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April 2004 Issue

Walking in the Whispers of Children's Footsteps
How much should an urban park say about its site's ugly history?
By Joseph M. Ewan, ASLA, and Rebecca Fish Ewan

Walking in the Whispers of Children's Footsteps
Copyright© 2003 EDAW/ Photograph by Dixi Carillo

Why is it that some places become imbued with history while others seem to go through a process of erasure each time the land is put to a new use? This is a question to consider when examining landscape architecture in metropolitan Phoenix. As one of the fastest growing urban areas in the nation, a place famous for its "blade and build" development practices, Phoenix has a long tradition of erasure when it comes to the built environment.

How then can a place generate a tangible history? How can it hold on to the past in a way that gives the landscape meaning in the present?

Here is a fragment of one landscape's past:

In 1891, on 160 acres three miles north of the Phoenix city limits, the Phoenix Indian School was founded as part of the government's effort to assimilate young Native Americans into the "mainstream of American culture." Children as young as six were enrolled in the boarding school and generally stayed there until they were eighteen. The intent of the school was to extract from the children all of their tribal identity, transforming them into "replicas of Whites," as a former employee at the school noted. Henry Richard Pratt (1840-1924), superintendent of another Indian school and chief architect of the federal approach to Native American assimilation through education, said that for every child the hope was to "kill the Indian in him and save the man."

The children, who came from over 20 tribal communities in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, California, and Oregon, wore military uniforms and had their hair cut and their totemic jewelry confiscated. They were taught English, were forbidden to engage in any tribal rituals or ceremonies, and were "required to march to meals, march to classes, and march in their spare time to keep them out of mischief," notes archaeologist Owen Lindauer's 1997 report on the school's history.

Devotion to a strict schedule was part of the effort to convert the children's sense of natural time to the U.S. convention of clock time. The days were punctuated by a steam whistle.

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