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Q&AZ: How Did Phoenix's Indian School Road Get Its Name?

Whether you were born in Arizona or came here from somewhere else, chances are you’ve wondered about the people, places and things in the Grand Canyon State. KJZZ is investigating your questions as part of a new project called Q&AZ.

The first question comes from Adam Watts, who lives in Chandler: “How did Indian School Road get its name?”

Watts is a transplant to the Valley from Queensland, Australia.

While on vacation with his family in Washington, D.C., last year, he visited the National Museum of the American Indian where he saw a photograph of Native American girls in white dresses kneeling in prayer beside their beds.

“On the caption it mentioned that was taken in the 1900s ... at the Phoenix Indian School,” Watts said. “I found that pretty striking.”

Watts was familiar with damaging relationships between the Australian government and the country's indigenous people, who lived on the continent before it was colonized by Britain.

The Australian indigenous children were taken from their families in the name of assimilation. These children grew up to become the “Stolen Generation.”

But Watts hadn’t made the connection between the ubiquitous Phoenix road and a similar history of forced assimilation.

'The Boarding School Story Is Not One Story'

The name Indian School Road is a literal reference.

There was an American Indian boarding school in what is now central Phoenix on 160 acres between present-day Central Avenue and 16th Street.  

The school opened in 1891 and was part of a wave of boarding schools that would eventually number more than 300.

The history is complicated and, for many, painful.

At the Heard Museum, you can walk through an exhibitthat traces both the history of the Indian schools and the journey of a student.

You start out surrounded by sweeping panoramic pictures of the American countryside, the homeland.

Curator Janet Cantley says the federal government took children from their families from as far as Alaska and sent them to schools hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away.

Laws empowered the government to forcibly take the children, and families that didn’t relinquish their kids could lose rations.

“As the children arrived to the school, there is a process of civilization,” Cantley said and paused. “This was the 19th-century vocabulary.”

The language is uncomfortable, and it reflects what people in charge believed at the time.

Richard Henry Pratt founded the first boarding school, which would become the model for others, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

He wrote: "A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

Pratt was an Army officer and ran the schools with a military mindset. Children had uniforms, marched in formation and had chores.

When they arrived at boarding school, their hair was cut to a uniform, short length.

An old-timey barber chair surrounded by dark locks of hair is in a glass case at the Heard.

“The fact is that we were to be transformed, and short hair being the mark of gentility,” says a voice overhead. It’s part of an oral history from a survivor of the boarding schools.

“They were not allowed to speak their languages," said Patty Talahongva, curator at the Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center. "All remnants of culture were taken away.”

The center is up the road two miles from the Heard at Steele Indian School Park.

RELATED: Phoenix Indian School Music Building Returns For An Encore

It’s inside one of three remaining original buildings from the Phoenix Indian School.

"The boarding school story is not one story,” Talahongva said. “It's not a story only of tragedy. It's not a story of everything was OK. It's very personal."

Assimilation was the main goal, followed by teaching the students to work.

“It wasn’t so much an effort to truly educate the kids so they could go to college and be their own business owners and have professional lives,” Talahongva said. “It was an industrial school, and the boys were taught trades.”

On the weekends, she said, Phoenix families could come pick up a student from the school for a weekend of work.

Some children didn’t see their families for years after enrolling at the school.

In the early days, dozens of children died at the Indian boarding schools from tuberculosis, smallpox and the flu, wrote Tabatha Toney Booth in a publication of Southeastern Oklahoma State University

In later years, Native Americans took more ownership of the school.

Talahongva came to the Phoenix Indian School, from First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation, as a student in 1978.

After her father died, her mother enrolled at Northern Arizona University and her housing didn’t accommodate all six of her children.

"My younger sister came to school here with me and she actually had her band class in this building in this room where we're sitting right now," Talahongva said.

It was here, as a junior in high school, that she got her first paying job as a journalist. The Phoenix Gazette, then a part of the Arizona Republic, published her articles about the happenings at the school.

“Phoenix Indian Runner Named State Champion,” reads the headline of an article she wrote and keeps taped to her office wall.

Talahongva points out photos of notable people who were students at the Indian School like Ira Hayes, one of the Marines who helped raise the American flag at Iwo Jima in World War II and was commemorated in a statue.

"I want people to realize that Indian people are strong,” Talahongva said. “We're resilient. We figure things out and we face adversity and we overcome it."

The Phoenix Indian School closed in 1990, just shy of its 100th anniversary.

Mariana Dale rustles up stories as a senior field correspondent based out of KJZZ’s East Valley Bureau in Tempe. She’s followed a microphone onto cattle ranches, to the Dominican Republic and many places in between. Dale believes in a story’s strength to introduce us to diverse perspectives, inspire curiosity and hold public leaders accountable for their actions. She started at KJZZ on the digital team in 2016 and still spends a lot of time thinking about how to engage with our community online. Dale has learned from stints at Arizona Public Media, The Arizona Daily Star, The Arizona Republic and as an intern at NPR’s Morning Edition in Culver City. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Dale is grateful for the mentoring of the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, the Chips Quinn Scholars program and AIR’s New Voices Scholars. A desert native, she loves spending time outside hiking, tending to her cactus and reading.