix Indian School Music Building Returns For An Encore

Published: Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 3:03pm
Updated: Thursday, March 31, 2016 - 4:25pm

(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
The Phoenix Indian School music building was built in the 1930s.
(Photo by Annika Cline - KJZZ)
Students carved their names into the bricks of Memorial Hall over the years.

There are just three buildings left of the 27 that once made up Phoenix Indian School. The controversial boarding school closed 25 years ago, and most of the land became Steele Indian School Park in Central Phoenix. Now, one building is being restored to reconnect the Native community to this historical place. 

The Phoenix Indian School band was a centerpiece of the boarding school. It played in the first statehood parade, on the day Arizona became a state in 1912. In fact, it led the procession down Washington Street. The music building is where they practiced.

“The larger spaces were for full band practice,” said Patti Hibbeler, CEO of Phoenix Indian Center, one of the groups involved in the restoration of this building.

The construction just started. They’ll try to keep much of the original structure, but the function of the space will be very different.

“Right behind us here will be a business area. We really want to create a board room,” Hibbeler said.

They’ll add a conference room in the back. Other major features will include a commercial kitchen. The idea is to create a space for Native leaders, businesspeople and chefs. Dede Yazzie Devine is president of Native American Connections, another major player in the restoration. 

“We want to see that people are here every day, that this building itself brings the community back to this site and really revitalizes some of the park as well,” Devine said.

Then there’s the gallery right when you walk in.

“We want all Arizona children to know the story of the boarding school experience for Native American people,” Devine said. 

It’s a difficult story to tell, but Devine said the gallery will educate visitors on the school’s history - the good and the bad.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Native American children were forced to attend Indian boarding schools like this one. There, Native culture was erased and replaced with Anglo customs and ideas. In later years, sending a child to a boarding school became a choice, but it was still a tough one.

“I went to school there for four years - 1952 and graduated in 1956,” said alumnus Douglas Sakiestewa.

He made the most of his years at Phoenix Indian School. He was student council president and played trumpet in the band. He met his wife there at a sock hop; she played baritone. They were good years, he said, but the hardest part was the disconnect he felt when he went back to the reservation.

“I walk on this planet like an Indian, but I don’t feel like I’m an Indian. I look to me like I’m completely assimilated,” Sakiestewa said.

But he said his education was invaluable, because it helped him help his tribe when he returned home. 

“I’m helping the Hopi tribe to research water rights, so I’m doing things for them at a greater level than I would have been had I not been educated in Phoenix,” he said.

For 99 years, students walked the floors of Phoenix Indian School, carving their names in bricks, singing songs in the choir and missing home. Devine says Native American Connections is in the process of interviewing alumni to preserve what happened.

“It’s really important to document those stories before they’re gone,” she said.

These stories will be on display in the restored building, and the entire project is expected to be completed in spring of 2017. 

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