On Tuesday evening, community members gathered for the first of four planned community conversations around the Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) cemetery located at 4H Park.
The east end of 4H Park is a known burial site for some students and staff who attended the Albuquerque Indian School from 1882 to 1933.
Nearly 80 people attended the first meeting and were split into two different groups, each led by city officials.
In these groups, community members were encouraged to share their personal experiences and connections to the Albuquerque Indian School, and the impact it has had.
But as the conversation progressed, the topics were not just limited to AIS, but the border impact of Indian boarding schools across the country.
Gerilyn Tolino, who was born in 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 12 Navajos who were originally sent to Carlisle Indian School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Tolino’s great-grandfather (Diné) attended Carlisle Indian School along with two other tribesmen, the sons of Chief Manuelito.
Tolino’s great-grandfather (Diné) was the only surviving member of the three. One of the chief’s sons died at school in Carlisle and the other died shortly after returning home.
Tolino (Diné) remembers hearing snippets of her great-grandfather’s story as a child, but has taken it upon herself over the past five years to research her family’s past.
In his research, Tolino (Diné) discovered that his great-grandfather’s photo and likeness had become an iconic image of an Indigenous individual.
“(This is) particularly significant as his image is very iconic insofar as it is used consistently, especially when talking about Indian boarding schools.”
Tolino (Diné) then showed the group the cover of “An Illustrated History of New Mexico”, which featured his great-grandfather’s photo on the cover.
In finishing the story of his great-grandfather, Tolino (Diné) acknowledged the importance of acknowledging and sharing the stories of their descendants, and how this helps keep their memory alive.
“And I just wanted to share this story because I think a lot of times when these black and white photos are looked at, some people feel like ‘oh, these people are gone.’ Especially if they’re Native American in their attire. traditional, their clothes. Some people see something that has passed and is not there anymore. But really, we carry on because my grandfather survived, and I am here because he survived.
Tyson King, a Gallup-born Navajo veteran, explained how the 4H Park burial site weighed heavily on his mind, given recent news he had seen of similar burial sites found in Canada.
“It weighed heavily on my mind, having heard everything in Canada and everything coming from the different cemeteries. Me being Native American and having strong ties to the land as said before. It weighs heavily on the family and as a person.
King (Diné), shared a story about his grandmother and her affinity for tap dancing and harmonica. A spectacle which, according to him, was not common in an indigenous community.
“She was quite talented growing up. It wasn’t strange, but different. She was a very active tap dancer, she had her favorite tap shoes, she took them out on special occasions and she was very good at it. She also played the harmonica. But no one really wondered why she was doing this. A native woman tap dancing on the reservation and playing the harmonica was unique.
One day, King (Diné) asked his grandmother where she learned these unique talents. She revealed to him that she had attended the Albuquerque Indian School.
Her grandmother then told her stories of her travels to and from school. Go to school with his cousins and friends. King (Diné) also talked about his aunt who lived near the space where the school once stood.
King (Diné) recalled a memory, where he noticed the plaque indicating the burial site while visiting the park.
But said no further conversation about the plaque or the history of the place had taken place.
“As Navajo, as Diné, we don’t talk about death. We don’t talk about that part of our lives. So we didn’t talk much about what was going on in the region.
The unknown is the descendants of the King brothers (Diné). The unknown being if they have any family members who are among those buried at 4H Park.
“I think the biggest thing that bothers us as natives is the mistreatment that could have happened there if they died of diseases and such, the treatment they received. As far as (that we know), we just want the comfort of knowing if there’s someone buried there, and the comfort of knowing if we haven’t buried someone there.
King said he wanted to help in any way possible to gather information about the people buried at this site. Given that his grandmother attended the school herself, King (Diné) said with emotion that he was grateful for her survival.
Ron Solimon (Laguna), the president of the Laguna Colony of Albuquerque, shared the story of his two grandmothers, who attended 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 who graduated around 1917.”
Solimon (Laguna) said he came across a class photo with his grandmothers and one of his grandfathers. Noting how unusual it was for women to graduate from college in the early 1900s.
His father also attended the Albuquerque Indian School and later served in the Korean War.
Solimon (Laguna) said the whole community needs to rally behind the fact that individuals are buried in the 4H park.
“Whenever someone reports that there is a cemetery and that some people may be buried there, we all have to rally behind that and protect against it. It’s our obligation as decency of the individuals who are there, or maybe their family, it could be blood relatives, clan relatives, you really don’t know. It’s the protective nature of those of us who have responsible roles or even feelings among our people to really protect that particular area and to make sure things are handled appropriately.
As this story goes to press, two more community conversations are planned. The City of Albuquerque encourages all members of the community to share stories about family members, neighbors, teachers, staff and loved ones who were part of the Albuquerque Indian School.
To sign up for community conversations, visit this link for the City of Albuquerque website.