Oct 7, 2022 - News

Honor WWI veterans from Phoenix Indian School this weekend

A plaque dedicated to students who enlisted during World War I.

You can find this plaque outside Memorial Hall at Steele Indian School Park. Photo: Courtesy of Patty Talahongva

One hundred years ago, Memorial Hall was dedicated to Phoenix Indian School students who served in World War I.

Driving the news: The city of Phoenix and local Native American groups are hosting a commemorative program at the hall tomorrow from noon to 2:15pm.

  • The event will feature performances by renowned flutist R. Carlos Nakai, Blue Medicine Well drum group and others.

Why it matters: Phoenix Indian School alum Patty Talahongva tells Axios Phoenix that the event is meant to preserve an important piece of American history that is rarely celebrated or taught in schools.

  • She says people pass by Memorial Hall at Steele Indian School Park all the time and likely don't know or appreciate the history and sacrifice behind it.
  • "They were going to defend their homeland. That was the overwhelming factor and consideration when they enlisted," says Talahongva, who has interviewed Native American veterans

Catch up quick: After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, more than 60 Phoenix Indian School students enlisted in the Army and Navy, even though the government had yet to recognize them as American citizens.

  • The students had been removed from their reservations by the government and forced to attend the assimilation boarding school.
  • Two of them were killed during the war.
A brick building with a plaque in the foreground.
Memorial hall was dedicated to the WWI veterans from Phoenix Indian School in 1922. Photo courtesy of Patty Talahongva

What happened: After WWI, the U.S. government built Memorial Hall to honor their service on the boarding school's campus, where Steele Indian School Park is located now.

  • In part because of their service and that of other Native Americans who enlisted across the country, Congress passed the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924.

Flashback: Phoenix Indian School operated like a military school, with students wearing uniforms, marching to class and adhering to strict protocols, which made for an easy transition to military service, Talahongva says.

  • While other servicemen struggled with homesickness during the war, "these tough little Indian boys hadn't seen their moms and dads for years," she says.

Of note: Phoenix Indian School's assimilation mission faded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, and later became a more traditional educational institution for Native Americans who didn't have high schools on their reservations.

  • The school closed in 1990 and Steele Indian School Park opened on the grounds in 2001.
  • Three buildings, including Memorial Hall, remain at the park and a visitor center opened in 2017 to remind Phoenix residents of the school's complicated history.
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