Researchers investigate a missing burial site associated with a Native American boarding school

The bodies of more than 80 Native American children are buried at the former Genoa Indian Industrial School in central Nebraska.

But for decades, the location of the student cemetery was a mystery, lost to time after the school closed in 1931 and memories faded from the once-busy campus spread over 640 acres in the small community. in Genoa.

That mystery may soon be solved thanks to the efforts of researchers who are examining old documents and maps, examining the ground with specially trained dogs and using ground-penetrating radar to find the missing tomb.

“These kids, in my opinion, are disrespected, and they’re thrown out as kids that nobody talks about,” said Judi gaiashkibos, the executive director of the Nebraska Commission on Indian Affairs whose mother attended the school in late 1920s. “They are hidden, buried underground, and it is time to take the darkness away. Until we do that, we are not honoring those children.

The search for the graves comes as the federal government is in the midst of a first comprehensive examination in the national system of more than 400 Native American boarding schools. The schools and more privately funded institutions were part of the attempt to integrate Natives into white culture by separating children by force or by forcing them from their families and cutting them off from their inheritance.

The US Interior Department, headed by Secretary Deb Haaland, a member of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico and the first Native American Cabinet secretary, released a report last spring that detailed the boarding school program and recorded more than 500 deaths. That number is expected to increase significantly in a second Interior Department report, which will examine boarding school deaths and how the forced removal of children from schools harms Indigenous communities.

The federal investigation did not prompt Genoa’s work but it added new urgency to the effort.

When graves are found in Genoa, the decisions on whether to celebrate them or consider separating the remains will be left to representatives of Native American tribes, but just finding the cemetery is an achievement for the individuals. who for years sought to gain a greater understanding of the Nebraska school.

The Genoa Indian Industrial School opened in 1884 and at its height was home to nearly 600 students. In the decades it was open, more than 4,300 children lived there, making it one of the largest Native American schools in the country. Students are given a basic academic education and spend most of their time learning skills such as horse bridle making for men and sewing for women which are of limited value for a country between to change the industry.

Children are common spent long, tiring days, get up as early as 4 a.m. for chores, followed by several hours at school before working the rest of the day in kitchens, workshops or out in the fields, gaiashkibos said. Discipline can be harsh, even at a young age children facing beatings for breaking the rules.

“Actually, we know that children live in fear,” gaiashkibos said. “No hugs from mom or grandma. No songs were sung. Everything is foreign to them.”

Children from more than 40 tribes are brought from as far away as Idaho and Maine to the school. They were forbidden to speak their Native languages, their hair was cut – a traumatic experience given the cultural significance for many Native Americans of long hair – and they had to wear uniforms.

This “forced incarceration” of children in a school hundreds and thousands of miles away from their homes has the twofold purpose of crushing Native American cultures and helping to steal Native American land, said Farina King, an associate professor at the University. in Oklahoma with a focus on Native American studies.

“More than anything there is a clear agenda to cut ties between their people, their homeland, their culture,” said King, a member of the Navajo Nation whose father attended one of the boarding schools. “They want to keep them as far away as they can.”

In Genoa, that usually means taking a train that stops at the school grounds, about 90 miles (145 kilometers) west of Omaha.

After the school closed, most of the large buildings were torn down and the land was sold for other uses. The two-story brick workshop-turned-museum remains, as does a smokestack towering over the community, but the gymnasium, multi-story classroom buildings and dormitories are long gone and it is hard to imagine a large school that existed before in the small community.

The cemetery would have been forgotten, if not for the residents who have been looking for documents and land around their community for 30 years for the grave. Their effort was inspired six years ago by the Genoa Indian School Digital Reconciliation Project, which included counselors from several tribes whose ancestors attended the school and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Based on newspaper clippings, superintendent records, a letter from a student describing a cemetery and other documents, they determined that at least 86 students died at the school. It is not clear whether the nearby living conditions contributed to the deaths, but records show students often died of diseases such as tuberculosis, typhus and measles. There was also at least one death from an accidental shooting and another from a neck wound.

Researchers identified 49 of the children who died but were unable to find names for 37 students. It is believed that the bodies of some children have been returned to their families.

But as the researchers recounted the deaths, they could not find where the children were buried.

Interest in bringing more professionals to help Genoa grew after Canada announced in 2021 the discovery on graves of Native children in residential schools, said Dave Williams, Nebraska’s state archaeologist.

“We heard from residents who knew there were burials nearby, knew it was the Genoa school cemetery, but that exact location was lost to time,” Williams said. “We’ve heard it’s in a few different locations but so far it hasn’t been finalized.”

There are many theories from residents and even former students, but it is necessary to study maps and aerial photos to find some options. An initial effort to locate the remains using ground-penetrating radar was unsuccessful, but last summer an Iowa man volunteered to come to the site with dogs trained to detect slow motion. which smelled of decaying remains.

Two dogs separately signaled that they could smell the remains of a narrow strip of land wedged between the tracks, a cornfield and a ditch dug shortly after the boarding school closed. In late October and early November, a team affiliated with the National Park Service made two trips to the site and used different types of ground-penetrating radar in hopes of detecting what was present. underground.

The result of their examination should be available later in November.

For gaiashkibos, a member of the Ponca Tribe in Nebraska, the thought of boarding school and finding the cemetery brought an overwhelming sense of sadness. But he said finding the cemetery was an important step in honoring the children and recognizing what they had to endure.

“In order to heal, there has to be answers and closure,” he said. “We need to know, where are the kids?”

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