Pheonix Indian School

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Arizona State Hospital
Established 1891
Opened 1891
Closed 1935
Demolished no
Current Status Active/Steele Indian School Park
Building Style Dormitory Planned Institution
Location Phoenix, AZ
Architecture Style Victorian Queen-Anne & Mission Revival
Peak Patient Population >700
Alternate Names
  • Steele Indian School




History[edit]

After a year-long search for a school site, the Indian School opened in 1891 on 160 acres of land. Up until 1931, the federal "assimilation" policy that sought to regimentalize and culturally exterminate Native American students was in place. The first superintendent was Wellington Rich and Harwood Hall. By 1896 there were 380 students, in comparison to just 100 at its 1891 founding. It had twelve buildings, including a "girls building", designed by prominent local architect J.M. Creighton, and a Victorian-style hospital. However, there were only four academic teachers by 1897. Vocational training was instead the emphasis: boys learned business skills and girls domestic skills. Like other "successful" Indian Schools like Carlisle, students worked at off-campus jobs to gain experience and earn money, as well as to help assimilate them. However, unlike Carlisle, the students did not live with one particular family, but were instead cheap contract labor. Due to several incidents and the abuses, the idea of assimilation through employment quickly went out the window; as it became a way for white Phoenix employers to procure cheap Native American child labor. In 1897, another new superintendent took the role at PIS, Samuel McCowan. He continued an emphasis on increasing enrollment but also realized that academics had to improve. He diversified the student body, recruiting Mojaves and Hopis from all over the southwest. The aggressive recruitment that closed the 1890s made the Indian School the second largest school in the federal system, with over 700 students. Overcrowding accompanied the rapid growth, and during McCowan's tenure, he built new dormitories and employee residences. A Mission Revival style auditorium was designed in 1901 and constructed the next year. As increasing enrollment made it clear to administrators that a dining hall was needed, the design modifications to turn the auditorium into one were performed in 1903 and a kitchen was built in 1904. The Dining Hall is the oldest extant building on the PIS campus. 1902 brought another new superintendent, Charles Goodman. He inherited a stable school with 56 employees (12 of which were teachers) and a 24-building campus surrounded by 240 acres (97 ha) of farm land. A series of major events took place in his tenure (which lasted until 1915), including a major tuberculosis outbreak, but Goodman's time as superintendent was also characterized with the first real progress in graduating students. By 1915, a total of 175 students had received diplomas from the PIS – none had done so before 1901. This was just under five percent of the student body, but it proved from a federal perspective that assimilation was finally occurring. During this time period in PIS's history, various techniques were used to attempt better assimilation – new students were organized into military companies, given a uniform and work clothes, and marched to and from classes after starting at 5am. Despite not being citizens, many students and alumni volunteered to fight in World War I. Within four months of President Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war on Germany in April 1917, 64 PIS students and alumni volunteered to serve in the army and navy. Though Superintendent Brown was personally committed to assimilation, the environment began to change in the 1920s. After 1915, Indian schools began to face troubles, such as overcrowding and budget cuts. Discipline problems increased, and the quality of student health care at Indian schools nationwide declined. In response to these issues, a reform movement began in the early 1920s led by John Collier. Carl H. Skinner succeeded John Brown as superintendent of the Phoenix Indian School in 1931. Two of his first changes had some of the largest impact. The military discipline was no more; students did not have to wear uniforms, and the band no longer marched students into the dining hall. As reservation day schools were built, the lower grades at PIS were discontinued. This brought the enrollment down from 950 in 1928 to 425 in 1936. After assimilation attempts and Federal Indian Reform Schools were discontinued in the 1950's and 1960's, Phoenix Indian School became a public Indian School, serving 7th-12th grades. In 1984 it combined with 3 other nearby High Schools with a new total of 5,000 students. After the schools offical closure in 1990, the buildings sat vacant for several years before being transformed infto the city's Steele Indian School Park, which opened in 2001. The Memorial Hall (1922), and outdoor amphitheater are among the original buildings still standing on the grounds.