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Phoenix Indian School building to Indian tourism center

PHOENIX - Once a center of forced Native American assimilation, the Phoenix Indian High School will soon be transformed into a place of peace and a showcase for Native culture and tourism - but only if supporters of Arizona's first statewide Indian cultural center can raise $2 million to fulfill a deal struck with the city of Phoenix.

The Spanish-style dining hall at the school, once hidden by classrooms and dormitories, is cluttered with dirt and rubble, awaiting a new life as the Native American Cultural Center. It will serve as a "one-stop" tourist and arts center for tribes hoping to capture more of Arizona's $13 billion tourist trade. Tribes are the second biggest attraction in Arizona, behind the Grand Canyon.

The school saw thousands of Indian children forcibly assimilated into American society in its first 60 years. In a 1999 interview, the late Yavapai elder Lucy Jones Satala noted reading, writing, ironing, cooking, cleaning, darning socks and laundry among her accomplishments there.

Students were beaten for speaking their languages, forced to don Western clothing, and isolated from their families for months at a time in the U.S. government's attempt to smash tribal cultures.

In the 1960s, under pressure from tribal members, the school changed its focus from assimilation to education. Rory Majenty, Hualapai, graduated in 1979, and credits the school with providing him a Western education while retaining his culture.

Not all later students have fond memories. Maricopa artist Yolanda Hart-Stevens, 42, attended in the mid-1970s, and says, "PIS was designed for assimilation. My kids ask my mom (who dropped out of PIS in the third grade), 'Why didn't you tell someone what happened to you? That was child abuse ... That school stood for shutting people up."

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"It's good today that they're trying to do something with the building," says Hart-Stevens, "but I probably won't be showing anything there."

As part of a 1990 exchange, the city took control of the land, and is constructing the Steele Indian School Park with public and private funding. Under the terms of a two-year-old deal with the Arizona American Indian Tourism Association the city will renovate the dining hall exterior, while the association is responsible for rebuilding the interior. However, the association has raised only 7 percent of the $2 million needed to complete the job.

It garnered support from across the state. Six tribes either pledged or donated funds and workers, and city and state officials publicly support the center. Two bills, sponsored by all four Native American legislators, were introduced in the Arizona Legislature this month in hope that the state will fund $500,000 of the renovation.

The association sells hand-crafted tribal Christmas ornaments, hosts Indian Comedy Nites and is in the final planning stages of a March 1 fund-raiser at the Arizona Biltmore. "Red Tuxedo" will pay homage to Native artists Lloyd Kiva New, Cherokee, and Charles Loloma, Hopi. There will be live and silent auctions, entertainment by Clan/Destine, and dinner prepared by two local Indian chefs.

"The Navajo People believe that they came up from the earth. We call that place 'The Place of Emergence,' the beginning of life. NACC, like the Place of Emergence, will be a place of learning, the beginning of learning the true story of American Indian culture, history, and contributions to American history," said former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah, a 1958 graduate.

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