“How about a little football game?” The Albuquerque Indian School’s Dominating Football Run, 1926-1931

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records.

A new exhibit showcasing the impact sports have had on America has opened at the National Archives Museum. All American: The Power of Sports spans centuries of United States history and features more than 75 original items from National Archives’ holdings, including items documenting sports at Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding schools. The exhibit is free and open to the public and will be on view through January 7, 2024.

It was November 1927. The Albuquerque Indian School football team, the “Indians,” walked into the Arizona State Fairgrounds undefeated, having allowed only one touchdown in their previous five games. On the other sideline was the Phoenix Indian School “Braves.” Two of the largest Native boarding schools in the southwest would battle for football supremacy.

The first quarter was slow; both teams struggled to gain yardage, and tackling was sluggish. Albuquerque got points on the board first in the second quarter when Coach James E. Jones, the school’s physical director, uncorked quarterback Eli Corillo, who scored a touchdown on a long pass. The next strike was on the ground when Kinsey Yazza, one of the two Yazza brothers who were both halfbacks, scored a rushing touchdown during the third quarter in “a pretty display of weaving and dodging.”He did, however, miss the extra point kick.

Now down 12 points at the start of the fourth, Phoenix rose from the ashes to knock on the door before an interception killed their progress at the Albuquerque 30-yard line. Mixing runs and passes, Albuquerque scored again, with the PAT (point after touchdown) good. Not giving up, Phoenix seemingly abandoned the passing game and leaned heavy on the rush, getting to Albuquerque’s 12-yard line. But it was to no avail as time expired. Though Albuquerque barely edged out Phoenix in first downs, eight to six, and had two fumbles to Phoenix’s one, it was a different story in the air: Albuquerque’s Corillo threw 6 of 13 for 170 yards and a touchdown, while Phoenix’s Patrico threw a dismal 2 of 11 for ten yards and an interception. The Albuquerque team returned to New Mexico with another shutout, one of six they had in that eight-game season.

The scores from Albuquerque’s 1927 season, including the above-described game with the Phoenix Indian School, as seen in the 1928 Albuquerque Indian School annual, The Pow-Wow,  and today found in our Record Group 75 (Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs) holdings. A common theme in every annual was a listing of that school year’s football games along with the final scores.

From 1926 through 1931 the Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) football team was on a roll. In playing schools from Artesia, New Mexico, west to Gallup, New Mexico, and from Las Vegas, New Mexico, south to El Paso, Texas, the team racked up a 37-12-4 record, outscoring their opponents 907 to 204. This is their story, as seen in Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

An aerial shot of the AIS campus, courtesy of the Albuquerque Historical Society, circa the 1920s.

The AIS’s story goes back to 1878 when Pueblo Indian Agent Major B. M. Thomas presented the idea of opening a centralized boarding school for the various Pueblos. His idea was approved in 1879, and he was tasked with finding open land, a job that proved difficult. After several failures, residents of Albuquerque in 1882 purchased a 66-acre tract of suitable land for $4,300 to donate for the campus. In the meantime the school had opened near the village of Duranes as a mission boarding school under contract with the Presbyterian Church. The school then moved to its new site and grew steadily. In 1886 operation was transferred back to the federal government, with the Office of Indian Affairs (OIA) taking direct control. By 1927 the student body numbered 902; the grounds had expanded widely to include an entire working farm; and the school boasted one of the first Native-staffed Native arts departments, a 30-piece band that traveled the area performing at civic functions, and one dominating varsity football team.

Today’s story is found in its entirety in the series “General Correspondence File of the Albuquerque Indian School, 1881–1936,” a collection of administrative records from the school. During the 19th and into the 20th centuries, OIA jurisdictions had largely organized their administrative files (when saved) and correspondence chronologically. In 1907 the OIA headquarters switched to a topic-based system, the Central Classified Files, but field jurisdictions had no set standard. While largely dropping chronological filing, the various sites turned to all kinds of differing systems: alphabetical, numerical, alphanumerical, or their own homegrown decimal system. On December 11, 1926, the OIA instituted a nationwide filing standard for field jurisdictions, with a built-in method for adding subtopics to broader topics when warranted. In this essay we rely on two parts of this filing system:

  • Decimal 000 for “General and Statistical,” and thereunder Decimals 040 for “Publicity,” 041 for “School Publications,” and 041.3 for “Annuals”; and
  • Decimal 700 for “Health and Social Relations,” and thereunder Decimals 750 for “Amusements and Athletics,” 752 for “Football,” and 752’s various facets, such as “Schedules,” which is the file used in this essay. 
The only five AIS annuals in our holdings; the annual was first printed in 1927 but canceled in 1932 because of cost concerns. These have not been digitized, and given the frail nature of the bindings and the glossy paper used, the shots in this essay are not of the best quality. These, along with the images throughout, come from the file “041.3. Publicity—School Annuals, 1929–35.”

The 1926 Season

The varsity football team during the 1926 season.

Our story starts with the 1926 season because the 1926/1927 school year was the first time the AIS created a school annual, called The Pow-Wow. Long-time Superintendent Rueben Perry, who had run the school since 1908, was proud of the annual; complimentary correspondence from other boarding schools as far north as Wisconsin’s Tomah Indian School seem to indicate he sent copies to his colleagues nationwide. He utilized the budget line item of “Miscellaneous School Needs” to pay for the yearbooks that were then sold to students and alumni for $1.00 each. In addition to other schools, the OIA’s library requested several copies for external requests they received. The 1926 annual’s sports section is thin; we do get a team photograph but no listing of the members. Albuquerque finished the season 6-0-2.

The 1927 Season

With no umbrella organization or league to schedule games, schools had to arrange their own schedules and contracts. In the 1927 season AIS traveled 175 miles east on the famed Route 66 to play the Tucumcari Rattlers on November 4, whom they beat 21-0. The AIS received $100 to cover travel expenses and promised the same amount to Tucumcari when they traveled to Albuquerque the next season. The trip in fact cost $157, but the multi-year agreement also included basketball games, so the cost was assumed to level out. This sort of horse trading in regards to scheduling is very common in the scheduling records. Albuquerque finished the season 7-1.

The 1928 Season

The varsity football team during the 1928 season.
The 1929 annual was the first to feature a pep song.

The 1928 season was the worst of the six covered here, as the team lost half of their games. There is no mention in the records of scheduling or travel notes. Albuquerque finished the season 4-4.

The 1929 Season

The 1929 team photograph was the first to identify the players.
Another telegram from the 1929 season, noting one of the team’s rare losses and injuries sustained.

In addition to correspondence about scheduling games are letters to other OIA boarding schools and agencies about lodging and support while the team was on the road. For example, the team did not want to make the round trip to Las Vegas, New Mexico, in one day, so staff reached out to the Santa Fe Indian School, located between Albuquerque and Las Vegas, to see if the team could spend the night there and have breakfast before heading south and home. 

As for the annual, in a sign that perhaps the experiences were more important than the actual games, the loss to Gallup High School was the one that got a write-up. The team left early, at 5:30 a.m. on a Monday morning, Armistice Day, and stopped first in Grants for breakfast. They then stopped at the Staples Trading Post in Thoreau, where they ran into an AIS alumni who worked as a designer and artist. They finally arrived in Gallup at 12:30 p.m., discovering large groups of Natives from the area filling the stands. Noted as a “real hard game clear through,” the team lost 7-0. That evening, Albuquerque was thrown a banquet at Kitchen’s Opera House by the Returned Students, a group of local boarding school alumni. The team arrived home as they left, in darkness, at 12:30 a.m. Albuquerque finished the season 7-3.

The 1930 Season

The varsity football team during the 1930 season.
As the annuals progressed they started to highlight the graduating seniors more. Here are the four seniors on the varsity team during the 1930 season.
An example of a scheduling letter found in the correspondence; while initially formal, they often took on a friendly, competitive tone as the years progressed.

The Albuquerque High School Bulldogs were a frequent sparring partner for the AIS, with the two schools typically scheduling their matchups when the local university team, the Lobos, were out of town. In verifying their date in 1930, AIS Superintendent Perry replied to Glen Ream, the Albuquerque High School principal, that “you win, unless your team is very poor.” Perry turned out to be right—of the few losses that year, one was to Albuquerque High. Also in 1930 the AIS had a request from the New Mexico Military Institute in Roswell, who wanted to play not varsity but junior teams. In the 1931 annual we see the first photographs of the reserve and “papoose” teams. Albuquerque finished the season 5-3-1.

The 1931 team photograph. By this point the annual also included photographs of the junior football teams.
As in annuals from time immemorial, some of the AIS student artists contributed artwork and humor to the annual. Here we see both Coach Jones of the varsity team and Coach Johnson of the junior teams lampooned.
Football is legendary in part for being played in all weather conditions, so one can only imagine just how bad the snowfall was to have canceled the game at Fort Wingate.

During the 1931 season the team returned to Gallup again for an Armistice Day program and game, this time bringing 45 members of the band, and this time winning. The stands were filled with students from the Fort Wingate school, whom AIS was scheduled to play later that month before the game was canceled due to “deep snow.” 1931 also saw the addition of another coach, Sam Johnson, who coached the junior football team as well as boxing and wrestling. Albuquerque finished the season 8-1-1.

The 1932 edition is the last annual in our holdings. In 1930 Perry had requested $800 for the publication, a sum that was lowered to $500, but on April 12, 1933, his request for $800 was again deemed too steep by the OIA commissioner. Told to scale back or pause publication, Perry chose the latter. While our decimal files on the planning of football games and scores continue through 1936, for team photographs, this was the end of the line.

All of the stories, facts, and records described above are found in the Albuquerque Indian School series General Correspondence File of the Albuquerque Indian School, 1881–1936, in particular the folders “041.3. Publicity—School Annuals, 1929–35,” “752. Amusements and Athletics—Football, 1930–34,”  and “752.2. Amusements and Athletics—Schedules, 1929–32.” These records are part of Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and are located at the National Archives at Denver. For more information or inquiries about these records, please contact denver.archives@nara.gov.