Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center

Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center at Steele Indian School Park.

Upon entering the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center guests are immediately greeted by a giant photo of a first-grade class in 1951 at the Phoenix Indian School. With identical uniforms and hairstyles, it is a striking reminder of how students’ identities were stripped from them inside these walls.

 Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center Curator Rosalie Talahongva believes this somber history is essential to teach to visitors. 

 “There is a history that has to be told and has to be remembered, and it is not all fun and happiness,” said Talahongva. “It’s a portion of our history that we need to remember, and that we need to teach in order to understand Native people.” 

 Talahongva was a student at the school in the late 1970s and was hired as curator in June 2019. She remembers the visitor center as the music center, where she and many other students participated in band, choir and orchestra.

The building holding the visitor center was originally built in 1931. It housed six classrooms for the youngest children at the school. When converted to high school-only, the building was used as the music center until it closed in 1990.

The school’s band traveled across the state to cities and Native communities and was used as a recruiting tool for adults to send their children to the Indian School. They also performed for multiple presidents and other prominent politicians throughout the 1950s and 1960s.

The school was a part of the “Indian School movement” that was created through the beliefs of General Richard Henry Pratt, who was famous for the mantra “kill the Indian and save the man.” The schools were built in order to separate the Native children from the adults and assimilate them into the white culture. Here the children were treated like soldiers and forced to give up all of their traditions. 

 “The whole idea of opening this place is having it come full circle. You’re coming from a place where it was involuntary to come to, and the annihilation of your people was happening here, to where now we tell the story and we educate people,” said Talahongva. “It’s about integrity and resiliency.” 

 Recently, the building underwent a huge renovation, funded through a partnership between the City of Phoenix, Native American Connection and the Phoenix Indian Center. In October 2017 the building opened following a $1.5-million renovation.

The project won a Crescordia Award in the category of Building and Structures – Historic Preservation during the 39th annual Arizona Forward Environmental Excellence Awards Gala in September. Crescordia is a Greek term meaning “to grow in harmony.” Awards are given to individuals and organizations that use sustainability to help improve their communities. The projects focus on finding a balance between the built and natural environment. Arizona Forward works to influence those in power to grow communities, stimulate the economy and enhance the environment.

Currently, the building holds a small museum with artifacts and history of the school that is available for tours by appointment. It also holds conference rooms and a large meeting area for graduation celebrations and events for Native people. The building houses a kitchen, used for cooking workshops for a variety of foods from different cultures.

Many of the ceilings are left intentionally unfinished in remembrance of the students who helped in the history of the center. It is a place to gather and acknowledge and learn about a piece of Arizona history. 

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