The grand opening of the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center in the fall of 2017 marked a turning point more than a hundred years in the making for this southwestern city: a symbol of a largely neglected and troubled part of Phoenix history was converted into a welcoming space for culture, activism and reflection.
The former music building of the Phoenix Indian School now houses a cultural and conference center, a commercial kitchen and a museum. It will serve as a vital asset for members of the Native American community, offering a place to gather and learn, as well as programs designed to close the health and economic disparities that affect Native people in the Phoenix area. It will also embrace non-Native visitors who want to understand the city’s past, and how that past shapes the present.
The school, which opened in 1891 and operated for 99 years, was part of the U.S. government’s strategy of forced acculturation, molding native children according to a military model that attempted to strip students of their language, culture and family history. The music building, one of just three structures to survive the demolition of the school in the early 1990s, was a place where students learned only European and Anglo-American music.
LISC invested in the project in crucial ways, pivoting on its 25-year partnership with Native American Connections (NAC), the project leader. A LISC Section 4 capacity grant helped the group hire a project manager, Patty Talahongva, to oversee the renovation. Talahongva, who is Hopi, was a student at the school when attendance was no longer mandatory and brought a rare understanding and passion to the project, keeping the city engaged and building support in the broader community.
LISC also built on its partnerships to secure a $250,000 grant from Caterpillar Inc., which in turn was instrumental in attracting more funding, including $1.4 million in bond financing from the city of Phoenix. And LISC brought in technical assistance and consultants who helped develop business plans for the commercial kitchen, where Native entrepreneurs can get food enterprises up and running.
The visitor center is part of a larger effort by NAC and others to bring tribal history to the fore in Phoenix, where most residents have no understanding of why one of their city’s principal avenues is named Indian School Road. “This is a very natural place for people to come and learn about Native Americans, to meet Native Americans,” says Talahongva. “They want to know what our city is, where it comes from. Well, an important part of the answer is right here.”
Photo credit: Indian School Visitor Center; Native American Connections; Annie O'Neill Photography
Private Sector Support
Public Sector Support
Executive Director: Terry Benelli
111 West Monroe, Suite 720
Phoenix, AZ 85003