“The mountains where the spirits of our ancestors live are connected to modern Phoenix, the past to the future. … Inside the circle, the crossed lines represent the four cardinal directions — east, west, north and south. Directions from which we migrated, directions from which the students of the Phoenix Indian School came. The directions connect so no matter where you are at, you are in the circle of life.” — “Circle of Life” fountain inscription Steele Indian School Park
At the center of Steele Indian School Park, near the Circle of Life fountain, is a new, focal point that connects modern Phoenix to the ancestry of indigenous people and the past to the future like never before. The difference, beyond the structural changes of converting a historic school building unused for 27 years into a functional space that meets community needs today, is largely respect for culture.
The Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center, which celebrated its grand opening on Oct. 14, brings new life, energy, and purpose to a building that was part of a boarding school campus originally established by the federal government in 1891 to force assimilation upon American Indians. The visitor center serves an exact opposite purpose within a full circle. At its core, the center enriches public understanding of indigenous people and provides a cultural sense of place in the central Phoenix commercial corridor.
Because of what and where it is, the center is like no other place in Arizona. Also, because of what and where it is, the center’s adaptive re-use of a historic building makes it one of the region’s best examples of creative place-making focused on culture. (The visitor center is a short walk from the Valley Metro Indian School/Central Avenue station.)
In creative place-making, public, private and community partners develop and implement a strategy to improve the physical and social character of a community through arts and cultural activities. The $1.8 million visitor center came to fruition through a partnership of the city of Phoenix, Native American Connections and the Phoenix Indian Center and the support of organizations such as LISC Phoenix.
Phoenix Indian School, which closed in 1990, was once a large complex of 27 buildings. Only three school structures remain on the site that is now a 75-acre city park. The visitor center is in the music building, which originally was an elementary school built in 1931.
A clever mix of old and new materials brings the building up to modern tastes and standards. Original wood ceiling beams and exposed bricks are incorporated in the 6,000 square feet of renovated space, floor boards were repurposed for wall décor, and the addition glass allows lots of natural light.
The center includes a large event room, a classroom, conference room and commercial kitchen for entrepreneurial ventures. A fundraising campaign is underway to complete a multimedia gallery and a digitized library to tell the complete, unvarnished story of Phoenix Indian School — the trauma and the triumphs. The gallery is free and open to the public. Rental fees for the rooms and kitchen will support building operations.
The Phoenix Indian School Visitor Center connects a culturally rich past to a dynamic present, and it creates a platform for honoring truths the future should remember.