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Indian School
Some old murals are better than others, according to preservationists who scan destruction at the Indian school…from behind locked gates.

Zane's World

Power Politics

August 12, 2008, 12:00 am
Barely a soul in Santa Fe failed to have a post-apocalyptic moment when driving past the Santa Fe Indian School in the last couple of weeks. Sovereignty apparently trumps respect and, depending on one’s view, responsibility
We’ve suddenly had to come to terms with something much of the rest of the world reckons with regularly—the blithe demolition of relatively precious architecture. If Iraqis or Afghans could see the tizzy Santa Fe was thrown in by the downing of a half-dozen buildings, they would surely share a dark chuckle.

If not for the determined reporting of Raam Wong of the Albuquerque Journal, little would be known at this point about the status of destructive goings-on at the Santa Fe Indian School. The All Indian Pueblo Council, which holds ultimate responsibility for the central Santa Fe property, has been tight-lipped about its motivations for razing historically significant buildings on the school’s Cerrillos Road frontage. It’s been equally coy about the plans for the property and the remediation, or briefly suspected lack thereof, of asbestos in the bulldozed structures.

When territory is seized—as the land that is now the United States was seized—by colonial powers that appear to have less respect for the balance of resources than its native inhabitants did, it’s an uphill battle to gain a reputation for good stewardship. So, when Native Americans disrespect the preservation laws or conventions of a city, a state, or possibly a federal government, through poor stewardship of their own, it can be tough to get too ornery with them. Add in that for many the school’s buildings represent oppression more than architectural significance, and it is easy, but terribly white guilt-ish, to hypothesize and sentimentalize an act of defiant courage in the school’s unexplained devastation of some of the most beautiful buildings west of St. Francis Drive.

I also can understand not wanting to engage the city or seek its opinion on a matter of preservation. Opening the door, even out of politeness, to discussions of preservation issues would be like inviting a bunch of nosey parkers with a shallow grasp of the true benefits and nuance of preservation to endlessly scold your every decision. If I were the Pueblo Council, I wouldn’t have much to say to the city either, and I wouldn’t offer more than an eye roll to City Councilor Miguel Chavez and former Councilor Karen Heldmeyer, hanging around the outskirts of the demolition like the two kids not picked for the kickball game.

Likewise, it has been hilarious to watch so-called preservationists pick over photos of the demolition in search of evidence of mural work, executed under Dorothy Dunn’s tenure, (now elevated from relatively benevolent to absolutely beatific without regard for the patronizing manner in which she codified “Indian” art). They breathe collective sighs of relief each time they are unable to find evidence of the precious murals, even as other, obviously more recent work on the walls, is destroyed. Hey, who cares who did that stuff, so long as it wasn’t dear Dorothy Dunn and her well-behaved, rock-art emulating, English-speaking, “good” Native students?

All told, however, it is a bold but ultimately cruel maneuver to simply plow down cherished buildings without any apparent contact with any historic agency or authority whatsoever. George Johnson, the science writer and prolific blogger at santafereview.com, has most closely followed the story, bringing together the threads of various news organizations and the proclamations of local, state and federal authorities. Johnson cites some reasons to believe the demolition could actually prove illegal under federal law and the possibility that intervention by a federal judge could save the three remaining buildings.

I doubt it. The reason the Bureau of Indian Affairs says it’s beyond its control is because this is sovereignty in action. It’s like free speech—if you tell people they can say what they want so long as you find it palatable, it ain’t free. Sovereignty by someone else’s judgement ain’t sovereignty. Let’s just be glad the act that puts the property in the control of the Pueblo Council contains an agreement barring casinos. Also, at this point, it appears as though asbestos abatement was handled on the up-and-up or about as responsibly as law, if not reason, dictates.

But just because an entity may act with legal impunity doesn’t mean it should. It’s a shame the Pueblo Council has been non-responsive to historians for some time and then took this irreversible action without a few simple actions that translate to being a good neighbor.

As of press time, no revelations about what will replace the demolished buildings has been disclosed, although there have been allusions to a museum and a commercial development. Previous rumors have included movie-production facilities and a temporary location for the new High School for the Arts. The Indian School’s master plan for its new campus—otherwise elegant and comprehensive—indicates no particular use for the historic buildings or the land they sit upon.

Throwing federal judges at this situation will improve nothing. But the Pueblo Council engaging the community in its plans for any new construction at the Indian School could be the start of a good, neighborly rapport.

It’s understandable the Pueblo Council chose to disrespect our culture’s traditions and cherished notions, just as we have so often disrespected those of Native cultures, but it’s unfortunate. This was an opportunity to turn the other cheek and lead by example.


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