Santa Fe Indian School Razes 18 Buildings
By Eric Wills | Online Only | Dec. 15, 2008
The demolitions happened quickly and without warning: The Santa Fe Indian School, run by 19 Native American pueblos in New Mexico, razed 18 of the campus' oldest buildings late this summer and early this fall, arguing that they were laden with asbestos and too costly to renovate.
Preservation groups decried the decision, noting that the buildings—some dating to the 1800s—were eligible for listing on the National Register. And so began a public and occasionally uncomfortable discussion about sovereignty, history, and preservation on Native American lands.
The initial spark was struck in July, when city council members and preservationists happened upon the school as a bulldozer destroyed six buildings in three hours, leaving behind piles of rubble. A dining hall, classrooms, and an administration building were among the buildings eventually razed.
Some preservationists said the buildings were significant examples of Pueblo Revival architecture—a mixture of Spanish Colonial and American Indian styles—and lamented the loss of a prized collection of murals painted on various walls by noted alumni such as Pablita Velarde. They also questioned whether the buildings were torn down in violation of preservation laws.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs, which holds the school's land in trust for the pueblos, responded that the lands are not subject to federal oversight or to Section 106 of federal preservation laws.
School officials, who did not respond to Preservation's phone calls, emphasized their control over the land in a statement: "After completing various assessments over the past five years, the Santa Fe Indian School exercised its sovereign authority and due diligence to take action by demolishing buildings to remove the imminent health, safety, and security threats to protect the students and staff of SFIS, including the general public."
Members of the pueblos also spoke about the painful history of the schools, which were a place where children were taken from their parents and "acculturated," or stripped of their heritage. A Pueblo governor reportedly called the demolition of the buildings "a spiritual cleansing" for his people.
The school began building a $31 million campus in 2006 using Congressional funds. The new dorms, classrooms, and plaza were designed by Van Gilbert, an Albuquerque architect, with traditional building materials such as vigas and adobe.
School officials did not allow preservation groups to document the historic buildings before they were demolished or salvage companies to save some of the wood, brick, and other materials. "What I am certain of," wrote Alan Watson, a local preservationist in an op-ed in the Santa Fe New Mexican, "is that the school's officials have set a poor example of civic leadership to their students."
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