Memory Keepers Fellowship 2024: Janine Nelson

Published May 1, 2024

About the Memory Keepers Fellowship:

This blog post series is a part of the Memory Keepers Fellowship program, a project partnered between ASU’s Community Driven Archive Initiative and the Labriola Center. The fellowship is geared for BIPOC students at local community colleges and for them to explore the field of Library Information Science early in their college career.

Ah’sha Notah (Diné) is a program coordinator for the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) funded project “Centering BIPOC Memory Keepers and Advancing Equity and Inclusion” fellowship program. She recruited a group of seven students from different backgrounds and walks of life to take on the opportunity of being in the fellowship. Janine Nelson worked with Archivist Vina Begay is from the first cohort.

Phoenix Indian Boarding School Project by Janine Nelson (Diné)

Class of 1925 in a Phoenix Indian School yearbook
Class of 1925 in a Phoenix Indian School yearbook
Academic Building at Phoenix Indian School 1924
Academic Building at Phoenix Indian School 1924

What is the historical background of the Phoenix Indian School?

The Phoenix Indian Industrial School came into existence after the Superintendent of Indian Schools, Daniel Dorchester, had proposed in a letter to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, Thomas Morgan or T. J. Morgan, for a boarding school to be built in Fort McDowell. He goes on to explain that it was a more ideal location for Indian children in surrounding communities to be sent there rather than to other areas that were not too agreeable to their environmental upbringing. He commented that “many pupils from southern Arizona have either died at Albuquerque or been carried home to die.” After further planning and discussions were held between the superintendents and commissioner to secure an area for the school, it was finally established and opened to accept pupils in 1891 at Phoenix, Arizona. Indian Commissioner, Thomas Morgan, commented during the opening that "it's cheaper to educate Indians than to kill them." The schools' mission was to "civilize" and assimilate the Indians to American society through a process of education that sought to obliterate their native cultures. The Phoenix Indian School was one of some 150 institutions for Indian wards of the U.S. Government and was at times regarded as the “Carlisle of the West” because of how successful it had been.


John Brown, Superintendent of Phoenix Indian School in 1924
John Brown, Superintendent of Phoenix Indian School in 1924

Who managed the Phoenix Indian School?

Primarily, the Phoenix Indian Industrial School originally operated as a boarding school for American Indian children by the Bureau of Indian Affairs up until 1990. Daniel Dorchester, a reverend and appointed Superintendent of Indian Schools, introduced the idea to establish a school in the southwest area. Thomas J. Morgan, the commissioner of Indian Affairs, was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 to promote education for Native Americans until 1893. Wellington Rich, first Superintendent of Phoenix Boarding School, had helped get the school up and running by gathering pupils and pushing for buildings to be better maintained from 1890 until 1893. Harwood Hall, second Superintendent of Phoenix Boarding School from 1893 to 1897, started the “outing system” for students to be employed by local families building their skills and earnings while having the school’s pupils’ best interests in mind. Samual M. McCowan, third Superintendent of Phoenix Boarding School from 1897 to 1901, gathered more pupils from other tribes outside from the local tribes and was not deemed very favorable among the Native people and students. There are more people who had managed the school after McCowan although I was only able to get up to the third superintendent with the amount of time I was given to look through Robert Trennert’s collection.


John Brown, Superintendent of Phoenix Indian School in 1931-1932
John Brown, Superintendent of Phoenix Indian School in 1931-1932

How many years did the Phoenix Indian School operate?

PIS was active from 1891 until 1990, so the school had operated for a total of 99 years. Originally an industrial school that had later converted into a boarding school because of the many attendees that later became a regular school with Native Americans as a majority of the student body.


Through your research, how many Native American students were enrolled? 

Based on the information I was able to access, during the time Superintendent Samual M. McCowan was managing the school, there were over 700 Native American students that were enrolled at the school.

(From left to right) Superintendent Francis Cushman and Principal Lillie McKinny in 1944-1945
(From left to right) Superintendent Francis Cushman and Principal Lillie McKinny in 1944-1945


How many Tribal Nations were enrolled in the Phoenix Indian School?

Initially the school prioritized local Tribal communities to attend the Phoenix Indian School for the sake of the student’s natural environmental upbringing. As time went on and the Superintendent’s ambitions to become the greatest Indian school grew, other children from different Tribal Nations outside of Arizona were obtained. Based on the research I had seen, there were at least 8 different Tribal Nations that were attending.


What archive collection did you interact with? 

I had the opportunity to interact with Robert Trennert’s collection, his books, and Dorothy Parker.


1931-1932 sophomore class at Phoenix Indian School
1931-1932 sophomore class at Phoenix Indian School

What was the experience of the Native American Students at the PIS?

The experiences of the Native American students who had to attend the Phoenix Indian School varied and I was only able to see a few mentions of their experiences while I looked through the documents of the early years of the school. The few experiences that were mentioned were conveyed through other people who had enough empathy for them to mention it in a letter. Overall, “the model of organization and discipline was military. Student life was highly regimented, with little free time, uniforms and marching drills.” The Superintendents believed that a military type of management was the best method in handling the young students who attended. Such a lifestyle proved to be strenuous, difficult, and oppressive for them, but a few students who had attended later came out of that turmoil successful and went on to make an impact either in society or within their own tribes.


When researching PIS, why is it important to look at archival collections rather than utilizing books? 

Archival collections are more personal and give almost a first-person view on an event compared to books which are told through the author’s point of view. Books are sometimes biased when retelling events and go through a process that edits the content contained in the book. Archival collections portray the original person’s thoughts, feelings, or expressions without having to go through edits or becoming biased.


Dining Hall at Phoenix Indian School in 1931-1932
Dining Hall at Phoenix Indian School in 1931-1932 

Were there any issues in the narrative with the archive collections you interacted with?

I had not come across any issues in the narratives with the archive collections I was able to interact with and view during my mentorship.


What archival collections had the most impact on you while researching PIS?

The archival collection I interacted with most that also had a huge impact on me would be Robert Trennert’s collection. His collection had letters and documents that showed the development of one of the boarding schools that had affected local tribal communities. All stemming from a proposal to build a school for Natives that would eventually become a historical site.


What archive collection do you recommend for researchers to learn more about PIS?

Personally, I would say that Robert Trennert’s collection is a good first step to learn about PIS and later including Dorothy Parker’s collection gives a visual idea of what is told within the letters.



Headshot of Janine Nelson wearing black rimmed glasses.
Janine Nelson smiling into camera

-Written by Janine Nelson (Diné)










Resources on the Phoenix Indian School: 

Dorothy Parker Papers 1976-1991 (bulk 1990-1991)

Parker, Dorothy R. (Dorothy Ragon), 1927-. Dorothy Parker Papers 1976-1991 1990-1991 .

"And the sword will give way to the spelling-book": Establishing the Phoenix Indian School by Robert A. Trennert

Trennert, R. A. (1982). “And the sword will give way to the spelling-book”: Establishing the Phoenix Indian School. The Journal of Arizona History, 23(1), 35–58.

These photos can be found in Phoenix Indian School Yearbooks at the Arizona Memory Archives.

State of Arizona Research Library- Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records. (n.d.). Phoenix Indian School Yearbooks. Phoenix.