The children at rest in 4-H Park

The city of Albuquerque is finally working to address the legacy of its boarding school cemetery.

The Albuquerque Indian School has been a constant in Lester Brown’s life. In 1946, at the age of 4, Brown, originally from Ganado, Arizona, in the Navajo Nation, began attending it. His parents worked there, his father as an engineer and football coach, and his mother at the cafeteria and girl’s dormitory. The family lived in a house on school grounds, where the land seemed open, filled with apple orchards and vineyards that his father cared for. The school screened movies and held church services in the auditorium. By Brown’s account, it was a community pillar — but the pillar’s foundation was troubled. 

“My mother knew some of those who were buried there,” Brown said on the phone in February. She never told Lester their names. “She just said (they were) her friends.”


Originally established by the Presbyterian Church, the school soon became part of the U.S. campaign to separate Native children from their families and communities and assimilate them more thoroughly into the dominant white Christian culture. From 1881 until 1981, it took children, mainly from the nearby Pueblo nations and Diné communities. Like most such boarding schools, it had the trappings of an educational institution — a cafeteria, dormitories and a hospital. But it also had a cemetery for the children who did not survive. 

Today, that cemetery lies beneath the eastern corner of what is now the 4-H Park, just two miles north of downtown Albuquerque. Nobody knows for sure how many children are buried there, though in a 1973 interview with the Albuquerque Journal, former caretaker Ed Tsyitee, who oversaw the cemetery from 1932 until 1964, estimated that there were roughly 25 to 30 student burials. Tsyitee’s comments came after city workers discovered children’s bones while digging trenches for the 4-H Park. Albuquerque’s park planners, it seemed, had completely forgotten about the cemetery.

City of Albuquerque

Five decades later, the cemetery still lacks tombstones, a fence, or a caretaker. It seemed doomed to remain in a kind of limbo, cut off from the affected communities. But during the summer of 2021, in the wake of the discovery of mass graves at the Kamloops Residential School in Canada, the city of Albuquerque finally began to shake off its colonial apathy. As part of an effort to work with Pueblo and tribal nations in addressing the cruelties of the past, the city is trying to identify the buried children and track down their families. Time, fire and flooding have devoured many of the documents that could help identify burials. But there is hope that healing can begin if the city tends to the wounds that were neglected for so long.

“This is an issue that has been sitting around simmering for over a hundred years,” said Terry Sloan, Albuquerque’s intergovernmental tribal liaison and a leading member of the city’s 4-H cemetery working group.

In August 2021, the city began engaging with leaders from the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, the Apache, Ute Mountain Ute, Southern Ute, Hopi, Salt River Pima tribes and the Maricopa Indian Community, as well as other communities across the region. The outreach effort began after a plaque acknowledging the Native students buried at the site was stolen. The outreach meetings evolved into a community-wide effort, seeking out stories and oral histories and searching for documents and information about anyone who attended the boarding school.

Left, a memorial at the cemetery site. Right, Lester Brown sits at his kitchen table going through old yearbooks from The Albuquerque Indian School that his mother kept.
Kalen Goodluck/High Country News


The working group has been busy. In January, it held a series of virtual community listening sessions, in which people shared what they knew of the school. At least two participants, including Sloan, had relatives who attended it. The group also consulted with Heidi Todacheene (Diné), a senior advisor in the Bureau of Indian Affairs and head of its Boarding School Initiative. More recently, the city enlisted experts to use ground-penetrating radar, a non-destructive tool that doesn’t disturb the burials, to analyze the site. Their findings have not been released to the public.

An aerial view of 4-H Park, with locations of the cemetery and an art installation marked.

Officials like Sloan have been adamant about consulting with Pueblo and other tribal nations throughout the process, informing them of their findings before making any public disclosure to honor their ancestors and the privacy of everyone involved. Uncovering a sacred burial site is a delicate matter. Some tribes have not responded to the working group, said Sloan, noting that there are cultural reasons why some people are unwilling to engage in the process or disturb the site. Burial rites are sensitive, and respect for the dead is paramount.

Documentation of the school’s history is patchy and spread across a gamut of archives. Theodore “Ted” Jojola (Pueblo of Isleta), a professor at the Community and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Mexico, has exhibited a photographic history at the Albuquerque Museum. The old black-and-white images show the school’s growth and decline, marking disease epidemics as well as changes in the surrounding community when new housing and streets were built and development occurred.

The new group has collected information from the First Presbyterian Church and UNM’s oral history collection, as well as photographs from the National Archives and old yearbooks collected by the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. John Graham’s extensively researched book, Education at the Edge of Empire, describes the health care students received at the school’s hospital and notes that a dozen deaths, mainly from influenza and measles outbreaks, were recorded at the school between 1921-1926. Stories of abuse at Indian schools are widespread in the U.S. and Canada, but it is unclear whether faculty treatment factored into any student deaths at the Albuquerque School. Conditions there were primarily recorded by government officials and school staff.

Sources (clockwise from top left): Campus map, Albuquerque Indian School Yearbook, courtesy of Lester Brown; Aerial image of 4-H Park, Kalen Goodluck; Memorial in 4-H Park, Kalen Goodluck.

As far as health care goes, “they did the best they could,” said Joe Sabatini, a retired Bernalillo County librarian who wrote a report on the school while doing research for the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center’s archive and library in 2012. 

Sabatini hopes that the group will continue to find new information. But he is also realistic; by now, most of those who remembered the school have probably passed away. The group has left few stones unturned. “There’s this so-called mythical notebook out there that contains information on plot locations and the names of those individuals who are buried,” Sloan said, but the group believes that the notebook, if it existed, has likely been lost to flood or fire. Even so, he is quick to add, the work still has value. It is not just about digging up new information; it’s about acknowledging the tarnished relationship between the city and the Indigenous communities and providing a sense of closure to everyone involved. “We may not have those answers ever,” Sloan said. “But we want to arrive at a process that provides healing and reconciliation to the issue itself.”

In mid-February, Lester Brown toured the former grounds, communing with the ghosts of the past. The football field is now a vacant lot, and the hospital is now a Holiday Inn. A sprawling parking lot and several businesses occupy the old school’s grounds. And Brown’s childhood home next to the former hospital is now the site of a road separating the hotel from a nearby Starbucks. The house itself, like the past Brown remembers, lives on, but only in his memory.

“They never put any headstones or anything up,” said Brown. All these years, tribal citizens were left to wonder about the lost children — who they were, where their families were, and why they never made it home again.  

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Historic aerial Indian School photo with arrow towards cemetery. Compiled by Joe Sabatini

Kalen Goodluck is a reporter and photographer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico who was a former fellow at High Country News. He comes from the Diné, Mandan, Hidatsa and Tsimshian tribes. 

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