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Fort Apache earns historic designation for role in tribal assimilation

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WASHINGTON – The Theodore Roosevelt School at Fort Apache has been designated a National Historic Landmark for its role in the “highly complex and dynamic interactions” between the federal government and the tribes they were trying to assimilate and control.

The announcement Tuesday by the Department of the Interior ends a 13-year push by the White Mountain Apache tribe to have a site that lets them tell their side of history.

“The popular veneer of history of the West – that very thin layer of history that is perpetuated by Hollywood and the popular media – that’s not very satisfying to the native people of America,” said John Welch, one of the people who nominated the site.

Fort Apache provides an opportunity for the tribe to tell that side of their story,” said Welch, board secretary of the Fort Apache Heritage Foundation.

The designation recognizes the site’s importance as a location that was used since the late 1800s for the assimilation of Native Americans, first through the use of military force and later through the use of education.

The site – which still operates as a middle school – was a military post from 1870 to 1922, when it was used in federal efforts to “address the ‘Indian problem,’” according to a National Park Service statement. When it became a boarding school in 1923, the name changed but “its core mission – assimilation and control of native peoples – remained the same,” the service said.

“Landmarks teach us about the history of our land, our people, and our nation,” said Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis in a statement. “These places showcase our rich and complex history.”

The White Mountain Apache Tribe first nominated the site in 1999. Over the last 13 years, the nomination went through a long process leading to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar’s final OK Monday, said Alexandra Lord, branch chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program.

“It takes quite a while for this to occur,” said Lord, noting there are only 2,501 National Historic Landmarks while there are 87,000 properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places. “It’s a pretty elite group.”

The fort was successful because of its unique history and because of the tribe’s preservation of the site, Welch said. He said other tribes might hesitate to nominate a place like Fort Apache, but the White Mountain Apache have always held historical preservation as a priority because it lets them tell the full story of how things happened.

Assimilation “changed forever how the White Mountain Apache Tribe people live,” said Welch, now a professor at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. “So there is an understandable hesitation or reluctance to do anything to celebrate that part of history.”

But the tribe sees Fort Apache “as an opportunity to add information of Apache history and culture to popular ideas of the West, which very seldom think about Apaches as real people,” Welch said.

“Very seldom have they been portrayed as real people with real history and real concerns about one another,” he said.

Students and teachers at the school today are ecstatic about the recognition, said Principal Michael Brock. He said the boarding school, which has 115 students and will celebrate its 90th anniversary as a school next year, promotes its history and uses that history to recruit students.

“We keep the culture alive. We keep the history alive,” Brock said. “We promote that this school is doing very well and it’s come a long way from its early days of assimilation.”

The National Historic Landmark designation provides Fort Apache – and a dozen other sites approved this week by the Interior Department – protection to ensure its preservation, as well as technical preservation advice.

“This is a site that we will be sure to protect in the future,” Lord said.